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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Focusing on Osaka

Nov. 2, 2015

It's been 3-and-a-half years since the leaders of Japan and South Korea held a summit. But every year, people in Osaka have celebrated the history of friendly relations between the countries.

NHK's Aki Shibuya went to the "Wasso" festival on Sunday to see how residents of the city have preserved a legacy of neighborly hospitality.

A parade brings viewers back to about 1,400 years ago when the people of Osaka welcomed the arrival of their neighbors. It took place at the exact spot as the ceremony. It shows the ceremony was very colorful, filled with music and dance.

Organizers say people shouted "Wasso" to welcome delegations from the peninsula to Osaka. It means "to come" in Korean.

Back when Japan was becoming a nation-state, Japanese leaders invited scholars, architects and craftspeople from Korea to learn about the latest technology.

The festival symbolizes the friendship between Japan and East Asia that has long thrived in Osaka.

A visitor says, "There hasn't been much good news about Japan and South Korea lately, so ordinary people coming together and enjoying themselves like this is a good thing."

Another says, "I really liked all the dances. I didn't even know Korean culture has some links with Japanese culture, so it's something good to know."

The festival started 25 years ago. Ethnic Koreans living in Osaka wanted the younger generation to know more about the achievements of their ancestors.

The event has since become a chance for everyone in Osaka to celebrate the city's rich history of international cultural exchange.

A local high school's brass band club is experiencing a different culture first-hand thanks to the event.

As members of the club prepare for the festival, Korean musicians are on hand to teach them how to play horns, chimes and percussion.

Haruna Abe is taking part in the event for the first time. She says, "I think if we try to know each other, it will help us understand each other better. For me, I can't speak their language, but I have music. It could be anything. Things you like help create a friendship."

The organizers say this kind of grassroots interaction is becoming more important than ever.

One of them, Kanekatsu Inokuma, says, "Even though political relations have soured in various ways, we hope our efforts as citizens will be powerful enough to change the political situation."

Osaka has long been a hub of Japanese commerce. Merchants traditionally greet each other by saying, "Mokari makka?" In the local dialect, that means, "Making a lot of money?”

NHK's Nonoka Akaki reports on how Osaka's vibrant commercial tradition is evolving to meet the challenges of the future.

Osaka merchants are showing how quickly they can adapt to changing times by making the growing number of foreign tourists feel welcome. The city last year hosted a record 3.7 million visitors from overseas.

In the Dotonbori area, foreign visitors can be seen everywhere. Their purchasing power is a major driving force of the local economy.

A tourist in the area says he came to Osaka to shop. Another shows off her shopping, saying she bought the items for her friends.

Many tourists buy over-the-counter drugs. Some of them spend more than 90,000 yen, about $740 at a time.

Cooling Gel Sheets that relieve and cool fevers are popular among foreign shoppers.

Top-selling items include liquid bandaids. They're good for chapped hands. Sales from April to September tripled compared to the same period last year.

One company that makes such products is based in the Doshomachi district in Osaka. Many leading pharmaceutical companies have their headquarters here. The area has been known as “medicine town” for centuries.

The local museum has a document dating back 350 years. It contains instructions for handling counterfeit drugs. This shows that wholesalers inspected drugs and reported their findings to the local magistrate.

Back then, all imported drugs arrived in Doshomachi before being distributed around Japan. Many wholesalers later became world-class pharmaceutical companies.

Tsuneo Fukazawa, Director of the Doshomachi Pharmaceutical Museum, says, "The district is rich with medical culture and traditions dating back to the feudal period. The pharmaceutical companies you find here today have inherited those traditions."

Osaka has many other wholesale districts. Each of them deals with a different type of merchandise. There are districts that specialize in textiles, confectionery, and sandals, for example.

The rice wholesalers’ district gave birth to a new way of doing business.

In 1730, the feudal government allowed brokers to negotiate the price of rice to be delivered at a future date. It was actually the first such exchange in the world.

The Osaka Exchange is still the center of futures trading in Japan.

Many wholesalers that were founded during the feudal period became trading companies or food manufacturers after Japan opened itself to the world in the mid-19th century.

One of the city's success stories was the textile industry. Mechanization enabled it to grow rapidly. A British newspaper called Osaka “the Manchester of the East.”

By 1926, the city was the largest industrial center in Japan.

Osaka at that time had a population of about 2.26 million. It was the biggest city in Japan -- and the sixth-largest in the world.

This newspaper editor, Nobuo Takehara, has been covering companies in Osaka for more than 40 years. He says businesses thrive in the city because of the character of its people.

"Osaka people love original things. They like to try out anything new. People here don't want to be copycats. They try to make things that aren’t made anywhere else, which inevitably leads to the development of new products. There are many possibilities for interesting, one-of-a-kind businesses originating in Osaka," he says.

Osaka has produced a variety of world-class products.

Higashi-Osaka is home to half a million people -- and more than 6,500 small and mid-sized manufacturers. The city has the highest concentration of factories in Japan.

One of them makes rust-proof bolts used in bridges and tunnels. The firm is the world’s top bolt manufacturer.

Local businesses are also making inroads into outer space. Thirteen small and mid-sized companies worked together for 7 years to produce a lightning observation satellite.

The people of Osaka have long been known for being hard-nosed and forward-looking. That helps them take on the challenges of doing business today.

NEWSROOM TOKYO anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya are joined in the studio by two academics from Osaka University. Yukari Enoi is an associate professor and an expert on the sociology of education. Steve Muller teaches communication through drama and role play.

Beppu: Steve, you're from the UK and you've lived in and travelled to big cities in different countries as well as here in Japan. What would you say makes Osaka unique compared with other cities around the world?

Muller: When I first moved to Osaka, there was a kind of small culture shock, because I had thought that the Japanese were maybe very similar to the British-- shy and not so forth-coming with making friendships and that kind of thing. But I discovered in Osaka that people were very friendly. In fact, it reminded me very much of when I went to Spain. I experienced a huge culture shock in Madrid when the Spanish people were bright and big and ebullient, and I came to Osaka and I got that same feeling. It was really wonderful and it's the reason I've stayed here so long. I came here originally just on a 3-month contract, and ended up staying here for 17 years, so it's certainly very attractive. And the reason I stayed was because I have a very attractive wife too, who is Japanese.

Shibuya: Yukari, you're originally from Yokohama, near Tokyo. Do you feel there's something about Osaka that makes it different from other Japanese cities?

Enoi: I also had a similar experience. When my bag was open, a complete stranger came and said, "Be careful, your bag is open." It's never happened in Tokyo.

Beppu: Yukari, maybe something else that's different in Osaka is that people don't hesitate to talk about money. Of course it depends, but generally speaking. Do you think this attitude explains the entrepreneurial spirit in this city?

Enoi: Osaka is more like a pioneer than a guardian of traditions. People’s curiosity creates new things. It's often said that local merchants have a reputation of being self-centered. They tend to get carried away and excited, and do things immediately. But that's what makes them unique. Their positive attitude mixed with a down-to-earth sense of humor has contributed to their ability to create various products that have become famous worldwide.

Shibuya: Steve, what do people in your country think about things that are made in Japan?

Muller: They love things made in Japan. They've got a really good reputation. When I first came here, I was with a group of actors-- that was in 1993, just for a couple of months-- and nobody wanted to eat the food. It was just really strange for them. But now, you can find it everywhere. The conveyer-belt sushi, which I discovered recently, was made not only in Japan but right here in Osaka, and I discovered that many of the things which say "Made in Japan" were actually made here in Osaka, which gives Osaka that reputation worldwide for quality, craftsmanship, and it keeps alive that tradition of the merchants of Osaka, which is fantastic and makes me very proud that I'm here in Kansai and living amongst the Osaka people, who as Yukari-san said, are just warm, lovely, and vibrant.

Osaka has been Japan's commercial hub for centuries. People with a knack for business have always found it a good place to make money.

Criminals are among those who have been drawn to the city. Japan's biggest yakuza crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, has its main office near Osaka. The gang recently split in two -- and that has people worried.

This isn't the first time this has happened.

The Yamaguchi-gumi split during a power struggle in the 1980s. That led to more than 300 violent incidents. Many people were killed and wounded. Innocent bystanders were among the casualties.

In the 1990s, another incident took place. People close to the yakuza took control of a major company in Osaka. They embezzled its funds. They were then indicted for fraud. The firm eventually went bankrupt.

The incident made the public aware that organized crime had infiltrated the business world. Authorities responded by introducing measures to crack down on the yakuza.

That seemed to limit the activities of organized criminal groups. Police are on high alert now that the Yamaguchi-gumi has split again.

Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya are joined by NHK Chief Correspondent Masahiro Shimizu, head of the reporting team that covers crime in the Osaka region.

Beppu: Reports say the Yamaguchi crime syndicate has broken up. What's the current situation?

Shimizu: In August, the conflict within the Yamaguchi-gumi surfaced, and 13 factions out of approximately 70 broke away. That included some central factions to the Yamaguchi-gumi, making this split the largest ever. As the Yamaguchi-gumi has been seen a strong organization with strong loyalty to the top, the news came as a surprise.

Beppu: What's the biggest reason for the split?

Shimizu: One of the main reasons is that they are fighting over money. Police say that most revenue comes from fraud, drug sales, and other illegal activities, and interference with businesses and protection money charged to bars and restaurants. However, as the crackdown on organized crime became stricter and stricter every year, they lost some income streams. In other words, their market is shrinking. In this situation, some member groups became increasingly dissatisfied with high payments to the top, unhappy with executive appointments and distribution of funds, and some decided to break away.

Shibuya: The Yamaguchi-gumi is seen to be the largest criminal organization in Japan. What is the scale of this organization?

Shimizu: Its revenue seems outstanding. An American economic magazine says that the Yamaguchi-gumi has the highest revenue among all criminal groups in the world at $80 billion annually. Although this figure is not confirmed by the police, it is equivalent to the national budget of Thailand. Before the split, the gang had approximately 23,400 members nationwide. Its influence extends to most prefectures and the Yamaguchi-gumi accounts for almost half of all yakuza members in Japan.

Shibuya: How did the Yamaguchi-gumi expand its power?

Shimizu: The Yamaguchi-gumi started 100 years ago in 1915 with port workers in Kobe City. Through affiliated businesses, it infiltrated the warehouse and transportation industries, and as Japan's economy grew rapidly, it also entered the real estate and entertainment industries. The Yamaguchi-gumi built financial capability through close ties with its affiliated businesses and grew.

Beppu: A split means there may be a spread of violence. What's the risk of strife or clashes?

Shimizu: At this stage, there are no large-scale clashes. However, there have been small fights and violent incidents among lower-level members. As shown in the video, in the 1980s, there was a split that led to a full-scale conflict. The split this time is even bigger, so small fights could lead to major conflicts. We are monitoring the situation very closely. The commissioner of the National Police Agency is calling on regional senior police officers to be on high alert. The police are taking all opportunities possible to search the premises of both sides. By doing so, the police are trying to gather as much information as possible and prevent conflict from occurring. They're on high alert.

Osaka is not just Japan's "Gateway to Asia." It's long been the "Gateway to Japan" for many people from the Asian continent.

Sho Beppu reported on Osaka's ethnic diversity when he started out as a reporter.

He caught up with 72-year-old Kim Hyo-hwang, whom he interviewed 20 years ago. Kim was born and raised in Korea. He is working to build friendly relations between Korea and Japan at a people-to-people level.

In 1997, Kim began publishing a newspaper called the "Korea News." It reported on current events in South Korea. Back then, many Koreans experienced severe discrimination. Information from the peninsula was limited. But the situation has changed dramatically.

A big boost came in 2003 when Korean drama and music became popular in Japan.

Kim says, "Today, we run 10 times the amount of information we used to. When something happens in South Korea, we can find about it right away."

Kim and Beppu visited "Korea Town," which dates back to before World War 2. Many Korean people still live in the area. The streets are full of Japanese visitors.

Kim Hyo-hwang says, "I'm surprised to see more young people these days. There are many more Japanese people than Koreans here. I hope they will make this town a tourist destination."

But diplomacy hasn't kept pace with growing grassroots ties between Japanese and Korean people.

Kim says, "I think politicians are falling behind the people. I hope the two countries will take steps so things will improve at the government level."

Others are trying to improve ties with China. One of them is Mao Danqing. He came to Japan 28 years ago and is a professor at Kobe International University near Osaka.

Mao is one of the publishers of a monthly magazine called "it is Japan."

It is published in China and features stories on Japanese culture and life. It was launched 4 years ago when tensions between Japan and China began to increase.

Mao says, "The reason we started publishing the magazine when relations were at rock bottom was that we sensed there was a market. We seized on the need of our readers."

The magazine is popular among young Chinese readers. Monthly sales sometimes top 100,000 copies.

Mao is worried that young Japanese aren't as interested in learning about China as Chinese youth are in learning about Japan.

So he published a book that describes various topics the magazine covered, and the subjects Chinese readers found interesting. He wanted to show how Chinese people appreciate Japanese lifestyle and culture.

Mao says, "The problem is that many people tend to think what’s happening in politics represents everything. I don't think it's good that people aren't interested in what lies beyond politics."

Beppu asks, "Seeing many Chinese people taking part in anti-Japanese protests, don't you think it is natural that some Japanese can't help feeling that the Chinese hate Japanese on a personal level?"

Mao responds, "Tens of thousands of Chinese people are coming to Japan. More people want to know about Japan than ever before. I'd say this is a social phenomenon -- not just a boom."

Young people are taking up the torch that Kim and Mao are trying to pass on.

An international junior and senior high school in Osaka aims to help students become what they call “Border-crossers" -- people whose views aren't limited by national boundaries.

Seventy percent of the students are Korean residents. The rest are Japanese. Classes are taught in Japanese, Korean and English.

Song Oh, Director of the Korea International School, says, "Graduates of this school can use their ability to see things from different perspectives. I hope that the next generation will play a role in improving relations among East Asian nations."

Lee Kyongho is 18 years old. He is a third-generation Korean resident of Japan. He says he is learning about the different backgrounds of his fellow students.

Lee says, "Even among Korean citizens, there are people who are living in Japan, while some came from Korea. There are people who are Koreans living in China and who came to Japan. It’s interesting that there's such a variety of people, even among Koreans."

As for his future plans, Lee says, "I'd like to choose a place where I can live freely or where I can be just the way I am or want to be. This has nothing to do with where I live or what I do for a living. Being a border-crosser means that you can turn common sense on its head or you can go beyond that."

Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya are joined again by two academics from Osaka University. Yukari Enoi is an associate professor and an expert on the sociology of education. Steve Muller teaches communication through drama and role play.

Beppu: What strikes me is seeing people who have struggled over differences overcome it to create a kind of richness. Steve, do you think this historical diversity in Osaka is helping to create this atmosphere of the city that is welcoming to foreigners?

Muller: Yes, I think that the city is welcoming to foreigners, because as you keep mentioning throughout the program, it is a city of merchants. That's what it's famous for. If you want to sell something, you better be able to communicate. And so I think it's in their DNA, their blood, to be able to communicate with whomever, because in the end, that's what makes for a good sales relationship, that's what makes for a good relationship with people that they come back to the shop that you're selling things in, whatever it might be. I think that the Osaka people have developed that ability to communicate with anybody despite language barriers or whatever might be there to prevent any kind of communication. So I certainly feel that, as someone who has lived here for a long time, and not necessarily very good at Japanese, the Osaka people just bend over backwards to communicate with me and that gives me such a thrill and a joy. I think it's because of that --as I said -- a deeply inbred ability to be able to sell themselves.

Shibuya: Yukari, even in a city with such a tradition of openness, there are still ethnic and cultural barriers.

Enoi: People often talk about legal barriers, language barriers, and emotional barriers. I believe that it needs the government's involvement to eliminate legal barriers and hurdles. But when it comes to language and emotional barriers, Osaka has worked hard to eliminate them throughout its history. The fact many ethnic Koreans live here itself is proof that Osaka has nurtured its unique wisdom in order to live in harmony with other ethnic groups.

Beppu: Steve, what are the prospects for change that could happen in Osaka?

Muller: When I first arrived here, I remember meeting a couple of friends who I thought were Japanese and they privately said to me, "Actually Steve, we're Korean. Please don't tell anybody," and I was really shocked and then I found out that -- being treated so well as a white, male, British citizen -- I was shocked to discover that other Asians were not treated as well as I was treated. However, over the last 15 or so years, I have seen a change in that attitude. The Japanese people are becoming much more accepting of other Asians, and the paradise that Japan is for me is also becoming a place of acceptance for other people from other Asian countries. That is a great change that I've seen, so I see that hopefully going into the future.