Japan’s New World Offers a Slice of the Past

OSAKA, Japan — A century ago, city builders eyeing undeveloped land here in southern Osaka created a neighborhood that captured Japan’s worship of the West and its determination to compete as an equal.
The new neighborhood’s southern half was modeled on New York and its northern half on Paris. In the middle, a model of the Eiffel Tower, on top of a copy of the Arc de Triomphe, rose to 246 feet, then an awe-inspiring height. From an observation deck, tourists could look down at the three boulevardlike streets that fanned out from the tower in the elegant French north.
To the south, in the hustle and bustle of the American section, they could see an entertainment district with its own Coney Island, replete with Luna Park, the amusement center that closed down in 1946.
The neighborhood, born in 1912, was called Shin Sekai, meaning the New World.
Shin Sekai went through ups and downs over the decades, including a prolonged slump from which it started recovering in the past few years in the unlikeliest fashion. Nowadays, the neighborhood that embodied foreign glamour has become known, through a mix of circumstances and clever marketing, as a quintessentially old-fashioned Japanese neighborhood and as a slice of the authentic Osaka.
“This is Osaka’s Deep South,” said Masaaki Nishigami, president of Tsutenkaku, the company that owns the tower (rebuilt after World War II without the Arc de Triomphe base).
Other parts of this city have become too much like Tokyo, Mr. Nishigami said, using the most injurious comparison for Osaka, Tokyo’s rival. “They may be pretty,” he said, “but they have little character left. So that’s why Shin Sekai’s in the spotlight now.”
Shin Sekai’s 38 acres are packed with small shops whose owners live in the back or upstairs. It is a place where residents still start conversations with strangers and once fashionable neologisms that have slipped into disuse elsewhere can still be heard, like the word “abekku,” which came from the French “avec,” or “with,” and somehow came to signify an unmarried couple in Japanese.
The neighborhood is also benefiting from a culinary boom of sorts. In recent years, some shrewd businessmen, mostly outsiders, bought up old restaurants specializing in deep-fried skewers of meat and vegetables, the kind of no-nonsense fast-food that is favored in Osaka and fit particularly well with Shin Sekai’s image. With the help of some local celebrities, they made Shin Sekai the home of the deep-fried skewers, drawing long lines of tourists on weekends.
So how did a neighborhood symbolizing the New World come to represent the Old World?
Mr. Nishigami said Shin Sekai, unlike wealthier areas north of here, had seen little redevelopment since it was rebuilt after World War II. Much of it seems stuck in the 1950s or 1960s.
But the real reason goes back even further. The neighborhood’s original developers never succeeded in making this place Osaka’s New York and Paris, and never drew the well-heeled crowd they had hoped for, mainly because of the location. The area has long been one of Osaka’s poorest. Today, just south of Shin Sekai lies Airin, Japan’s largest district for day laborers, and Tobita Shinchi, a red-light district where women wait for customers by kneeling in the entryway of old wood-frame houses.
“This was a place for the working man,” said Kojiro Onishi, 57, the owner of a tobacco shop in Shin Sekai’s New York half.
Because of the presence of day laborers, Shin Sekai developed a reputation as a “dangerous, dirty and smelly neighborhood,” Mr. Onishi said at Sennariya, a coffee shop next to his store.
Sennariya’s owner, Toyoko Tsunekawa, 65, was bemused that young tourists, even young “abekku” on dates, were now coming to her coffee shop. Perhaps they were drawn to its wood-paneled walls hung with framed posters of French impressionists or the large coffee grinder that preceded Ms. Tsunekawa’s arrival here as a young bride 50 years ago.
“All our customers used to be drunks,” she said with a laugh. “I was shocked at first because I grew up the daughter of a salaryman.”
If Shin Sekai’s New York half had its rough edges, Paris up north became known for its softer, though very Japanese, side. Until a couple of decades ago, several establishments with geisha lined its streets.
On one of the streets, Ayako Kinugawa, 73, still lives in the two-story bar she operated until the late 1980s. Businessmen or shopowners came to have drinks with geisha in her bar’s private rooms, now used as closets.
“I used to be so busy,” she said. “Every day around 4 p.m., I’d change into my kimono and start greeting the customers, ‘Welcome, welcome!’ ”
Today, Shin Sekai’s tourist boom has mostly benefited its southern New York half, with its high concentration of deep-fried skewer restaurants. Most tourists pass by Paris on their way to New York.
“We call it the North-South civil war,” said Tadayoshi Kondo, 71, the chairman of an area street association.
Some shopowners in the Paris quarter said they were content with keeping their old customers. As the geisha establishments began closing, a collection of tiny gay bars took their place.
“There’s a sense of freedom here,” said Asako Hamasaki, 78, who was chatting with the retired owner of a gay bar outside her beauty salon, Safuran, one afternoon. Geisha once came to her to have their hair done, though her business was now quiet.
She, too, had been able to lead the kind of life she wanted in Shin Sekai. “When I was young, I absolutely wanted to marry a tall and handsome man,” she said.
Her first husband, though short, was the handsome leader of a traveling theater group. He eventually disbanded the group and ran off with another woman, Ms. Hamasaki said. Her second husband died of cancer in May.
“I was born in Shin Sekai, I grew up in Shin Sekai and I plan to die in Shin Sekai,” she said. “There are a lot of people just like me.”