‘Secret’ city basks in its low-profile limelight

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It’s at the geographic center of Japan and has in the past been at the hub of its history. It’s also the nation’s fourth-largest city, with a population of 2.2 million. But despite these, and many more, claims to fame and prominence, Nagoya City in Aichi Prefecture has always been outstanding for its low profile.

“Compared with Osaka, which believes it is the western capital of this country and wants to beat Tokyo in every way, Nagoya is so reserved,” said a Nagoya businessman in his 40s. The Osaka native, who declined to be named, worked in Tokyo for several years and was transferred to Nagoya two years ago. “I didn’t know anything about Nagoya when I was in Osaka and Tokyo. I guess people here have been content with it just being another local city,” he said.

Today, however, Nagoya is not only on the up, but it is so frequently taking the limelight that other competing centers are increasingly finding themselves in its shadow.

Certainly this is partly because of some headlining goings-on around Nagoya — notably Expo 2005 Aichi, which runs through Sept. 25, as well as the opening in February of Central Japan International Airport (Centrair) as Japan’s newest gateway to the world.

But they are not the only reasons Nagoya is now attracting so much attention. For the past few years, the city has frequently been featured in the media on account of its thriving economy, in a country that’s generally beset with stagnation.

“The huge amount of attention Nagoya is now receiving is probably the first time it has done so since the days when local warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu vied to conquer the country [in the late 16th century],” writes freelance editor Yoshifumi Iwanaka in his book “Nagoyajin to Nihonjin (Nagoyans and Japanese).”

“I was half joking but half serious about that,” Iwanaka said with a laugh during an interview with The Japan Times. “But actually, Nagoya is now attracting attention from every quarter, and it really does remind me of the time of those warlords.

“In fact, nobody seemed to care about Nagoya when times were good — but now, with the economy in the doldrums, its condition suddenly stands out.”

Nagoya’s healthy economy isn’t just down to the Expo and the new airport.

Aichi has long been known for its strong manufacturing industry, largely led by Toyota Motor Corp. and its hundreds of suppliers. This is reflected in economic data such as the ratio of vacancies to job-seekers, which far exceeds the national average; the total sum of shipping from Aichi, which has led the rest of Japan for a quarter of a century; and the volume of exports from Nagoya Port alone, which for several years has accounted for more than half of Japan’s trade surplus.

As a result of all this, Nagoya people are generally paid well, and their personal spending per head is well above the national average. Consequently, while department stores all over the country are floundering, those in Nagoya are making money.

Emblematic of this is the Takashimaya Department Store. Opened in 2000 in the 245-meter-high JR Central Towers adjoining Nagoya Station, it has led the city’s department-store charge. And with the station also housing Japan’s largest underground shopping mall, the whole area is a hive of activity that’s constantly thronged with commuters and shoppers.

Soon to add to this throng will be employees and business partners of Toyota. That’s because just across from the station, a new, 247-meter-high, 47-story skyscraper is now rising like a symbol of this city’s success. Scheduled to open in 2007, Midland Square will accommodate the offices of many companies, but none more so than the sales headquarters of Toyota, employing some 3,000 staff, of whom 200 in overseas sales will be relocated from Tokyo while the domestic team moves from elsewhere in Nagoya.

In fact, locating Toyota’s international sales division in Nagoya will have implications far and wide. According to a Toyota spokesman, overseas visitors to the company have always flown in to Narita Airport to do business in Tokyo, before being taken on the shinkansen to Nagoya to visit the company’s headquarters in nearby Toyota City. From 2007, however, they will be flying directly to Centrair, then doing business with Toyota just down the road in Nagoya, and onto the headquarters.

So Nagoya is definitely booming. But why? What is the secret of this Aichi success story?

Strangely enough, observers agree that what sets Nagoya apart is the fact that it hasn’t done anything special — anything special except stick to its own ways, that is.

“During the bubble economy, Nagoya’s businesses never regarded the phenomenon as being real,” Iwanaka said.

“Throughout, they just maintained their sober way of doing business.”

So the reality is that, even though Nagoya’s economy seems to be booming, it has just remained stable and steadily expanding throughout the last two decades, he said. “Nagoya people don’t take risks. They don’t like adventures. But that is the reason for the city’s current success,” he explained.

“Historically, people in the area have witnessed the forcible displacement of warlords like Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, who were close to conquering the country but didn’t make it.

“Probably, what they’ve learned from that history still lives on in the local culture, and people around here are deeply skeptical that prosperity or power last forever.”

Though Nagoya’s down-to-earth folk may rankle at all the attention they are getting these days, there’s so much to be discovered in this low-profile city that TIMEOUT this week offers a flavor of what Aichi’s finest is really all about.