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Osaka bids to rekindle magic of 1970 Expo but taxpayers doubt lofty plan’s claims

by

Staff Writer

Like millions of others who attended Osaka’s 1970 World Exposition, Kazuhiko Masuda, who was just 10 years old at the time, can still vividly recall it today.

“I remember standing in line for a very long time to see a moon rock brought back by the Apollo astronauts,” the now 56-year-old Osaka-based architect said. “The Expo was all about the future, and everyone felt excited at what it might bring.”

But although the city of Osaka hopes to rekindle the magic of 1970 by hosting another World Expo in 2025, lightning — as the saying goes — never strikes the same place twice.

“1970 was long ago and Japan is a much different nation now,” Masuda said. “I’m not sure another Osaka Expo could be as successful, and I’m worried it will end up losing money.”

Despite concerns that another Expo could add to the region’s economic woes, Osaka leaders are adamant on bidding for the 2025 event.

With the central government offering to support their effort late last month, Osaka politicians and senior business leaders are gearing up to gain local and national backing.

The winning bid will be awarded by the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) next year, with Osaka’s top rival likely to be Paris, which is reportedly preparing its own bid.

Many older Osakans still fondly remember the phenomenal success of the 1970 Expo, which drew over 64 million people at a time when Japan was enjoying unbridled economic growth.

Since then, city and prefectural officials have attempted, with little success, to replicate the impact of the 1970 Expo by embarking on large public works projects and holding international events — policies that noted business consultant Kenichi Ohmae once blasted as “festival economics.”

The concept for 2025, though, is very different from 1970.

Late last month, the Osaka Prefectural Government released a detailed proposal for hosting the Expo. Based on the theme “Our Health, Our Future,” the plan aims to appeal to those who were kids when they visited the original Osaka Expo but focus on health care and related issues they’ll face as retirees in 2025.

As Japan and other developed countries grapple with graying populations and declining birthrates, maintaining the fitness and quality of life of seniors will be a major issue in 2025, the plan noted.

“Turning to the situation in Japan, by 2025, all members of the baby-boomer generation will be at least 75 years old, and more than 30 percent of the total population will be over the age of 65, with women’s life expectancy likely to be over 90,” it said.

An Osaka Expo would therefore focus on advances in the health industry, including robots for elderly care, as well as technologies to enable self-diagnosis of medical conditions.

“The World Expo has been a festival that offers a glimpse of novelties worldwide,” the plan said. “But we want to make it ‘a new Expo’ where people worldwide would debate, find a solution and change their behavior, which would change society.”

The plan says the Expo would be held on the man-made island of Yumeshima in the city’s port district, which also happens to be a favored candidate spot for hosting Japan’s first integrated resort — a casino with convention facilities, hotels, shopping and other amenities.

The hope is that by 2025, the Diet will have legalized casinos, with the nation’s first one up and running to greet Expo visitors. Hosting the Expo, the Kansai business community believes, would be an excellent chance to introduce tourists to the complex.

“The hosting of the Expo has to be part of an overall plan to develop the area, a plan that includes the creation of an integrated resort facility,” Shosuke Mori, chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation, said earlier this month.

The Expo would begin in March or April 2025 and last roughly six months. The prefecture wants to hold it over the rainy season and the blistering hot summer in the hope, it says, of attracting as many foreign tourists as possible.

But no one in Osaka expects anywhere near the number of visitors that came to the 1970 Expo.

The prefecture predicts 30 million people will visit, of which nearly 18.4 million are expected to come from Osaka and the surrounding prefectures of Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, Wakayama, and Shiga. Another 3.2 million people are expected to come from the Kanto region and yet another 7 million from other parts of the country. The last expo in Japan, the 2005 Expo in Nagoya, drew 22 million visitors.

Officials also hope the event will lure some 1.4 million people from overseas. Last week, they said talks were underway to run the Expo 24/7.

As to how much it would cost — and what the payoff would be — construction is estimated at between ¥120 billion and ¥130 billion, with operating costs at ¥74 billion.

In figures that have sparked controversy, the prefecture claims the Expo could generate economic effects of ¥2.3 trillion directly and another ¥4.1 trillion indirectly for the entire country.

But with estimates for the troubled Tokyo 2020 Olympics rising well beyond the originally announced figures, the prefecture faces growing concern among taxpayers like Masuda that the bill will be much higher than anticipated.

To address these concerns, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui made it clear late last month that he expects central government backing for the Expo if Osaka wins, and private enterprises outside the Kansai region to shoulder part of the costs.

“This is a bid for a Japan Expo that the central government has stuck its hand up for,” Matsui said. “We will also want not only the Kansai business community but also businesses around the country to help cover the costs.”

Thus, as is possible with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, businesses and taxpayers outside Kansai may get stuck with part of the Osaka Expo bill if the rosy predictions about its future economic benefits turn out to be empty promises.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.