National | KANSAI PERSPECTIVE

Osaka's bid to outshine Paris for 2025 Expo still on shaky ground

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

With only four months to go until it must unveil detailed plans for its 2025 World Expo bid, Osaka’s leaders plan to use the rest of the summer and early autumn to ramp up domestic and international efforts to raise the region’s profile and tout its advantages over arch-rival Paris .

Two other bid cities, Ekaterinburg, Russia, and Baku, Azerbaijan, are deemed long shots.

But with the prospect of receiving strong political assistance for the bid clouded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political woes, and criticism from local businesses that the public relations strategy is too vague, how effectively Osaka can wage an international campaign for the event is now the key issue.

This week, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai will lead a nonpartisan group of Diet lawmakers to Osaka to hear out senior business leaders and discuss how best to challenge the Paris bid.

While Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui remains convinced Osaka is a strong rival, the bid faces several challenges, starting with the fact that critical national-level support may be harder to come by now that Abe’s Cabinet is polling at around 30 percent.

Kansai business leaders supporting the bid have two other concerns. The first is that an internationally renowned city like Paris has no need to introduce itself, especially to the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), which will decide the Expo winner in November 2018.

Osaka, on the other hand, is marketing its campaign as the “Osaka, Kansai” bid in the hope that being close to Kyoto will help raise its international appeal even as it attempts to sell the world on its own history and culture. Kansai is the name for the broad business area centered on Osaka but including Kyoto and Kobe.

That basic strategy, unveiled by Matsui at a June meeting of the BIE, is drawing criticism.

“The impact (of the presentation) was small. It’s not enough to just say ‘Osaka is a great place. Please cooperate with us,’ ” Hiroyuki Suzuki, co-chair of the Kansai Association of Corporate Executives (Kansai Keizai Doyukai), said at a news conference last month.

In particular, there are growing fears that Osaka’s theme, “Designing Future Society for Our Lives,” is too vague and fails to take into account broader political and social themes ranging from climate change and migration to youth empowerment.

Paris, which used the 2015 climate change meeting that created the Paris Agreement to lobby for its 2025 bid, has promised to tackle these kinds of issues if it gets the Expo.

“We want a plan that clearly shows what the dream of the future will lead to by holding the Expo in Japan,” said Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman Hiroshi Ozaki at a separate news conference in June.

Perhaps Osaka’s biggest disadvantage is media power. Paris is a major international media center, while virtually all of Japan’s international media are based in Tokyo.

While Paris, and France, could easily talk up their Expo bid this month for free to the large numbers of media reps in town covering the just-ended weeks-long Tour de France, Osaka struggles to get journalists based in Tokyo or overseas to visit and report, even for a couple of days.

Nevertheless, Osaka’s supporters, especially Matsui, believe it has two political advantages over Paris.

The first is that Paris may soon be awarded the 2024 Olympics, a move that some in Osaka hope will convince the BIE the city doesn’t need two major events so close together.

The second is security. Osaka, and Japan, are expected to emphasize at the November presentation steps to protect visitors during the six-month event. In his June presentation, Matsui spoke of Osaka being able to offer a secure environment.

But as the dog days of August loom, Japan’s bid leaders must first make concrete decisions on how best to present themselves to the rest of the country, and the world.