Hirakata, Osaka | Winter, 2005 | 20 years old
I don’t know what the big deal is about Tokyo. Let me get that out of the way, first of all.
The Japanese are known for their general sense of “sameness,” yes, because it helps the country keep its collective sanity when it’s as crowded as it is. They like to think they’re all the same, down to genetics and appearance (“Black eyes, black hair”). At the same time, though, the Japanese like to think that they are somehow “unique,” and that there are certain things about their nation that are simply untranslatable and just can’t be explained to outsiders.
Luckily for Americans, however, Japan’s major regions and cities translate rather well to the United States’. Let’s take the aforementioned Tokyo, for example. Tokyo is what New York would be if it were in California: high prices, tall buildings, and all of the comparative historical significance of Los Angeles (though, oddly enough, it isn’t Japan’s largest city by population – that would be Yokohama). Those who don’t live there generally regard Tokyo’s residents as being kind of stuck up and uptight, but secretly admire and envy them. Furthermore, Tokyo is clearly the fashion capital of Japan, and by the time fads reach the rest of the country, they are often passé back in Tokyo where they started. Incidentally, the Tokyo Giants, in addition to being unusual among Japanese baseball teams for not being named for the company that owns them, are regarded almost identically to the New York Yankees: the local fans love them for winning year after year, of course, but everyone else thinks they’re simply the best team money can buy, in a rather literal fashion.
On the other hand, there’s always the Kansai region, which encompasses Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, and pretty much any other city in the region that possesses any degree of fame. Though there are parallels to America in the less significant cities (Kobe matches up quite nicely with Chicago if only because it is a big waterfront city full of commerce that is nevertheless essentially forgettable), but the two that resonate most strongly are Osaka and Kyoto.
If Tokyo is Japan’s New York, then Osaka is easily the Boston. Putting aside the parallels inherent to the baseball team (the Hanshin Tigers just can’t seem to win, despite the fans’ wanting them to year after year, and there is an intense rivalry with the Tokyo Giants), Osaka is regarded almost identically to Boston by outsiders: the people there talk funny (though fictional characters always have stronger accents than real people, of course), and are largely assumed to be kind of pushy, but at the same time they are generally felt to be more approachable and perhaps more “human” than Tokyoites. If nothing else, Osaka is one place where the Japanese will sometimes cross the street even when it says “don’t walk,” as long as there’s no traffic coming.
Kyoto, on the other hand, is very similar to Philadelphia. You can’t throw a brick without hitting a building that’s older than the United States, and most likely get in trouble for littering. In short, Kyoto makes up for comparative lack of commercial activity with its sheer historical significance; ancient capitals have that tendency. In another curious similarity to Philadelphia, with the exception of recent construction, the city tends to be rather flat. In both cities, up until recently, there were laws prohibiting the construction of buildings taller than a certain landmark. In Kyoto, the Toji temple pagoda. In Philadelphia, the statue of William Penn on top of the city hall. Incidentally, though neither city’s traffic situation is a treat to be involved in, neither one is as bad as Tokyo, New York, Boston, or Osaka.
Much like the rest of the United States, however, the rest of Japan is regarded as fundamentally uninteresting. Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and largest prefecture, is, much like the American Midwest, generally thought of as where dairy, grains, and boring people come from, if thought about at all. That, and it has a brand of beer named for a city in it (Sapporo, much like Old Milwaukee).
Okinawa is an island far south generally regarded as a warm, sunny vacation destination, much like Florida.
“Why not Hawaii?” you might ask. “Wouldn’t a warm island for vacationing be a good comparison to a warm island for vacationing?” That’s the thing: Japan’s Hawaii is, well, Hawaii. It’s something of a public secret that it isn’t Japan’s 48th prefecture, but as a friend of mine put it, “One of Japan’s goals in World War II was to take Hawaii. They only failed on that front in terms of time frame.”