Letter from China: A tale of two cities: Shanghai and Osaka

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2006
SHANGHAI Call it displacement, call it rise and fall, or trading places, or what have you, there is something hugely important taking place in East Asia – a palpable shift in the relative positions of Japan and China.
Sure, you can see this shift in the statistics, which show Chinese trade to be ever more critical for Japan – 21 percent of Japanese total commerce, ahead of trade with the United States. Japanese trade with China, meanwhile, is huge, but shrinking as a portion of the Chinese booming overall trade.
To truly appreciate what is going on, though, you’ve got to feel it, and that is best done through the lives of the two countries’ second cities: Shanghai and Osaka.
These are no ordinary second cities, mind you. Little prepares the uninitiated Westerner for either the gigantism or the dynamism of urban life in this region, and Shanghai and Osaka each sit perched near the summit of this game.
But while Shanghai is still growing, perhaps too fast for its own good, Osaka, the motor of Asian miracles past, has been stuck in the mud for at least a decade, and the scent of stagnation hangs unmistakably in the air.
The new dynamic in the region first struck me almost between the eyes, as it were, on a recent flight from Shanghai to Osaka. I got onto the plane early, and was seated near the rear, affording a view of the entire boarding. Later, two young women got in, sitting on the far side of the plane, dressed in the height of style, but tastefully.
Surely Japanese, I guessed, going in part on a rule of thumb based on old and increasingly outdated prejudices. An author, Neal Stephenson, once summed this up in his 1999 novel, “Cryptonomicon,” which divided East Asia up into the people who wear good suits and those who wear bad ones, Japan being in the first group, mainland China in the latter.
I’d forgotten about the young women with the subtly tinted hair and expensive shoes and handbags until the immigration line at Osaka airport, where they stood ahead of me in the line for foreigners speaking animatedly in Shanghainese.
Wandering Osaka the next couple of days, what struck me was the quiet.
Besides the wild, horn-cranking traffic of Shanghai, what I discovered was missing was the sound of construction, all but inescapable in the economic capital of mainland China, where work crews are everywhere, leveling beautiful old neighborhoods and erecting bristling forests of skyscrapers such as exist nowhere in Japan or even the United States.
Not that there are no cars in Osaka. Like most things in Japan, the traffic is orderly, never overwhelming, and China truly has a great deal still to learn. What intrigued me, though, were the huge lines of black taxicabs outside of the main Osaka train and subway station every night waiting vainly for customers.
I approached a driver in the waiting line, Yuji Yamamoto, and introduced myself as an American living in Shanghai, producing a grand reaction, something akin perhaps to what someone from small town middle America might have gotten after returning home from Europe on a great ocean steamship a century ago.
“It seems like all the business has gone to Shanghai, and all the business people are going there, too,” said Yamamoto, who is 58.
“From the stories I’ve heard, Shanghai sounds like an extraordinary city. A lot of Japanese people go and it seems never come back.”
I wanted to know how business was in Osaka, and asked him. “It’s just as you see it,” he said. “You can wait here for three hours and not get a customer. People aren’t spending money anymore.”
A longtime Japanese friend from Osaka also plied me with questions about Shanghai, with the same wonder-struck look about her. When I finished describing what living in Shanghai was like, with its hurried, unsentimental and relentless change, she thought for a moment before speaking. “That reminds me of stories my parents told me of growing up,” she said. “Everything was looking up. Everything was changing so fast, and things were good.
“I guess the people in Shanghai are living out my parents’ generation now.”
The Japanese government does not yet seem aware of the shift that is well under way, or perhaps this is a defining element of the schtick of the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, feigning ignorance of the relative decline of Japan as part of a bid to belatedly get his country to punch above its weight.
The same cannot be said of the people of Osaka, and presumably many others all over Japan. Asked how the mood could be so glum in Osaka if Japanese economic growth numbers have recently been healthy again, a man met on a train had an interesting answer. “There’s only two places growing in Japan, Tokyo, because of the financial sector, and Nagoya, because of the auto industry,” said Shinji Suzuki, an insurance broker. “When you go to Nagoya, you can feel the prosperity even before you leave the station. The rest of the country is just flat.”
If he is right, Tokyo and Nagoya, home to Toyota, are the last cities of the old Japan, the place that beat the world for so many years in so many fields. The rest of the country now looks to China with a mixture of awe, fear and for those in the right businesses or with a sense of adventurous enterprise, limitless opportunity.
There are so many Japanese in Shanghai that the city supports more magazines in that language than a big American city can boast in English. The entrepreneurs and opportunity- seekers, meanwhile, were on full display on my return to Shanghai from Japan, where it took a full hour to clear immigration, not for lack of efficiency, but because of the immense crowds, dominated by Japanese brought aboard 30 daily flights to the city.
It’s certainly not scientific, but there were no such crowds when I landed in Osaka. What there were, surprisingly for someone who lived several years in Japan and wondered why tourism was so scarcely developed, were welcome signs and tourism literature – in Chinese.
E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

2 thoughts on “Letter from China: A tale of two cities: Shanghai and Osaka”

  1. Dear Mr French,
    I sent you an e-mail message earlier this weekend. Did you manage to receive it? Please let me know if you did. Thanks.
    Best wishes,
    Albert

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