Beyond candy and laughs: 'Osaka no obachan'
OSAKA--Stereotypes are powerful, and generalizations can sometimes become reality when they are repeatedly upheld in the media. When it comes to "Osaka no obachan," or middle-aged women in Osaka, their typical image is that of females wearing leopard-print outfits, speaking loudly and demonstrating a vigorous character among other traits, an image that resonates with many people in Japan.
Recently, however, one particular essay in a PR magazine of the National Museum of Ethnology caught the public eye. It was titled "A fiction called 'Osaka no obachan.'"
The essay was written by Osamu Matsumoto, a producer of a popular Osaka call-in TV program called Tantei! Knight Scoop. In his essay, Matsumoto insists such stereotypes about Osaka obachan are not true to reality.
"In movies [featuring Osaka] such as Hankyu Densha and Princess Toyotomi, I saw scenes in which middle-aged women were talking loudly, fighting over a seat on the train and chatting vociferously in an elevator. Those scenes shocked me, as I felt the depictions [of these Osaka women] went too far," Matsumoto said.
"When I interview Osaka obachan on the street [for my TV program], all of them are kind and cheerful. I've never met anyone outrageous or rude," he added.
Nevertheless, Osaka women seem to have less of an awareness of personal space than women in other regions. For example, once I was browsing at a vegetable shop in the region. Suddenly, I was caught off guard by the comments of a woman surprisingly close to me, who said, "I'd buy this if I were you."
Matsumoto said: "In order to live up to the expectations people have of them, Osaka obachan try hard to make people laugh, even sometimes at their own expense. We [as TV producers] have taken advantage of their hospitable nature, which has resulted in the formation of their distinct reputation.
"I really want to say to [those who believe the stereotypes]: 'Come on! It's just a joke, did you really believe that!?' I don't know what to say..." he added.
A tough, cheerful breed
Kazuyoshi Maegaki, a specially appointed professor at Soai University who lives in Higashi-Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, published a book on the subject called Doya! Osaka no Obachan-gaku (Here you go! A study of Osaka obachan).
"Osaka is a commercial city. Husbands and wives work together, laughing off their suffering and pain. The image of an energetic wife trying to optimistically make the best of her situation in hopes for a better tomorrow has taken root, especially in downtown Osaka areas," Maegaki said.
This image is upheld by the protagonists in Osaka-born Sakunosuke Oda's novel Meoto Zenzai, which tells the story of a couple in the city. The story was later made into a film, which was seen as portraying a typical married couple in Osaka, with a "dependable wife who supports her helpless husband," he said.
The positive view of Osaka women's image paints them as engaging, tough and able to earn a living on their own. However, over the years these traits have become inextricably linked to negative attributes in some people's minds: Instead of engaging they are viewed as audacious; their practicality is deemed stinginess; and their tough demeanor is interpreted as being forceful.
The Osaka women's distinctive character has been recognized as a powerful tool in commercials.
In 1989, the Osaka prefectural government released a TV commercial to curb citizens' inconsiderate parking behavior, which featured middle-aged Osaka women. In the commercial, the obachan loudly asked the police, "[Why are you picking on me!?] Everybody else is doing it too, aren't they!?"
The Shizuoka prefectural government hired middle-aged Osaka actresses for its commercial to warn consumers about bank transfer scams.
In the commercial, which was aired from 2004 to 2005, the obachan shouted with an Osaka accent, "Watch out for fraud!" But the commercial incited a complaint from the Osaka prefectural government, which said the way the obachan were portrayed could project a negative image of Osaka.
In spite of this, Osaka obachan are still seen as effective commercial icons.
Last autumn, Tokiwa Pharmaceutical Co. recruited Osaka obachan to advertise its "Nanten Nodoame" lozenges. Four middle-aged women in leopard-print clothing appear with a member of popular idol group NMB48 and shout the name of the product in an Osaka accent.
It is said that Osaka obachan always carry sweets in their purses, waiting for the chance to give them to strangers they converse with.
"What's more Osaka obachan than candy?" said Tokiwa's spokesperson. "Their character is overwhelming, but also lovable."
Maegaki says the stereotypes many people hold about Osaka obachan seem to come from experiencing one of the traits in individual Osaka women, which they then merge into an overall image of the group. Not every woman from Osaka matches the stereotype.
"[Because] they are service-minded, they started feeling like they had to have candy in their pockets and follow the stereotypes believed by the public [to meet people's expectations]," Maegaki said.
Still, some classic Osaka obachan traits ring true. Prof. Shoichi Inoue of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies said that in fact, some Osaka obachan are bold enough to ask for a discount at luxurious boutiques in Paris or tell a taxi driver to take them to the Eiffel Tower using only body language.
"A lot of street interviews take place in Osaka, with shopping districts and other common spaces becoming a stage. As a result, women who live there are apparently acting the part of 'obachan' on a daily basis," Inoue said.
Salient characteristics of "Osaka obachan" (according to Prof. Kazuyoshi Maegaki)
-- Friendly enough to chat casually with strangers.
-- Look forward to giving "ame-chan," or candies in their purses, to those whom they meet.
-- Haggle for discounts everywhere before buying things.
-- Buy things at a discount and boast about it.
-- Like flashy fashion.
-- Install umbrella holders on their bicycles.
-- Like to make people laugh.
-- Actively respond to street interviews.
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