1400 Years of Tradition
Since ancient times, Osaka has been a gathering place. Located at the confluence of a vast web of busy river and sea routes, it naturally grew into a flourishing economic center and became the gateway to Japan for travelers and traders from all over Asia.
Osaka's Origins Go Back to the 5th Century
In the 5th century, Osaka began to flourish as the political and economic center of Japan. Naniwazu Port, the predecessor to the modern port of Osaka, became a gateway into ancient Japan for visitors from Korea, China and the Asian continent. These visitors brought with them knowledge and artifacts of advanced culture, and new technologies in ceramics, forging, construction, and engineering. They also brought with them a new religion, Buddhism, which very quickly began to spread to the rest of the country.
As Buddhism spread, Prince Shotoku constructed Shitennoji Temple in Osaka in 593 A.D., and the city became a base for international exchange with the Asian continent. In 645 A.D., the Emperor Kotoku moved the capital from Asuka (Nara) to Osaka. He built the Naniwanomiya Palace, which is considered to be the oldest palace in Japan. Even though the national government later moved to Nagaoka-kyo (Kyoto), then Heijo-kyo (the city of Nara), then Heian-kyo (Kyoto), then Kamakura, and finally to Edo (Tokyo), Osaka has continued to serve as a sub-capital, and to play a crucial role as a major gateway for foreign culture and trade.
Hideyoshi's Castle Town
In 794, the capital of Japan was moved to Heian-kyo (Kyoto). The period that followed, called the Heian Period, saw the construction of numerous fine temples around the Kyoto and Osaka areas, while arts, crafts and women's literature (such as A Tale of Genji) flourished. But by the late 1100s, as the nation entered the Kamakura Period, powerful warlords gained hegemony over the land, and the capital was moved to Kamakura. Thus began more than two centuries of civil war.
During the 14th century, Osaka was largely devastated by a series of wars. Then in 1496, Rennyo, a high-ranking priest, began construction of Ishiyama Gobo, a temple and monk's quarters on Osaka's Uemachi Daichi heights. This temple later came to be called Ishiyama Honganji Temple, and the area around it as Osaka. Thereafter, Ishiyama Hongan-ji functioned as an impregnable fort to defend against attack by warlords.
During the late Muromachi Period (1336-1573), Nobunaga Oda, a powerful warlord, took a liking to Uemachi Daichi in Osaka, because it was difficult to attack and commanded a fine view of the surrounding region. It was believed that to control this territory, which was blessed with water from the Yamatogawa and Yodogawa rivers and had a long history of international exchange, was to control the rest of Japan and the world.
A decade-long conflict ensued, and much of the temple was destroyed. After that the temple was transferred to the control of Nobunaga Oda. His successor, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, another famous warlord, unified Japan from his base in Osaka and built Osaka Castle in 1583 during the Azuchi and Momoyama Periods (1574-1600). Rivers were excavated to expand Osaka's capabilities as a base for marine transportation. However, in battles that raged between the winter of 1614 and the summer of 1615 the castle town of Osaka was burnt to the ground.
An Economic & Cultural Hub
As Japan entered the Edo Period (1601-1867), when the political capital was moved north to Edo (present-day Tokyo) and the country was completely isolated from the rest of the world, Osaka was restored from the ashes of civil war and quickly grew into a thriving economic hub. It became known as "Japan's kitchen" because essential goods including rice, the staple food of the East, were sent to Osaka from all over Japan for shipment to other parts of the country, and also to international destinations.
This economic affluence helped Osaka create its own culture and style. Popular arts bloomed alongside traditional performance arts, such as Joruri puppet theater (the predecessor to today's Bunraku puppet plays), Noh theater and Osaka's own brand of Kabuki theater. Osaka was also instrumental in the development of Japanese education. Schools established in Osaka turned out many scholars who strongly influenced their times. One school, the Tekijyuku, was established for the study of Western sciences and medicines. Its students included men instrumental in reforming Japan's government when, in the mid-19th century, the nation began to move out of isolation and into the modern age.
The Manchester of the Orient
After the Meiji Restoration (1868), enormous social change, far-reaching reforms to the economic system, and the moving of the capital to Tokyo contributed to a decline in Osaka's prosperity. This caused the city to go through a transformation from a base of trade and finance to a commercial center. So much smoke began spewing from factory smokestacks that by the end of the 19th century Osaka was being called the "smoky city." At one point it was even nicknamed the "Manchester of the Orient."
Osaka was officially incorporated as a city in 1889. In 1903, the Tennoji area was the site of the 5th National Industrial Exposition, a display of high quality industry and arts, which attracted the country's technological and cultural elite. In this same year, Osaka's first municipal streetcar went into service. By 1925, Osaka was the largest city in Japan in terms of population and area, and the sixth largest in the world.
Devastation during the War
Continuous air raids by American bombers during World War II leveled almost one third of Osaka, destroying many of its commercial, industrial and public facilities. But after the war, vigorous city planning and Osaka's positive thinking citizens restored the city to an economic prosperity exceeding prewar levels. Today, the city is home to scores of companies across the sectors of industry, commerce and business. These have helped make Osaka the economic heart of western Japan.
Osaka was chosen to host Expo '70, the first world exposition held in Asia. Since then, Osaka has hosted an endless series of international expositions, conventions, trade shows and meetings, including the APEC summit in 1995. With its fine convention facilities like the Osaka International Convention Center, top class hotels, excellent cuisine, rich culture and history, and varied entertainment and leisure facilities, Osaka continues to play an important role in forging the future of Asia and the world.