OSAKA — A year ago, when Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto announced his candidacy, he made saving the prefecture from bankruptcy his priority.
Few expected him to spend much time traveling abroad on official business. While campaigning and even immediately after his victory, Hashimoto showed little interest in promoting Osaka, which has an economy nearly the size of Spain’s, to the outside world.
But after prodding from the Kansai business community, Hashimoto has now become something of a China hand. The governor, whose only trip outside Japan before assuming his post in February had been to Guam, made three trips to China in his first nine months in office and hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during their official visits to Japan this spring.
“Osaka’s relationship with China is of utmost importance, and since becoming governor, I will continue to emphasize its importance,” Hashimoto said during a visit to Beijing in late November.
The reason for Hashimoto’s sudden China focus is obvious.
Kansai’s trade with China has exploded over the past decade, rising from ¥1.6 trillion in 1997 to just over ¥7 trillion in 2006, a quarter of the region’s total foreign trade for that year, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. China is the No. 1 export market for Kansai firms, and the biggest importer.
In addition to trade, the Chinese tourism market in Kansai continues to expand. Kansai International Airport, which is located on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, is coming to be known as Kansai-China airport. Of the 814 weekly international flights out of Kansai airport this past summer, 325 were to China.
Of the 323,000 Chinese visitors to Osaka Prefecture in 2007, nearly 280,000 of them passed through Kansai airport. In 2001, about 116,000 Chinese visited Osaka.
While the Osaka business community largely welcomes Hashimoto’s growing China interest, and while the struggling Kansai airport hopes his three trips eventually lead to even more direct flights to Beijing, Shanghai and other regional cities, not everyone is happy.
Hashimoto came under fire from prefectural residents just before his last trip when he told a Nov. 18 press conference that he was flying business class.
His previous two trips to China had been in economy class. Hashimoto acknowledged that, at a time when the prefecture was all but bankrupt and massive spending cuts were being carried out, there would be criticism of his decision. But, the governor said, he had no choice.
“There were no normal fare economy class tickets available, and the difference between business and economy class was only about ¥50,000,” he said. “In addition, the vice president of the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry was flying with me, but flying business class, which is to be expected. If only the governor flies economy class, it’s not a very good balance.”
The governor added that he was thinking that he would fly business class from now on to China and other overseas destinations, especially if he had a tight schedule.
Hashimoto’s apparent “China First” policy when it comes to dealing with the outside world is also disappointing to other foreign diplomats.
Osaka Prefecture is home to nearly two dozen full and honorary consulates. A growing number say Hashimoto is far less accessible and less willing than his predecessors to address issues that concern them and their countries.
“We understand the importance of China to Osaka Prefecture. But the previous governor, Fusae Ohta, was more available to the local diplomatic community and more interested in Osaka’s relations with other parts of the world. At a time when international interest in the Kansai region is waning, can Osaka Prefecture really afford to spend the majority of its diplomatic efforts on just one nation?” asked an Osaka-based foreign diplomat from a Western country, speaking anonymously.