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Social Distortion

Christopher Stephens finds out how Osaka became bad

Social Distortion

It hardly bears repeating. The people of Osaka are impudent, impatient, and ill-mannered; they talk too loud, don’t stop at red lights, and when it comes to money, are incredibly tight. Or are they? Kuroda Isamu, professor of Mass Media Studies at Kansai University, has been watching the way Osaka and its residents are portrayed in print and broadcast media for over 15 years. He argues that much of what we, and more recently Osakans themselves, believe about the city is little more than a stereotype that was perpetrated by Tokyo in the 1980s, and through constant repetition, has come to be accepted fact.

The culture is experiencing something of an identity crisis. The general ennui that set in with the post-bubble era has filled many with doubt and forced them to reach back into history for examples of Japan’s former greatness. There is also the question of blame. As Kuroda puts it, “Japanese people have lost touch with what’s distinctive and wonderful about their culture. It was once acceptable to define ourselves through our prejudices against the Chinese or Koreans, and talk about how much better we were or how much more orderly we were as a society. It also used to be okay to make fun of people from Tohoku because they spoke differently. But in the media at least, this is no longer the case. Instead, it is the Kansai comedians, having made a career out of deviating from the norm, who have risen up to fill the void. These people made their way up to Tokyo in the 80s as professional clowns and in trying to sell themselves and emphasize how different Kansai was, were in turn exploited by the media.”

In the 90s, according to Kuroda, the seemingly innocuous pastime of laughing at the peculiarities of western Japan came to be a trusted standby in other areas of the media, including news programs and TV dramas. But while at the beginning of the decade there was still a significant number of people in Kansai who criticized this type of portrayal, by about 1993, surveys revealed that many Osaka university students had internalized these cultural stereotypes. Because they were from Osaka, they now felt a need to be funny or believed that ignoring traffic signals was their birthright.

In reporting these findings, Kuroda is often confronted by skeptics who refuse to believe that Osaka was ever any other way. But a look back at news reports and popular culture of the 50s and 60s reveals that something has definitely changed. In the 60s, in particular, as the economy began to boom, Tokyo and Osaka maintained a friendly rivalry, but occupied a more or less equal footing. In popular film series of the era, like the Shacho comedies starring Morishige Hisaya as a company president, the Kansai characters were simply portrayed as hard-working businessmen and strong competitors, the descendants of Osaka’s long history as a merchant town. There wasn’t anything farcical or ill-mannered about them, nor was there any hint of the city being a hotbed of underworld activity or comedy. Kuroda recalls, “When I was a child [in the 50s and 60s], Kansai comedians made jokes about Kanto, but they never talked about Osaka being funnier or stranger than Tokyo.”

The media has also had an impact on gender images - yesterday’s sissy is today’s gangsta. Kuroda explains, “When I was going to university in Tokyo in about 1973, I took part in some of the student demonstrations that were going on at the time, but when the mic came my way and I began to speak, the other students demanded that I sit down because my ‘girlish’ Kansai-ben wasn’t getting people riled up. There were even serious linguistic studies at the time claiming that Tokyo-ben was manly because it was clear and easy to understand, and that Osaka-ben was womanly because it was indirect and obscure. But in surveys of university students today, people say just the opposite - Osaka-ben sounds as if people are expressing their real feelings. When did this big switchover happen? Again, we have to look toward the boom of Osaka manzai in the 80s.”

It was actually this shift in the social implications of regional dialects that inspired Kuroda to embark on his study of the media. In the early 90s, a student from Nagano Prefecture came to him for advice, saying his classmates were making fun of him for sounding like a “fag.” Kuroda tried to reassure the young man, but then started to wonder what had caused such a dramatic shift in attitude. Kuroda says, “What linguists think has happened is that the intonation in Kansai-ben has gradually become more like Tokyo-ben, and that’s given it a much harder edge. To me, the way young Kansai people speak sounds just like Tokyo-ben; all they do is add endings like ya and ya de.”

Words that many people now associate with Kansai-ben also have their origins in the media. Like any country, Japanese young people are always looking for ways to irritate their parents and one of the most effective is the use of words they know are wrong or strange - often this means some component of a regional dialect. Kuroda says, “The most famous example of this is an ending like jan, which was originally part of Shizuoka-ben, and in the eyes of Tokyoites, something that you should never say. First, kids in Yokohama picked up on it, then it caught on in Tokyo, and once [the comedy duo] Tunnels started using it on TV, it went nationwide. Similarly, the reason okan [ma] and oton [pa] have become so popular and mistakenly associated with Kansai is undoubtedly [the comedy duo] Downtown. Most Kansai-born kids, including me, referred to their parents as oka-chan and oto-chan, but as you get older you feel a little self-conscious about saying these words in front of your friends, so you switch to words like ofukuro and oyaji. In junior high, though, you’re still between these two extremes, so you look for a substitute. I haven’t researched this in depth, but from what I understand, the words okan and oton are originally from Tajima or another part of northern Hyogo Prefecture. For whatever reason, Downtown, who are from Amagasaki and have cultivated this image of being kind of bad, latched on to these words and once they started using them on TV, they entered the vocabulary of kids everywhere. To me, they have a very negative image and I would never use them about my own parents. I have the feeling, though, that the use of these words by the Tokyo media is just another attempt to show how rude Osaka people are supposed to be.”

Another area Kuroda has researched in depth is the depiction of Kansai people on TV. After many years of monitoring various dramas, he has found that even when a story is set in Osaka or Kyoto, the main characters, the detective and the perpetrator in a mystery, for example, invariably speak Tokyo-ben, while the minor characters, the detective’s sidekick and the victim, are often from Kansai. Kuroda believes that underlying this simple equation is a somewhat more sinister message: “Throughout TV history, the main characters have represented an unspoken ‘we’ - i.e., Tokyo - in reference to the ‘they,’ represented by the characters who are killed, of Kansai. The circumstances of the murders on many TV dramas are designed to make the viewer sympathize with the killer and forgive him for what he’s done. And even though the character has broken the law, he is portrayed as someone who is very capable, whereas the victim is someone who is essentially incompetent - after all, that’s why he got offed.

“I arrived at this conclusion by borrowing a model from the media researcher John Fiske, but found that it was equally applicable in Japan. Until one day, I came across a rather juvenile mystery program that centered on a maiko in Kyoto who was really a detective. Of course, since the story was set in Kyoto, the character spoke Kyoto-ben and despite the universal rule that Kansai people are never the main characters, it seemed like I had been proven wrong. But what I discovered in watching it every week was that even though she was a Kyoto maiko, at the end of each show when she came face-to-face with the criminal, she always switched into Tokyo-ben. Case closed.”

There was a time in the 60s, Kuroda says, when because of its economic might, Osaka could have fended off these negative images, but as Tokyo has grown increasingly powerful and currently wields almost total control of the media, Osaka’s only option is to trade on the stereotypes that have been manufactured about the city. Kuroda says, “To Tokyo people, Osaka is a place where there isn’t much of anything, except chaos. Ultimately, people start with an image of a place and only accept information that fits neatly into that box; they block out everything else. Osaka has basically been made to absorb a set of negative values that Japanese people have about Japan, whether it’s lateness, immorality or disorder, and even though these things obviously also exist in Tokyo, they prefer to ignore them. In effect, all of the bad aspects of the society’s self-image have been imposed on Kansai, so that these problems no longer have anything to do with ‘us,’ but instead have everything to do with ‘them.’”

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