A report released by a Kansai business group earlier this month notes the amounts for the art and culture budgets of Osaka prefecture and Osaka city are well below national averages on a per person level, and has a lot of tongues wagging about Osaka being run by a bunch of philistines.

That’s nothing new among local cynics who guffaw when Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui puts ice cubes in his red wine (to freshen up that old Chateau Margaux). But it at least shows that influential Osakans are worried about being perceived as rubes even though one can usually, and with corporate and government official statements virtually always, replace the word “important” with “money-making schemes” and not risk being seriously misunderstood.

One of the more nontraditional ways in which culture is important to local governments around Japan is the promotion of what is known as contents tourism. Trying to define what constitutes contents tourism can be a bit tricky, but it often evolves from a desire to visit somewhere based on a pop culture image and includes things such as traveling to the location of a popular film or television series, or perhaps visiting the old haunts of a now famous singer

Last month at Hokkaido University, a British Association of Japanese Studies meeting discussed contents tourism in Japan. One of the messages was that organic, local and individual efforts toward providing tourists with good experiences based on their images of a certain place are often preferable to the heavily top-down administrative efforts of “local cultural promotion” that so many bureaucratic types, especially in Osaka, have long advocated.

Another presentation looked at issues local governments face when confronted with the arrival of massive cruise ships, filled with 4,000 foreign tourists who need to go through immigration and customs and who may only have a limited time onshore to shop and sightsee. Given the central government’s basic policy toward cruise ships is to welcome all who come, this can sometimes put a strain on smaller port cities that have limited manpower, and can impact the overall tourism experience. Though the meeting did not address the issue, the policy also raises security questions at a time when too many officials (and media) seem to think terrorists would only enter Japan through a half dozen major international airports.

For Osaka, though, contents tourism and the various possibilities it presents are things that don’t seem to be all that prominent in the minds of local political leaders. There is an attitude of “if contents tourism is important, let private firms pay for the facilities and promotional efforts because it’s a waste of government money otherwise.” The possibility that properly done contents tourism activities can be important for the local tax base seems to have escaped them.

To be sure, local government funding for traditional Japanese culture (in Osaka, that would be bunraku, kabuki and manzai comedy) as well as long-established forms of Western culture (local symphony orchestras, ballet troupes and art museums featuring international exhibitions) is critical. It’s to the credit of Osaka’s more enlightened residents that they were able to ensure Matsui and his allies didn’t entirely eliminate the arts and culture budget altogether.

But in the battle over the future funding of culture, Osaka’s corporate and government leaders need to be more creative and flexible. Especially when it comes to thinking about funding a long-term contents tourism strategy that promotes a form of culture they may know little about.

As a merchant town, Osaka’s leaders too often assume that if culture is made to become profitable it can also become important. They have it backward. If it’s considered important, culture can become profitable — and in ways corporate and government philistines have never dreamed of.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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