May 28, 2012

Tsuruhashi, Osaka's Korea Town

Something I find interesting about Osaka is the variety of people who live here. Osaka is home to Japan's largest Korean population, with the highest concentration living in Ikuno ward. This area, in particular that surrounding Tsuruhashi station, has become a Korea Town in its own right. Located under the train tracks, and consisting of a maze of mysterious tunnels and narrow alleyways, Tsuruhashi is the cultural experience that you wouldn't expect to have in Japan.

An entrance to the Tsuruhashi cavern of Korean goods.
Koreans in Japan have a troubled and complex past. Known as zainichi, meaning 'to reside in Japan', the roots of Korean migration can be traced to Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910. From this time onwards, many Koreans came to Japan, working in manual labour jobs such as coal mining and construction. During World War II, Koreans in their millions were forced to migrate to Japan, to serve as slaves, soldiers, and 'comfort women' for the Japanese Empire. While most repatriated after the war, a sizeable Korean population remained in Japan.

Koreans in Japan - even families who have lived here for generations - have been faced with a kind of contradictory discrimination regarding their ethnic status. On the one hand, the Japanese government has tried to assimilate Koreans into Japanese society, by encouraging to take Japanese names, making them pay taxes, and forcing them to speak Japanese. On the other hand, it has been ensured that Koreans will never become fully integrated into Japanese society. Until recently, zainichi Koreans, including those born in Japan, were required to provide fingerprints and carry an Alien Registration card, like any other foreigner.

Korea Towns such as Tsuruhashi are important, as they represent a place where Korean culture - which, like it or not, is undeniably a part of Japan's history and larger culture - can be unabashedly displayed and celebrated. Though you may be surprised at how relatively un-Korean looking and sounding Tsuruhashi is. Almost all of the shop names are in Japanese, and shopkeepers will speak to you in perfect Kansai-ben. Japan is, after, their home.

A rare glimpse of Hangul, Korean script
Cross cultural... kimchi stored in Kirin refrigerator
Assortment of spicy Korean ingredients
Tsuruhashi is dark, dank, and some of the food safety practices are questionable. Raw fish, meat and kimchi all sit out on display in the open air. Old Korean women haggle in loud voices, while old men shuffle past, coughing raggedly.  It's the kind of place where you'll find three legged cats limping down the alleyways, hunting mice and food scraps. Surrounding houses look as though they could collapse at any moment. Yet there are moments of beauty. Shops selling brightly coloured Korean fabric and hanbok (kimono). Little bowing dolls in traditional Korean dress.

Dark, covered arcade of Tsuruhashi
Abandoned (?) house just outside the shopping area
Beautiful Hanbok (traditional Korean dress) store.
Piles of fabric everywhere.
Bowing dolls.
Despite above-mentioned questionable food safety practices, Tsuruhashi has become somewhat of a foodie destination. There are all sorts of interesting vendors selling bulbous, bobbly-looking red-hot snacks that I can't remember any of the names of. But the main attractions are the many delicious yakiniku (barbecued beef) restaurants, derived from the Korean bulgogi dish. We found a picture of a cow that detailed all the different parts of the animal that could be barbecued and consumed. No vegetarians allowed.
Got meat?
Instead of yakiniku, however, we decided to have Korean noodles - jajanmen, coated in a sweet, thick, glossy, meaty, black soybean sauce. The noodles are so long that sometimes you need to ask for scissors to cut them so you can eat the dish properly!

Chowing down.
The longest noodles you will ever eat.
Tsuruhashi was another eye-opening Osaka experience for me, and the area has established itself as a unique kind of tourist attraction. The awareness that this brings to the plight of Koreans in Japan is necessary - because even today, a new source of discrimination against Koreans is brewing. This time it stems from television screens - with some right wing Japanese arguing that there are too many Korean dramas being broadcast on Japanese TV. I think I actually saw one of these protests outside the Korean consulate in Shinsaibashi a couple of months ago... it's scary stuff.

New York Times article
Japan Focus article
SPICE paper - 'Koreans in Japan'
Japan Times Blog on Korean Boom


  1. im studying at kinki university this month and each time you post something on your blog it has had to do with something i learned that day. Ive been to tsuruhashi a few times and i never realized the huge korean influence. keep up the good posts :)

    1. Hey Kelly, thanks so much for your comment! =) Hope you're having a great time at Kinki University and loving Osaka!

  2. Very interesting write-ups on Tsuruhashi and other places in Osaka!! I stumbled upon your blog as I was finding info on Tsuruhashi for a web project I'm working on:

    We are looking for contributors who can potray Japan to the outside world just like what your blog is, and I'd really appreciate it if you can drop me an email at

    Jeannie Gan

  3. Korean sign in Japan... advertising Chinese food! Hahaha... gotta love it.