Osaka leaders’ talk fest serves up more than usual platitudes

by Eric Johnston

KYOTO — When the Kansai region’s leaders gather here every year for a two-day seminar to discuss the regional economy, corporate heads, economists and local government officials pontificate on issues ranging from information technology to employment.

Often the speeches are so littered with the latest business school buzzwords that many have no idea what’s being said.

Traditionally, seminar participants steer clear of noneconomic issues, and that has drawn much criticism, especially from foreign observers, who complain the seminars offer nothing more than bland platitudes.

This year’s conference held Feb. 8 and 9, however, was different.

Despite the region’s higher-than-national average unemployment rate, at 5.9 percent, Osaka Prefecture’s debt and the pessimistic reports on midterm recovery from independent think tanks like Sanwa Research Institute, the focus of this year’s seminar was future political and economic relations with the United States and Asia, with clear, specific proposals.

Echoing conventional wisdom that the election of U.S. President George W. Bush means stronger Japan-U.S. security ties, Kansai’s leaders first expressed firm support for the security treaty and called for a national debate on revising Article 9 of the Constitution to allow Japan to take on a more active role in international peacekeeping efforts.

More vague was the call for creation of a national identity through a “Japanese standard.” This was not defined in detail, but appears to mean utilizing information technology to not only revitalize the economy but also to be the industrial leader of Asia.

Underlying these two issues was the more fundamental issue of Kansai’s role in Asia. Several speakers, including former Economic Planning Agency head Taichi Sakaiya, addressed this subject and encouraged more cooperation with the Asian region.

There are reasons for the focus on Asia. More than 50 percent of Kansai’s trade is with East and Southeast Asia, and the region has spent the better part of the last decade promoting itself as a gateway to Asia.

Several of the speakers spoke confidently of Kansai leading Asia into a golden age combining information technology and traditional manufacturing. Some of the rhetoric was based on the “flying geese” analogy, with Kansai as the lead goose that other Asian countries follow.

Kansai Economic Federation Chairman Yoshihisa Akiyama even said the region should host its own version of the World Economic Forum, with Asia’s leading thinkers. Sakaiya suggested bringing in Asian journalists to help hype the region.

But other speakers questioned whether such ideas were realistic, given Kansai’s sluggish economy.

A Lower House member from the Liberal Democratic Party, Masajiro Shiokawa, elected from Osaka, warned that plans for a unified Kansai to pose a major challenge to the rest of Japan and Asia are risky because achievements to date have been haphazard.

“Kansai ends up doing things half-baked because of a lack of adequate thought and support. You can see this in Kansai Science City and in Kansai airport. Big projects here get done in a slipshod manner,” Shiokawa said in his speech at the end of the conference.

The issue of central government funding for Kansai International Airport’s second-phase construction was taboo for participants at the seminar, who had earlier called on the government to stop treating as taboo the issue of constitutional change.

The Finance Ministry and many foreign airlines question the need for the construction. The main terminal is sinking faster than expected and repairs are expected to cost billions of yen. Who will pay — the central or local governments — is the source of much tension.

But beyond calls for the second-phase construction to progress, there was no detailed discussion of the airport’s financial or technical problems, as participants decided discretion was the more prudent course.

“Talking about problems at Kansai airport might undermine the message of solidarity, because there are some in the Kansai business community who doubt a second runway is necessary,” said one senior business leader, speaking anonymously.

Another skeptic of Kansai emerging as a gateway to Asia was Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta, who doubted this would happen soon and said Fukuoka is probably the front runner for that title.

Ohta criticized those present for making grand plans to expand ties with Asia and become more globalized without considering the opinions of Kansai’s foreign business community.

“I look around and I see almost no foreigners at this seminar. Unless foreigners participate in discussions on the future of Kansai, Kansai has no future,” Ohta said.

One of the few non-Japanese present was Greg Story, Australian consul general and dean of the Kansai Consular Corps. He also said the region’s business leaders should be more open.

“It’s time for fresh ideas. The same kinds of issues always get discussed at this seminar year after year. Not just foreign consulates, but also major businesses in the area should be invited as well, like P&G and Nestle,” Story said.

While Kansai business leaders publicly welcomed Story’s suggestion, many are reluctant to invite foreigners to the discussions. Several participants said privately that controversial issues like reducing landing fees at Kansai airport and whether a Kobe airport is necessary will probably be brought up by foreign participants. They say these are issues the seminar is not ready to address.