OSAKA – “Look and see which way the wind blows before you commit yourself.” — “The Bat and the Weasels,” Aesop’s Fables
One year from now, representatives from Osaka, along with Paris, Baku, Azerbaijan and Ekaterinburg, Russia, will gather in Paris. One city will be awarded the World Expo 2025 by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE).
To win an expo, a candidate needs more than a strong theme that is relevant and timely, yet idealistic and future-oriented. Beyond the technical requirements (available venue, ease of location, adequate transportation infrastructure) and cost concerns, there is the “diplomacy” issue. Why, exactly, should the 170 members of the BIE vote to ask the world to visit your expo, your city, your region and your country?
Diplomacy by local entities requires outward-looking political and business leaders who know that how things are done at home isn’t always how things are done elsewhere. Success depends on tact, an ability to not be petty or spiteful, and an understanding of how to win, or at least not lose, in the court of international public opinion — qualities not always attributable to local politicians anywhere.
Osaka’s leaders, including Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who also heads Nippon Ishin no Kai, traveled to Paris last week to lobby BIE delegates. Osaka may well win regardless of its diplomatic efforts. Paris is due to host the 2024 Olympics and, so the logic in Osaka goes, it would be “unfair” for the City of Light to win two major international events so close together.
But nothing is certain and Osaka finds itself forced to be nice to the BIE just as it finds itself in a spat with sister-city San Francisco over the erection of a “comfort women” statue in that city. At the very moment when Osaka needs good headlines in the world’s media to raise its profile among BIE delegates (not a problem for Paris, obviously), it has picked a needless fight with an American city that has a longstanding international reputation for tolerance and liberal values, especially on human rights issues, over a decision by the democratically elected San Francisco city assembly.
Privately, many in Osaka are furious with Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura and understand his actions could impact their chances of winning the expo if the bid rivals decide to use them to paint Osaka as a city of anger and intolerance, a place whose values contradict the ideals of an expo.
Nor, perhaps, will Matsui get the central government support for the expo bid he hoped for before the Oct. 23 election, where Nippon Ishin suffered badly. Sure, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will do the minimum required to sell Osaka’s bid abroad over the coming months. But Matsui’s Osaka-based party is no longer as influential as it once was and Abe already knows that, on constitutional reform, Nippon Ishin will, at the end of the day, stand with him regardless of how hard he pushes its expo bid.
Osaka also wants to host the 2019 Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit, but is competing with Aichi Prefecture for that honor. The winner will be chosen in late January or February. Given Abe’s long, close relationship with powerful Aichi Prefecture-based Central Japan Railways (JR Tokai) Chairman emeritus Yoshiyuki Kasai and a politically weakened Nippon Ishin, there is worry in Osaka that Matsui no longer has the diplomatic skills or political leverage with Abe to win that challenge.
Osaka has now committed itself to bidding for two major international events. How well it diplomatically handles any domestic and international political and media winds blowing against it depends on whether its leaders are attuned to the direction of those winds and, more importantly, whether they have the sense to navigate a course through calmer waters.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.