The Differences Between Kanto and Kansai, Japan's Two Major Metropolitan Areas
Do you know the differences between the Kanto and the Kansai regions of Japan? They are actually starkly different in terms of culture, food, and even language! They also happen to be the most prominent areas of Japan, with most people living, working, or regularly visiting Tokyo and Yokohama in the Kanto region and Osaka and Kyoto in the Kansai region. Read on for an easy-to-understand explanation on the differences between Kanto and Kansai, Japan's most famous and largest regions!
May 28 2019 (Mar 26 2020)
Overview of Japan's Two Major Regions
Kanto ("-to" for "east") refers to eastern Japan and Kansai ("-sai" for "west") refers to western Japan. The two areas are closely linked historically by the capital's relocation from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868. This deep, intertwined history is reflected in the two regions' statuses today, as they are the most recognized areas both on the national and international scale. Tokyo and Kyoto also continue to stand at the frontline as the nation's most prosperous cities today.
However, there are several points in terms of culture, personality, and etiquette in which the two regions vastly diverge. As these areas are especially popular for sightseeing, learning about these differences in detail may prove to be useful for your travels to these popular spots!
Easygoing Kanto vs Outspoken Kansai
First, let's take a look at the characteristics and traits that often define the Japanese people. The most striking one is the importance of being mindful of others. In Japan, where people generally make conscious efforts to look good in front of others, there is an interesting concept called "tatemae." This refers to a type of behavior brought out in an act of kindness rather than out of authentic sincerity so that others will hold a favorable opinion of you. This "tatemae" is a social convention that is commonly seen in the Japanese communication style.
Now that we have a base understanding of this, let's take a closer look at the characteristic differences between Kanto and Kansai. The biggest difference between the two regions is that while Kanto (more specifically Tokyo) is the center of Japan, with people from all over the country gathering for work or study, Kansai acts as the hub mainly for people who are originally from western Japan. This pattern of migration plays a huge role in the culture of each region.
Tokyo is largely comprised of people with roots outside of the city, and many of these people bring with them the customs and culture of their place of birth. As a result, the residents of Tokyo and the surrounding areas tend to place some distance between themselves and others around them. They commonly exercise the aforementioned "tatemae" in what can interpreted as a form of self defense, so if you want to become a true Tokyoite, it's absolutely vital that you make efforts to abide by their rules, customs, and behaviors to make public spaces comfortable for everyone.
On the other hand, Kansai people can be characterized as being very direct, with many people starting conversations with people they don't know. It's not that tatemae doesn't exist here, but rather, there are many people that speak out about their opinions openly.
Osaka is also known as the birthplace for the comedy scene in Japan, and the deep connection to the comedy culture has engrained itself into the society. For instance, when one person plays the "boke" by saying something strange or funny, another person responds and reacts with a "tsukkomi" by pointing it out for comedic effect. This occurs often not only between family and friends, but also with random passersby or in public spaces with strangers sitting closeby.
Osaka and Kyoto are both home to many people who are originally from the surrounding prefectures and western Japan, but despite the differences in culture, it can be said that the relatively close proximity of their home prefectures and the mutual respect and adoration for comedy allow them to overcome any barriers and build close relationships with others.
Reserved Kanto vs Sociable Kansai
As mentioned before, the Tokyo metropolitan area is largely comprised of people from the countryside, and it's considered commonplace to respect others' privacy, use "tatemae," and turn away from being outspoken about your opinions. This is the reason why in the Kanto region, unless it's absolutely necessary, people tend to shy away from talking to employees in convenience stores, restaurants, or bars - and of course, talking to an absolute stranger on the streets is preposterous!
In Kansai, however, it's not rare to see people start conversations with shop staff over random topics, and it's completely normal for people to suddenly jump into small talk about the weather. Customers often express their gratitude to the staff after they've finished paying for their items, and even at bars or cafes, they'll often strike up a conversation with other customers and become really close in a matter of minutes!
There is one more characteristic that's commonly seen in the cheerful and frank people of Kansai: they love cheap prices! It's extremely rare to see people try to negotiate prices in Tokyo, but in Osaka, it happens all the time. Tokyo is very susceptible to fads, but Osaka follows a way of thinking of which, as long as it's cheap, it's a good deal, which is why they are so easily and brazenly able to demand for lower prices.
To put it simply, it can be said that the Kansai people are a set of people who, in any situation, hold a deep sense of humanity. One exception to this within the region would be the people of Kyoto, who are known for their reserved personalities. It goes without saying that there are exceptions to everything, so it's difficult to generalize the whole region.
Standing on the Escalator: Left or Right?
The side you stand on when you're on an escalator is fixed depending on the region. In Kanto, you stand on the left, and in Kansai, you stand on the right. It's also considered good manners to leave the other lane open for people who want to walk up the escalators. It's common to make the mistake of standing on the wrong side even among Japanese people who arrive in Osaka from Tokyo and vice versa. It's also worth noting that in the countryside, regardless of which region you're in, the rules are not strictly set, and people stand on either side.
Fashionable Kanto vs Eccentric Kansai
There are very few differences in fashion between Kanto and Kansai with the millennial generation, and it really all boils down to individual preferences, but Kanto generally tends to drift towards a popularly fashionable style, while Kansai leans towards a more flashy and unique look where they can express themselves through their fashion.
Colorful Kanto Taxis vs Black Kansai Taxis
Contrary to the quirky fashion in Kansai, the taxis in this area are mostly black in color. In Kanto, however, they vary vastly in color, with yellow, orange, white, and black taxis driving through the city. While they may be different in color, the fare remains the same, so don't worry about having to flag down a certain color!
Kanto and Kansai Food Culture
Bread Slice Thickness
Sliced bread is among one of the few foods commonly eaten by people all over the globe. But even with this simple white loaf, you'll find a big difference between Kanto and Kansai: the width of each slice! In Kansai, loaves are sliced into 4 or 5 slices per loaf, while in Kanto, they are sliced thinly into 6 or 8 slices per loaf. Of course, you can purchase both thin and thick slices in either region, and preferences vary by each person and each household.
Noodles play a large role in Japanese food culture, and udon has particularly been enjoyed by the Japanese people since long ago. Made out of flour, udon goes down smoothly and has a springy texture. They are considered among one of the national foods. Depending on the region, the ingredients and flavors in udon can vary widely.
―Kanto Udon: Deep Colors and Rich Flavors
In the Kanto region, the dashi (broth) of udon is mainly made with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), which gives it a deep umami and rich flavor. Thin shavings of katsuobushi produce a light and simple flavor, while thick shavings give you a proper, strong flavor kick. Dark soy sauce and mirin (sweet cooking sake) are also added to give it a darker color, but the flavors are lighter than you'd expect. It's said that stronger flavors were preferred so that they would soak into the sturdy local vegetables used.
―Kansai Udon: Light Colors and Gentle Flavors
In the Kansai region, konbu (seaweed) is mainly used to make the dashi, creating a refined, savory flavor. Light soy sauce is added to the dashi, so compared to Kanto udon, the broth is lighter in color while having a pronounced salty and rich flavor. The vegetables grown in Kansai are often very soft, so it's said that light seasonings are preferred in order to savor the original flavors of the ingredients.
Different Names for "Meat Buns"
While the two foods listed above differed in flavors and presentation, there are also foods that are exactly the same in both regions but are called by different names. Meat buns are one example, as they're referred to as "buta-man" (pork bun) in Kansai but "niku-man" (meat bun) everywhere else.
There are many brands of beef in Kansai, such as Matsusaka beef and Kobe beef, which is why it's said that the word "niku" is often interpreted to mean "beef." People began to refer to niku-man filled with pork as buta-man instead so as not to confuse niku-man as a bun filled with beef. However, in recent years, with the wide popularization of convenience stores all across the country selling these buns under the name "niku-man," the Kansai region has gradually started to acknowledge it as an alternate title for the bun.
Kanto and Kansai Word Usage
The Kansai dialect and the Kanto dialect (standard Japanese) are very different not just in intonation, but also in terms of word usage.
In Japanese, when referring to someone's year in university, you say "(grade year)-nensei," but in Kansai alone, they use "(grade year)-kaisei." This only applies to university, as "(grade year)-nensei" is used for elementary, middle, and high school in the Kansai region, too.
There are many other terms unique to the Kansai region which may not be understood by outsiders. Here are a few other words that are different in standard Japanese and the Kansai dialect:
・Clean up - Katazukeru (standard) : Naosu (Kansai)
・Throw away - Suteru (standard) : Horu (Kansai)
・Alcohol sides - Otsumami (standard) : A-te (Kansai)
・Friend - Tomodachi (standard) : Tsure (Kansai)
・Cool - Kakkoii (standard) : Shutto shiteru (Kansai)
Kanto and Kansai Dining Culture - Eating Rice With Okonomiyaki?!
Okonomiyaki is a type of popular Japanese food that is named for how it's grilled (yaku) to the cook's preference (okonomi), whether it be in shape, ingredients, or seasonings used. It originates from Osaka, and along with takoyaki, it's considered a kind of soul food for the locals. The way it's eaten, however, is actually different between the two regions!
In Kansai, and more specifically in Osaka, people eat okonomiyaki with rice, pairing carbs with more carbs! For people outside of Kansai, this way of eating would be considered strange as Japanese cuisine is originally based around nutritionally balanced food. Although, if you take into account how Japanese people eat rice with dumplings while Chinese people eat dumplings alone as the main dish, this way of eating carbohydrates with a side of carbohydrates may in fact be a Japanese way of eating after all.
Kanto and Kansai Dining Culture - Takoyaki Machine in Every Household and a Flour-Based Dish Unique to Kanto
From okonomiyaki to negiyaki, akashiyaki, and even takoyaki, Kansai people love flour-based foods! To further back up this stereotype, many people enjoy okonomiyaki and takoyaki at home, and it's even said that there's a takoyaki machine in every Kansai household!
Kanto also has its own flour-based dish that's quite similar to okonomiyaki called "monjayaki," a local dish of that is made by adding several ingredients to a loose flour mixture dissolved in water, then frying it on an iron griddle. Although it looks similar to okonomiyaki, the flour to water ratio is different, and the sauce and toppings are mixed in with the batter so it doesn't solidify even after grilling it on the hot plate. You press down on it with the spatula as it's cooking, so the parts touching the griddle get a nice sear. It's a dish where you'll be able to savor its soft texture and a deliciously savory fragrance with each bite!
The Kanto and Kansai regions hold centuries of valuable history, and are home to a plethora of sightseeing spots within the major cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Kyoto. Whether you've been to these areas before or you're planning on visiting in the future, we hope you're able to use this newfound knowledge of the intricate differences between Kanto and Kansai to fully immerse yourself in the local culture and enjoy your travels in Japan!
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Title Image : Niphon Subsri / Shutterstock
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.