Not Just Tokyo: Regional Diversity in Japanese Popular Culture

This is a guest article by Katriel Page. You can check out more of her writing at Study of Anime.

While we see the Kanto region and Tokyo represented in a lot of manga and anime, from the scramble crossing of Shibuya Ward to the name of the first region in the Pokémon series – Japan is more than just this region. In fact, the second most populous region, Kansai, incorporates not just the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto, but also the high commercial and culinary center of Osaka. “In a country where regionalism remains strong, the two [Kanto and Kansai] stand as shorthand for an internal east-west divide roughly translated as Tokyo and Osaka – the two main economic powerhouses of the nation and the most populous metropolises of Japan” [Christal Whelan, Kansai Coo

But where do we see these?

Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe come up from series such as Azumanga Daioh and Kill la Kill; from school trip episodes to transfer students.

Let’s talk about the two most distinguishing features of any particular region: how people speak, and what people eat.

Each city in the Kansai area has their own slightly different dialect: some cities differ more, such as Kyoto, due to the centuries of heritage and culture there. Kyoto dialect comes up in the series of Bleach, for example: Gin Ichimaru, in the Japanese dialogue, speaks in Kyoto dialect which comes off sounding as a sort of polite, formal dialect. Osaka dialect, on the other hand, is known for being very abbreviated and commercial-based: “mokkari makka”, for example, derives from a phrase “are you making money”, and has come to mean “how are you” by extension. The phrase is not used much anymore due to a variety of reasons, but the expectation is that people from Osaka will at least know it: and people outside of the Kansai region expect these people to speak this way. This is part of the joke of calling Ayumu Kasuga in Azumanga Daioh “Osaka”, because she behaves and speaks counter to the stereotypical expectation of someone from Osaka to behave and speak. If you know a little Japanese and want to experience some Osaka-style dialect, Facebook now has the option to turn the language setting into Kansai Japanese, in addition to “standard” Tokyo-dialect Japanese. The version of Kansai dialect Facebook uses is based on Osaka dialect, so it will give you an idea of how the language changes when in a different area!

As for food, Osaka is known particularly for its food: octopus is a delight there, and so takoyaki is thought of as a stereotypically Osakan style food. Okonomiyaki is also considered an Osakan style food, even though you can get it readily in the Kansai region in general: it’s a sort of savory pancake made with eggs, batter, and sliced cabbage, and you can put all sorts of toppings on it (seafood is a popular choice, but sausage or pretty much whatever you like works too!) – in fact, the name “okonomiyaki” is from “whatever you like” and “frying”, so think of it as a way to use up all that cabbage you may have gotten after watching Persona 4 The Animation! There are more foods, such as kitsune-udon and hako-sushi, but takoyaki and okonomiyaki are seen in plenty of anime and manga and often used as a shorthand for Osakan style food. You also see these foods mentioned along with the mercantile focus of Osaka in the series of Kill la Kill.

Kyoto food is known for being a bit more traditional and delicate – for example, many traditional sweets shops started in Kyoto, and the seasonal kaiseki cuisine comes from the elaborate aesthetics of the old imperial and noble courts as well as whatever was in season. Speaking of aesthetics and art, Kyoto is historically more known for fashion and aesthetics more than food: this comes from the days of Kyoto as being the imperial city for at least a thousand years, and as such, traditional arts and crafts flourished for a long time. In Kyoto also, there are many shrines and temples, which lead to talk about spirits, folklore, and sacred culture that you can spot in series ranging from Yu Yu Hakusho (the sacred mountains of Mt. Kurama and Mt. Hiei are where the characters of Kurama and Hiei get their names), to the newer series Eccentric Family or even Inari Kon Kon.

This just touches a little bit on the subject of regional diversity in Japan – there are of course, other regions such as the Tohoku region with the beautiful “city of trees” of Sendai, and the historic Tono, located mainly in modern day Gifu Prefecture (which you can see echoes of in Pokémon X/Y and in Princess Mononoke) – so here are some more resources for you to find out more about the various cities and regions of Japan!

  • Kansai Cool, by Christal Whelan, available at Kinokuniya and other bookstores

Waku Waku +NYC is a new Japanese Pop Culture Festival in Brooklyn, NY that’s going to be bringing anime, fashion, music, games, and delectable delights from Japan, including takoyaki by master chefs from Osaka! Curious? Tickets are on sale now.

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