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Closed Circles : Japan Revels in Regional Differences

May 16, 1988|SAM JAMESON | Times Staff Writer

SENDAI, Japan — Natives of the old commercial center of Osaka are so preoccupied with business that instead of greeting one another with "Good day," they say, "Are you making money?"

People in Tokyo, on the other hand, spend money lavishly, a custom they are said to have acquired in the feudal era, when merchants competed, often with bribes, to be designated "official purveyors" to the ruling samurai class.

Showing off their wealth was the Tokyo people's way of demonstrating what they considered their superiority over the samurai, as well as over their bargain-hunting cousins in Osaka, according to Prof. Takao Sufue of Meiji University.

Natives of the Tohoku (northeast) region are regarded as taciturn and shy to the point of having an inferiority complex, yet they are disgruntled and prone to complain.

Distinctions Abound

Such character distinctions, real or imagined, abound in Japan, from region to region, prefecture to prefecture, city to city. Although Japan's 122 million people, crowded into a country no larger than Montana, seem to be homogenous, they revel in their differences, real and imagined. Often they do so with humor.

Tradition, history, geography, old wives' tales--all tend to sustain regionalism. They have created concentric circles of closed societies, the outermost of which is often perceived by foreigners as the single closed society of Japan.

Keizo Saji, president of Suntory, the giant maker of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages, recently provided a striking reminder of Japan's provincialism. As a member of a television panel discussing the question of moving the national capital to escape Tokyo's congestion, Saji lashed out at people who were promoting Sendai, Tohoku's regional center, as the site of a new capital.

'Idiots' Favor Sendai

"There are some idiots," Saji said, "who argue for Sendai," even though 60 million or more of Japan's 122 million people live in the area between Tokyo and Osaka. "Who knows how few live north of Tokyo?" he said. The population of Sendai is 888,000.

"In general," Saji went on, "that's the home of the Kumaso (a primitive tribe), and there is no expectation that any significant number of people would live in a region like that. The level of culture there is extremely low. Certainly the new capital should be located between Tokyo and Osaka."

Saji's comment ignited a storm of controversy. His comment, the domestic equivalent of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's 1986 remark that the low intelligence of "blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans" had dragged down the average intelligence level of the American people to "an extraordinarily low level," prompted the farm cooperative of Miyagi prefecture to accuse him of engaging in "human discrimination."

"Who does Saji think he is?" roared Shuichi Konno, vice president of the Sendai Chamber of Commerce. Konno noted that although the 1st Division of the old Imperial Army was headquartered in Tokyo, the 2nd Division was based in Sendai.

Much of the criticism was aimed not only at Saji but at all Japanese from the Kansai region, which includes Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. Saji was attacked as representative of the smugness that is widely attributed to Kansai people. He heads the Osaka Chamber of Commerce, which is trying to revitalize the city, Japan's third largest, as more and more businesses, financial institutions, and cultural activities congregate in Tokyo.

Prof. Hideaki Ouchi of Tohoku University said in an interview that only Kansai people, when traveling out of the region, speak in the dialect they use at home. Tohoku natives, he said, never speak in the Tohoku dialect outside their region, since its pronunciations are ridiculed as hick language.

'Only a Fringe Area'

Saji's remarks, Ouchi said, were "a manifestation of a Kansai belief that their region is the real center of Japan," and that Tokyo, which succeeded Kyoto as the national capital only about a century ago, is "really only a fringe area."

Saji, in his television appearance, spoke in the Kansai dialect, and telephone calls and letters of protest poured into the stations that carried the program, as well as the offices of Suntory.

Gov. Kikuji Sasaki of Akita prefecture in the Tohoku region announced that lodging facilities operated by his government would stop handling Suntory products. He commented acidly that "Saji seems to believe that no one lives in Tohoku, so he probably doesn't intend to sell any of his products here anyway."

Other organizations, including the Miyagi cooperative embracing 110,000 farming families, announced that they, too, would boycott Suntory products. The cooperative's reaction exposed yet another division that has emerged recently in Japanese society--between farmers and businessmen.

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