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Train, casino, reactor woes to grab Kansai headlines in ’17

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Staff Writer

A casino, an expo, tourists, trains, and old nuclear power plants. These are just some of the major issues the Kansai region faces in 2017.

In addition, the fortunes of Osaka-centric opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai and Komeito in both the Diet and the Tokyo Municipal Assembly next year are questions of growing national political importance.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some things to keep an eye on.

Two trains

After years of discussion and political jockeying in the Kansai region over where the Hokuriku Shinkansen will pass through before terminating in Osaka, a ruling party committee has recommended a route (see side story) it says is the most appropriate. Assuming that’s the final decision, Kansai government and business leaders living on the proposed line will be busy next year debating where stations between Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, and Kyoto should be built, while in Osaka, pressure on Tokyo and West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) to quickly settle details about the last leg of the route between Kyoto and Osaka is expected to grow more intense.

The other train of interest to the region is the maglev.

Earlier this year, Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) President Koei Tsuge said that, for the leg between Nagoya and Osaka, he prefers that the magnetically levitated train pass through northern Nara Prefecture. To reroute it through Kyoto, he said, would mean having to navigate a very tight turn that would slow it down.

The central government has long preferred the Nara route, but the Kyoto governor and business community want JR Tokai and the transport ministry to change their minds. If Kyoto got the maglev, a trip to Tokyo Station, which now takes about 2½ hours on the fastest bullet trains, might be made in under one hour. While completion of the maglev line remains a distant prospect (the Osaka-Tokyo route isn’t officially supposed to open until 2045, though efforts will be made to open it sooner) and there are growing concerns about its cost and lack of demand, the political struggle between Kyoto and Nara over the route may continue.

A bet on casinos

With the passage of a bill lifting the ban on casino gambling, the next step is creating a legal framework on the kinds of facilities to allow and the granting of licenses.

Despite concerns about the social ills of gambling, and despite a recent opinion poll by Kyodo News showing that 69 percent of the public opposed lifting the ban on casinos, Osaka is charging forward to host the nation’s first “integrated resort,” which will include not only a casino but also hotels, shopping areas and a convention center.

Last week, a dozen members of the Osaka Municipal Assembly from Osaka Ishin no Kai, the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito headed off to Singapore on a “fact-finding” mission to learn how the city-state’s casinos operate, and how it handles the problem of gambling addiction. In addition to addressing public concerns over gambling’s social ills, Osaka’s politicians are likely to spend 2017 looking for ways to fund a new transportation infrastructure to ferry customers to and from Yumeshima, in Osaka Bay, where the city hopes to build the IR.

Tourism: boom or bust?

Last year, Kyoto was ranked No. 1 worldwide for tourism by U.S. magazine Travel + Leisure. Hotels were full, leading to a mini-hotel construction boom in Osaka and Kyoto and the popularity of Airbnb. The times are still pretty good for many in local tourism, and Kansai’s leaders have all sorts of plans to keep cash registers ringing up tourist yen now and in the future. But there are some clouds on the horizon.

In Kyoto, the problem is obvious: too many people. The result of its sudden international popularity was predictable, and there have been growing complaints online and in print, both in English and Japanese, that Kyoto is not worth the money, that it’s too crowded, too expensive and too, well, touristy. A test of patience and physical endurance rather than a relaxing vacation.

Kyoto and Kansai are well aware of the complaints, but their options for quickly addressing them are limited. Still, 2017 will likely see more efforts in this regard. If the number of foreign tourists falls, Kyoto’s economy will be hit hard.

Expo effort

In 2018, the host for the 2025 World Expo will be chosen. Osaka, which has never forgotten its success in hosting the 1970 World Expo, has thrown its hat into the ring.

Expos are supposed to be forward-looking, with broad themes that envision the future and exhibits that excite the imagination. Osaka’s proposal is centered on the health needs of an aging society and highlights the role played by new medical technologies.

This is unlikely to be the kind of Expo that will make the kids want to forgo a trip to Tokyo Disneyland (“But I don’t want to see Mickey Mouse. I want to see the new orthopedic beds at Osaka Expo!”), and with Paris also vying for the event, Osaka’s political leaders will have their work cut out for them in convincing a skeptical public and wary business community that bringing the World Expo back to Osaka is a good idea.

Power games and prices

Fukui Prefecture’s nuclear reactors, which used to provide nearly half of Kansai’s electricity, will remain an issue of contention next year. Decommissioning the Monju reactor is expected to take 30 years, three others are to be scrapped, and another three have received permission to run for another two decades.

Two more reactors that were approved as safe and briefly restarted this year had a temporary injunction slapped against them and are currently idle. But they could be turned on in the summer of 2017 if the Osaka High Court lifts the injunction. Finally, two other Fukui reactors will soon have to be scrapped or apply for a two-decade extension.

All of these decisions involve complex political wrangling. Fukui politicians want the reactors back on, but only if they get financial compensation from Tokyo and Kansai Electric Power Co. Kansai customers have adjusted to life with nuclear power and have safety concerns, but also wonder if switching them on will reduce their electricity bills. And the central government wants as many reactors turned on as soon as possible.

Osaka party games

With Nippon Ishin no Kai virtually serving as the Osaka-centric faction of the LDP — Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Toru Hashimoto, a former Osaka mayor and Ishin co-founder, are chummy with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga — Osaka’s political preferences will impact the national political scene.

Officially not one of the ruling parties, Nippon Ishin has proved to be a friend to Abe over the past few months, voting with the LDP on a new budget to boost Abenomics and on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The party also agreed with the LDP to reopen a Diet committee to review the Constitution.

In return, Abe backed Osaka’s 2025 Expo plan and rammed the casino bill through the Diet. In the meantime, Nippon Ishin is making plans to field candidates in next summer’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. Speculation continues, however, that Matsui and Hashimoto would tie up with any new party Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike might establish, although Matsui is less enthusiastic because he doesn’t want to damage relations with Abe and Suga.

However, 2017 will likely see the corporate status quo-friendly but often right-wing populist party from Osaka continue to punch above its weight in the national political arena.

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