PEOPLE EVERYWHERE LOVE TO TALK about the regional quirks of their fellow citizens, and Japan is no exception. The country is divided into 47 entities at the state or provincial level. These are usually called ken, or prefectures, but there are a few exceptions (check out the link for more details).
Over the years, several books have been written about the personality traits of the people in each prefecture. Ed Jacobs, writing for Japanzine, put together this article in English describing a few of those traits. Despite some omissions and inaccuracies, it makes for interesting reading. Here’s a glance at what he came up with, some additional information, and the correction of some mistakes.
“The women in Hokkaido are said to be the most liberated in Japan. They have the unusual habit of proposing marriage to their men and are also number one in Japan when it comes to initiating divorces. No one knows whether it’s the men or the women that are to blame, but Hokkaido also has the highest divorce rate in the country.”
One possibility: Hokkaido was not widely settled by indigenous Japanese until the 19th century. The situation is analogous to the settlement of the American West. Perhaps a residual frontier spirit is the reason for the more assertive women.
“Say the word ‘Akita bijin’ (an Akita beauty) to a Japanese male and watch his eyes light up. The idea that women from Akita are beautiful dates back to at least the Heian period, and women from this prefecture are famous for their pale white skin. Akita’s women have an average skin whiteness index of 29.6%, making them far paler than the average Japanese women, whose whiteness index is only 26.6%.”
I’ve actually heard more praise for the complexions of Hokkaido women than Akita women. Some people say the cold weather has a lot to do with it. (They start wearing jackets at night in the latter half of August.) The two prefectures are neighbors, so they share the same harsh winters.
I didn’t know that somebody had a “skin whiteness index” somewhere in Japan, but I can’t say I’m surprised.
If you like to sleep and eat ramen and hate automobile seatbelts, this is the place for you.
Not included in the article is the stereotype of the Ibaraki policeman. A high percentage of men from this prefecture choose careers in law enforcement, particularly in the National Police Agency. The image of the Ibaraki cop is similar to that of the Irish cop in New York City in bygone days.
Only five percent of the people in this prefecture continue their education after high school, the lowest percentage in Japan after Okinawa. The people also have a reputation for loving pachinko and horse racing.
Detest karaoke? Don’t go near Tochigi—they love it.
“Saitama is the New Jersey of Japan and is widely known as ‘Dasaitama’ (Ugly Saitama).”
That poor translation fails to convey the clever construction of dasaitama. Dasai doesn’t mean ugly—it’s slang that means uncool, unfashionable, or dweeby, and which was then compacted with the name of the prefecture. The rough analogy of calling Saitama the New Jersey of Japan derives from Saitama’s location next to Tokyo, as New Jersey borders New York, and that many Americans on the East Coast enjoy saying unpleasant things about the Garden State. Some attitudes are universal!
“You’re less likely to die of cancer if you live in Shizuoka than in any other prefecture.”
The author doesn’t tell us the reason: Shizuoka is the prefecture with the highest green tea production in Japan. The folks in Shizuoka are more likely to drink green tea as their beverage of choice during the day. And the more green tea you drink, the less likely you are to get certain kinds of cancer.
Jacobs writes that Osakans are the fastest walkers in Japan, and like to jaywalk, jump yellow lights, and spend money on fashionable clothes.
Oddly, he neglects to mention in this section that Osaka is famous as a mercantile city—the common local greeting is “Making any money?”—and their well-known dislike of Tokyo. (He mentions their money-making reputation in the Nara section.) Young Osaka women also are known to have a yen for horror movies, the gorier and creepier the better.
Years ago, I saw an article about people in the Kansai region and their television viewing habits. Apparently, they think the programming of NHK, the public TV and radio network, is Tokyo-centric. NHK’s audience numbers in the Kansai region were abysmal.
“Fukuoka, despite being relatively rural, is second only to Osaka when it comes to high crime rates.”
The author is right about the crime rate, but obviously has never been to Fukuoka.
The population of Fukuoka Prefecture is about 5 million. It has two cities with a population of more than one million. The prefectural capital is Fukuoka City, where 1.3 million people live. Right next door is the city of Kitakyushu, with a population of 1.1 million. That doesn’t count the concentration of people in the suburbs ringing both of those cities. “Relatively rural”? At least half the prefecture’s population lives in a megalopolis.
The reason for the crime rate is found in the extreme concentration of heavy industry in the Kokura district of Kitakyushu. The huge factories and smokestacks are easily visible from the train window. (Americans: Think Gary, Indiana and you’ll get the idea.) In fact, the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan was intended for Kokura. They were lucky the cloud cover over the city that day caused the bomber’s crew to head for the secondary target of Nagasaki.
The Kokura factories operated full-bore around the clock, so required a lot of unskilled manual labor during the night and graveyard shifts. A willingness to show up for work was a more important job qualification than personal character. Guys fitting that description aren’t always model citizens.
I knew a woman several years ago who worked in mizu shobai—the water trade, a euphemism for the night-time entertainment industry. She moved to Kitakyushu because the money was better, but moved back after several months because she said she didn’t feel safe in the city, particularly at night.
Kitakyushu is changing, however. Many of the factories have closed down, and the city is working very hard to change its image to one of an environmentally aware metropolis.
The author doesn’t mention Nagasaki in the article, so I will. It’s at the southwest corner of Kyushu facing the Asian land mass, which has brought a strong Chinese influence. It was the only place in Japan where foreigners could reside during the Edo Period (albeit only on the former island of Dejima), so it has always been more open to the rest of the world. A relatively high percentage of the population is Christian. (Anecdotally, 5% for this area, compared to 1% for the country as a whole.)
A final word
Ignore the opening paragraph explaining the reasons Japan has an “emperor” and “empire”. Somebody got carried away by the English words and forgot the Japanese equivalents.
The Japanese word for European-style emperors is kotei, but that’s not what they use for Akihito and all those guys. The call him the tenno, or heavenly sovereign.
In fact, the Japanese tenno has seldom, if ever, been viewed as a conquering military/political figure in the way that European emperors are. Throughout most of Japanese history, his primary role has been to serve as the head priest of Shinto. Indeed, long centuries ago, he was thought to have magical powers and was therefore kept from participating in governmental affairs because they were beneath him. Those were left to his ministers.
The shoguns were the ones who led the armies and knocked off the local warlords.
As a translator, I’ve had a desire for many years to dispense with the word “emperor” and use tenno instead, but that’s too eccentric to ever happen…