National | KANSAI PERSPECTIVE

Osaka casting a nervous eye toward rival Baku in bid for 2025 World Expo

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

With one month to go until the host of the 2025 World Expo is selected, Osaka officials are casting a nervous eye toward Baku, the city they increasingly see as their toughest rival.

Osaka and the Azerbaijani capital, along with Yekaterinburg, Russia, are vying for the right to hold the event. The Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions will decide the winner on Nov. 23.

After Paris withdrew from the competition earlier this year, Yekaterinburg, which had barely lost to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in bidding for the 2020 World Expo, had been seen by Osaka’s political and business leaders as the city to beat. Few took Baku seriously.

But that began to change after it became clear that Baku’s theme, centered on the future development of human capital, was capturing the imagination of many BIE delegates. With a well-oiled international public relations machine and deep connections in Paris, Osaka’s leaders began to grow more concerned about Baku’s chances.

Osaka then found itself scrambling after Baku bid officials made an appeal to the BIE delegates in June to consider cities that had never hosted an expo before. Osaka hosted the 1970 Expo while Japan most recently hosted the event in 2005 in Aichi Prefecture.

“Baku is a strong rival, and both Japan and Azerbaijan are racing hard to the end,” Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura said after returning from a promotion effort in Paris earlier this month.

The other concern in Osaka is in regards to Baku’s ability to outspend it when it comes to international lobbying efforts. Though falling oil prices are hurting its economy, Baku’s long history as an oil-rich city on the Caspian Sea allows it to hire an extensive network of international consultants to help make its case among BIE delegates.

Osaka, by contrast, appears to be relying mostly on the central government and the Kansai Economic Federation to push its case abroad, although, in addition to Yoshimura’s Paris trip, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui gave a presentation on the expo to African delegates at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Tokyo earlier this month.

Osaka bid officials are now hoping international criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record will prove to be a factor for BIE delegates when they cast their votes. They are positioning themselves as the “safe” choice, in every sense of the word, much as Tokyo positioned itself as such for the 2020 Olympics.

In just over a month, Osaka will find out if the BIE, like the International Olympic Committee, will, indeed, make the safe choice as Osaka sees it and return the event to the Kansai area or elect to take a chance on Baku, or Yekaterinburg.