A story of Osaka, the city of water in Japan

An Osaka native and expert in architectural history and urban culture explains how Osaka became an economic and cultural center in western Japan.

A former transport hub

Stretching along Osaka Bay and crisscrossed by rivers and canals, Osaka is known as the “city of water”. Its abundant waterways stimulated its development and laid the foundation for a thriving community. Many of Osaka’s most famous tourist spots can be found along canals, rivers, or the waterfront, including the bustling Minami district, home to Dōtonbori Street and its giant billboards, the Group of public facilities on the river island of Nakanoshima, the moated fortress of Osaka Castle and the bay area where Universal Studios Japan and the Osaka Aquarium are located.

A boat circles the Dōtonbori Canal in Osaka’s Minami district. (© Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau)

Osaka’s connection to water dates back to its very beginnings. The city is located on the alluvial deposits of the Yodo and Yamato rivers. Sediments have accumulated over the millennia, forming a small peninsula called the Uemachi Plateau and producing numerous sandbanks known collectively as Naniwa Yasoshima.

It was here that a port was built connecting a succession of imperial capitals built from the 6th to the 8th century along the upper course of the Yamato River in present-day Nara Prefecture to the sea. Naniwa, as the region then was known, has become a major colony whose importance is matched only by the changing capitals. It was the starting point for ships carrying Japanese missions to Sui and Tang China, and for nine years from 645 and one year from 744, it even served as the imperial capital of Japan.

The name Naniwa itself, although written in different characters over the ages, has always been rendered with characters reminiscent of an area of ​​living water by the sea.

The site of Naniwakyō, the historic palace of the capital for a year from 744. (© Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau).
The site of Naniwakyō, the historic palace of the capital for a year from 744. (© Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau).

The ancient Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine still recalls the city’s maritime roots. The sacred space shelters a line of three rooms which face west towards the sea like a fleet of ships, their respective deities either the masters of the waters or the patrons of the sailors.

The nation’s cuisine

From the 15th century, Naniwa was known as Osaka. It rose to prominence both militarily and as a transport hub, and rulers through the ages strove to control the region. In 1532, the Buddhist priest Rennyo established the fortified temple-city of Ishiyama Honganji there. After the complex was destroyed in battle half a century later, powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi built Osaka Castle on the site in 1583.

In 1615, the newly formed Tokugawa shogunate smothered the remaining power of the Toyotomi clan with a victory at the siege of Osaka Castle before taking the city under its direct control. He then set out to dig a network of waterways, making Osaka a walled city in its own right. Engineers reinforced the soft, moist soil, turning the trenches dug for water drainage into transport channels. Merchants and artisans settled in the city en masse, laying the foundations for a prosperity that continues to this day.

Osaka quickly developed into a commercial center and became the “kitchen of the nation”. Markets around the city sold goods imported from the Seto Inland Sea as well as international goods from a growing network in the Pacific Ocean. Osaka was also connected with the imperial capital Kyoto along the Yodo River and was a major stopover along the newly constructed road network.

One print shows a fleet of cotton ships scrambling for space at the mouth of a river as they set sail for Edo.  Goods from all over the country were transported to Osaka by sea and stored in warehouses on the estate.  (Courtesy of Osaka Nakanoshima Prefectural Library)
One print shows a fleet of cotton ships scrambling for space at the mouth of a river as they set sail for Edo. Goods from all over the country were transported to Osaka by sea and stored in warehouses on the estate. (Courtesy of Osaka Nakanoshima Prefectural Library)

The Osaka warehouses belonging to the estates have played a major role in supporting the city’s economic activities. Regional lords had to pay taxes to the shogunate and exchanged rice for cash the rice collected as part of their own property tax activities and stored in their riverside warehouses in Osaka, to assess when the rates were highest. favorable. The world’s first futures trading was also held at the Dōjima Rice Exchange.

Dōjima Rice Exchange, where the first exchanges of futures contracts took place.  (Courtesy of Osaka Nakanoshima Prefectural Library)
Dōjima Rice Exchange, where the first exchanges of futures contracts took place. (Courtesy of Osaka Nakanoshima Prefectural Library)

Osaka also became a center of the Genroku culture which flourished from the second half of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century. The increased wealth of the townspeople during the Edo period (1603-1868) allowed many locals to devote time to scholarship and appreciation of kabuki art, literature and performances and ningyō jōruri Puppet theater. Great writers of the time like Osaka-born Ihara Saikaku, known for his novels depicting the lives of merchants and other local citizens, and playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon gained wide popularity in the city. It was around this time that Dōtonbori developed into an entertainment district lined with theaters.

Industrial growth

In the mid-19th century, the first foreign visitors to Osaka saw similarities to European cities like Paris and Venice. However, as Japan modernized in the Meiji era (1868-1912), the industrialization of the city led to it being dubbed the “Manchester of the East”. The Meiji government built facilities like the Osaka Mint and the Osaka Arsenal along the waterways, while the private enterprise promoted the machinery industry and shipbuilding. The growth of the textile industry, including cotton spinning, particularly drew comparisons with the British city.

Driven by industrial development, Osaka’s population has skyrocketed. It was further spurred by an influx of migrants from Tokyo after the great Kantō earthquake of 1923. In 1925, the city incorporated 44 neighboring towns and villages to secure new land for homes and industry, inflating size at 181 square kilometers and a population of 2.1 million. For a while, it even surpassed Tokyo to become one of Asia’s biggest trading cities, ranking alongside New York, London, Paris and Berlin on the world stage.

Around this period, improvements were made to infrastructure such as roads, railways, water supply and sewage services. The beginning of the 20th century was also marked by the construction of important cultural facilities such as the Osaka City Central Public Hall, the Osaka Science Museum, Tennōji Zoo, and the reconstructed central keep that serves as a history museum at Osaka Castle.

The Osaka City Central Public Hall was designated an Important Cultural Property in 2002 (© Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau)
The Osaka City Central Public Hall was designated an Important Cultural Property in 2002 (© Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau)

Osaka followed Western models to modernize the facilities at Nakanoshima Park and its central wholesale markets. On the Midōsuji Main Street, authorities buried electrical wires and installed street lights to make it look attractive to international standards, adding rows of ginkgo to demonstrate pride in being a premier Asian city.

The city has developed a modern urban culture characterized by lavish department stores along streets like Shinsaibashisuji and Sakaisuji, and Western-style cafes packed with shoppers. The railway lines extended to the suburbs to serve new residential areas inspired by British garden cities. Railways also began to operate sports facilities, beaches, and amusement parks. On weekdays, trains transported workers to the heart of the city, and on weekends the same locomotives took families on pleasure trips. Umeda and Nanba stations have become hubs of entertainment and shopping, with their station buildings with department stores, cinemas and theaters nearby.

Osaka remained an important port in pre-war Japan. American automakers built factories in the port area, and shipping routes used by large liners linked the city to the Korean Peninsula, China and Southeast Asia.

Looking to Expo 2025

The center of Osaka was reduced to rubble during World War II, but the city experienced a remarkable recovery in the post-war era.

The 1970 Osaka Exhibition, held in the Senri Hills north of the city on the theme “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”, has become a symbol of Japan’s period of strong growth. The first World Expo to take place in Asia, it attracted a record 64 million visitors. Then in 1990, the International Gardens and Greenery Exhibition highlighted the importance of plants and vegetation in urban spaces.

The Expo 70 Sun Tower, surrounded by crowds of visitors.  (© Jiji)
The Expo 70 Sun Tower, surrounded by crowds of visitors. (© Jiji)

Osaka has been an international city throughout its history. It has developed as a commercial and transportation center strongly aware of its links with the rest of the world.

This fostered open attitudes among Osakis and a willingness to integrate different values ​​and new forms of culture. Today, Osaka is a city rich in diversity where locals tend to assert themselves and take an interest in people with new ideas and a sense of individuality.

In 2018, Osaka was again chosen to host the 2025 World’s Fair. This time the venue will be Yumeshima, an area of ​​reclaimed land in Osaka Bay. The theme was defined as “Designing a society of tomorrow for our lives” with an emphasis on international cooperation and contributing to the achievement of the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. Planners hope the event will send a new message to the international community about the future.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Osaka Castle stands in the center of the city. © Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau.)


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