National | KANSAI PERSPECTIVE

In pitching 2025 Expo bid, Osaka must sell itself over Paris, and Africa may hold the key

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Imagine you’re in Osaka in 2025. After arriving, you’re welcomed by people on the streets, where you stop by a takoyaki vendor for a quick octopus dumpling snack before heading out to see the sights. Walking around Osaka, you’ll feel safe in the presence of police officers offering snappy salutes and small robots that look and sound like extras in a “Star Wars” film. Just the droids you’re looking for.

On Yumeshima Island, only about 20 minutes from central Osaka, you’ll be able to visit the Osaka-Kansai Japan World Expo and enjoy not only attractions with zero waiting times but also interact with people from diverse backgrounds to cocreate in organic harmony. All with an eye toward helping achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

That’s the vision in anime form that Osaka’s leaders presented to the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions earlier this month for their World Expo 2025 bid. With one year until the BIE awards the expo, Osaka is gearing up to launch a domestic and international marketing campaign next year in the hope of winning a majority of the 170 delegate votes that will be cast.

Officially, there are four candidates for the 2025 Expo. But Baku, Azerbaijan, and Ekaterinburg, Russia, are considered, at least by Osaka, to be long shots. The competitor that local officials and the central government are most concerned about is Paris, where local enthusiasm for the expo, especially among younger people, is far more visible than in Osaka.

Domestically, one basic strategy is to heavily rely on the Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo entertainment group to use its talent and influence with the television media nationwide to promote Osaka’s bid. But to win over the BIE delegates and gain international support, Osaka and the central government need to appeal to African and Latin American nations, where almost half of the BIE delegates hail from. African delegates alone account for 49 votes.

That could be extremely difficult. Privately, many involved with Osaka’s bid say it’s highly unlikely Osaka will win many votes from African Francophone countries.

Still, the message sent to the BIE delegates earlier this month by Osaka and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized Japan’s social and economic connections not only with Africa but also other parts of the world. It also highlighted Japanese technologies that can help countries meet the U.N. development goals, especially for human health.

“We have a community of people around the world who share the same goal. Expo 2025 will be such an opportunity,” said Chieko Fujita, a spokeswoman for Osaka-based Nippon Poly-Glu Co., a maker of water purifying technology that has deep connections in dozens of African and Asian countries.

She was followed by Joachim Rutayisire from Rwanda, who studied at a university in Kobe and spoke about how important Japan was to Rwanda’s development.

Osaka officially introduced its bid in Paris as the “Osaka-Kansai Japan Expo 2025” bid. Both Abe and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry are heavily involved in the bid, and the aim is to emphasize Japan’s public and private economic ties, and potential economic opportunities, if Osaka is awarded the expo.

“Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai will set the stage for this cocreation to work even more closely with BIE member countries towards 2025,” the narrator of a video shown to the delegates says, as footage of an August 2016 meeting in Nairobi on Japanese private-sector investment in Africa is shown.

“Japanese firms have had requests from various countries to enter their markets. The influence of Japan’s corporate world in these countries is something that can be relied upon,” Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui told reporters in Osaka just before departing for Paris.

There were also inquiries in Paris, Osaka officials said, about how much the Japanese government, in the form of official development assistance, might budget for projects in African and Asian countries next year.

Beyond questions of whether promises or hints of further Japanese government and private investment in BIE member countries would be an effective form of lobbying, there still lies the reality that Osaka is up against Paris.

Given that Paris is one of the world’s major international media centers, the city can easily reach out to the world’s major wire services, newspapers, and TV stations with bureaus there. By contrast, Osaka, where there is virtually no foreign media presence, must bring in Tokyo-based international journalists for occasional press tours and rely on Tokyo to promote its bid overseas.

Next year, BIE officials will visit Osaka to conduct a technical review of the city’s expo plan. It’s expected to receive a very positive assessment and could well be judged to be the best of the four candidates. But winning international events like the Olympics and expos is often more about politics, and economics, than technology and engineering. Whether Osaka and the central government can develop an international media relations strategy and BIE lobbying strategy that overcomes the built-in advantages of Paris and realize the 2025 Expo dream it displayed on a video screen earlier this month remains to be seen. But the clock is now ticking.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.