Photo:Richard Giles on Flickr

Crossing the Divide: Are You a Kansai Kid or a Kanto Kodomo?

For all of the narrow stereotypes often portrayed of Japan in western media, visitors who spend any length of time travelling around this great nation will soon learn just how diverse this place can be. Kyushu and the south can seem like a totally different country when compared to Hokkaido and other northern areas. Even within the main Honshu Island there are huge differences in culture, values and ideas from city to city.

Nowhere are these differences more pronounced than in the often-cited differences between the Kanto Region and the Kansai Region.

Taking in Tokyo, Yokohama and a number of surrounding prefectures, Kanto is undoubtedly Japan’s financial and trade hub. Every year fresh graduates flock to the region from all over Japan in the hopes of making their fortune.

Tokyo night view with lit up Tokyo Tower
Photo credit: wkc Chen on Flickr

Whilst Tokyo remains the undoubted financial capital of Japan, in recent years more and more people are starting to take notice of the Kansai region.

Of similar size to Kanto geographically, if not in terms of population, Kansai covers a wide swathe of central Japan, running from Kyoto, through Osaka and Wakayama all the way down to Kobe and the rest of Hyogo Prefecture. If it could be argued that Kanto is the brain that makes Japan work, then Kansai is probably the heart that keeps it moving.

Ever since feudal times, when the ruling Shogun switched Japan’s capital city from the Imperial capital of Kyoto, to Edo (now known as Tokyo), these two powerhouses of Japan have enjoyed something of a rivalry. I am in the privileged position to have spent some time living in both regions. When I first came to Japan, I spent my first two years living in Tokyo and its neighboring prefecture, Chiba.

For the past two years I have lived in Osaka, a place most would recognize as the principal city of Kansai (though no doubt some readers from Kyoto and Kobe would dispute this!)

Osaka has a very different feel to Tokyo, and so do the people.

Neon-lit Dotonburi district at night
Photo credit: Reginald Pentinio on Flickr

If you are considering coming to work in Japan, chances are you will end up working either in Kansai or Kanto. So, hopefully today I can give you a bit more clarity in choosing which of these areas would be best for you to live in.

For most people seeking to relocate, quality and availability of employment are usually the primary considerations. In these regards, at first glance anyway, Kanto would seem to have the edge. There is, of course, a far wider range of jobs available in the greater Tokyo area than there are in Kansai. Despite recent incentives being offered by the government to decentralize, the fact is the vast majority of major corporations in Japan are still headquartered either in Tokyo or Yokohama. Salaries also tend to be higher in Kanto than elsewhere, though by the same token salaries in Kansai are higher than other, even more rural areas of Japan.

However, with higher salaries inevitably come higher living costs. From the perspective of an English teacher such as myself, this is where Kansai may take the lead.

As a baseline figure, a competent English teacher with some previous experience, working for a reputable company can expect to command at least 250,000 yen per month in salary, wherever they work in Japan. In Tokyo, this figure increases to around 280,000 per month. Can this extra 30,000 yen per month really be enough to offset all the extra costs of living in Kanto? Honestly, it really depends on your own personal circumstances.

If you live in the city itself, a typical city centre dwelling for one person will set you back about 50-60000 yen per month in Osaka and perhaps 80,000-90,000 yen per month in Tokyo. But of course rent isn’t the only area where we can expect increased expenditure. I currently pay 7000 yen per month for my gym membership in Osaka. Good luck finding anything south of 10,000 yen per month in Tokyo!

Food costs will also be higher. I have noticed that since moving to Osaka I pay about 40% less for my weekly groceries than I did in Tokyo. Admittedly I buy a lot of “store’s own brand” goods, but I still think even if you did have slightly more extravagant tastes a saving of 20-30% compared to what you would spend in Tokyo isn’t an unreasonable expectation.

Photo: Yuya Tamai on Flickr

Of course with big city life comes a whole new set of temptations to burn a hole in your wallet. Whilst Osaka isn’t without its expensive restaurants and bars (I nearly had a heart attack last time I took a date for dinner at Osaka Grand Front!), Tokyo’s bars, restaurants and nightclubs can take expensive to a whole new level. Unless you’re a corporate high-roller, you’d be best advised to steer well clear.

Of course, finance is not the only consideration when deciding where to move. Japanese culture is often so different from other countries that relocating here can be a very alienating experience, especially in the first year or two. I would say, and I think most other foreigners in Japan would agree with me, that Tokyo is undoubtedly the most westernized of all Japan’s cities. For this reason, it is probably a better place to live for newcomers than Osaka or any of Kansai’s other cities. Certainly my experience in Tokyo prior to living in Okayama and later Osaka certainly made the transition far easier. I would have found the going very tough had I been thrown straight into the more innately Japanese environment of Osaka.

That being said, I do believe that Osaka people are warmer than those in Tokyo, once you get to know them. However, Kansai people may not have as much experience of dealing with foreigners and in almost all cases their level of English will be a lot lower. So whilst they are undeniably warm and friendly people, making those initial contacts can be a lot more difficult in the initial stages for those with little or no prior experience of Japanese life or language.

Overall, it really depends on what kind of person you are. To a young, eager adventurous young person on the make, Tokyo is as seductive as it is empowering. However, if you’re like me, a little older, more seasoned and looking at possibly settling down in the mid to long term in Japan, then Kansai is, I think, probably more appropriate.

One thing is for sure, both these regions have a huge range of adventure, excitement and challenges awaiting you. Wherever you choose to live, you are guaranteed a life-changing experience.

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