Tsuruhashi, Osaka: Where Japan Finds Korea

Photo: Easy street food from the many vendors that offer a lip-smacking range of Korean foods. Photo by Ken OHYAMA on Flickr

Tsuruhashi, Osaka: Where Japan Finds Korea

James Heng

I love Japan. I also love Korea. Meanwhile if you say, “I love Japan and Korea” in the same sentence, it might conjure an animosity felt by the history of both countries. Indeed, the history of both nations is spoiled by the aftermath of their colonial pasts. In fact it was not until 1999 that South Korea openly allowed the consumption of Japanese products such as anime and J-Pop. Meanwhile far right activists have fiercely voiced their concerns at the proliferation of the hallyu wave into Japan.

I love understanding history and the relationship between our different cultures. Living in Osaka presents me with the door to the biggest Korean community in all of Japan located in Ikuno’s Tsuruhashi. The district of Tsuhurashi is a sleepy part of the town that is only a fifteen minute train ride from central Osaka. Inside this part of Osaka, lives the vibrant Korean community still clinging onto their traditions in an age that sees their own culture being celebrated by the world over. As soon as you step out of the station’s exit, you will notice that the station is situated inside a market place beaming with lavish Korean gowns known as the ‘hanbok’ coupled with the smell of the ever-popular kimchi and the sound of the Korean language by the market stall owners. Walk another fifteen minutes outside and you will properly enter ‘Koreatown’.

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Flags line up the street to welcome the burgeoning international community of Japan.

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The Korean traditional dress known as the 'hanbok' is a stark difference to the Japanese kimono. In Korea, the outfit has been designated it's own 'Hanbok Day' encouraging all to don the outfit. Several hanbok shops adorn Koreatown and the market surrounding Tsuruhashi station in a array of many colorful designs.

The history of Koreans living in Japan has been a particularly complicated one. They are often known as the ‘Zainichi’ referring to their unfortunate status of ‘temporary residents’ despite having lived in Japan for over three generations following Japan’s rule of Korea. Many Zainichi Koreans have adopted Japanese as their sole language and the many customs and traditions of Japan. Many though still hold their South Korean nationality; many too even hold a Joseon or North Korean nationality. Following the 1950’s, the results of this murky relationship led many Koreans to choose repatriation to North Korea to meet a grisly life under the hand of Kim Il Sung’s rule. Today Korean ethnic groups mostly live in Osaka, Yamaguchi and Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo district where elements of Korea are found.

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Japan has mochi, Korea has tteokbokki. Korean's version has been given the spicy touch turning it into a favorite for many foodies.

Interestingly too, the current North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s own mother Ko Yong Hui was born in Osaka before being repatriated back to North Korea. Looking at Tsuruhashi in the modern context, it is hard to believe such realities could have started in this old edge of town. Gone are the hallmarks of the old, and in has come the fandom surrounding K-pop, one of Korea’s biggest export to the Japanese public. Stretch out a little more and you will be in front of traditional Korean gates that welcomes a street full of the latest skincare goods straight from Seoul’s neon lights, a dozen or so BBQ joints and a wealth of street stalls that temporarily makes you wonder which country you are in. The shopkeepers passionately waving while they slip into both Japanese and Korean in hopes you might be able to understand one of the two. Amongst that, a more modern era of Korea sprouts over the shop windows full of the latest K-Pop stars adorning the posters that line up the street of Koreatown. It’s hard to believe the hardship this minority group has suffered when you look at how popular this place has become for ethnic Japanese themselves.

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It's skewer heaven. Feel free to choose what you want and pretend you are in Hongdae as you parade around the street. You will never go hungry here.

And maybe that is the best thing. Despite the history, the youth of Japan and Korea today are not letting their history determine their plight. Instead, it is places such as Tsuruhashi that exemplify the acceptance and enjoyment of two countries geographically so close finally understanding one another after all this time. Once you leave this charming part of town, you will most likely find yourself with a few cosmetic face masks in tow, lip smacking pork belly in your stomach and just maybe a G-Dragon sticker as your guilty pleasure at the bottom of your bag. There is a positive road ahead.

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After the hike from Tsuruhashi station, this gate greets you to congratulate you on your convoluted journey to find Koreatown.

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Plenty of street food for you.