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Osaka pushing life sciences and wellness in 2025 Expo bid

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Hosting the 2025 World Expo is an opportunity to showcase Osaka and Kansai-based research and technological advancements geared toward taking head-on global issues, such as those that come with an aging society, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui said in a recent exclusive interview with The Japan Times.

“One reason we chose to bid for the expo is because Japanese issues are also world issues. To find solutions to a rapidly aging society, you establish a target and gather diverse forms of knowledge that lead to innovation,” said Matsui. “But you need a place to announce these solutions, and you have to set a target year for creating new things. With this in mind, we decided to pursue the 2025 World Expo in Osaka and the Kansai region.”

The governor added he also wants to highlight the regions technologies in areas like water sanitation that can help the world meet the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals when world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, gather in Osaka next year for the Group of 20 (G-20) leaders’ summit.

The comments came as representatives from the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) are in Japan this week to evaluate Osaka’s bid.

Providing for large numbers of elderly in the coming years is arguably Japan’s greatest political and social challenge. The National Institution of Population and Social Security Research projected the population would decline from 127 million to 110 million by 2040. Over one-third of Japan will be at least 65 years old by that same year. In January, the institute released a new study estimating that 1 in 4 of those aged 65 or older will be living by themselves in 2040.

In addition to lifestyle issues, Osaka bid organizers are also touting local firms and researchers involved in technologies that assist developing countries. At a presentation to the BIE in Paris last year, Chieko Fujita, a representative from Osaka-based Nippon Poly-Glu, which is involved in the water purification business, spoke about how the technology was used in developing countries. A July 2017 report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF estimated that 3 in 10 people worldwide, or 2.1 billion, lack access to safe, readily available water at home, and 6 in 10, or 4.5 billion, lack safely managed sanitation.

“There are only a few countries around the world where water can be drunk from a faucet. But with Osaka-based water purification technology, rainwater can be turned into drinking water,” Matsui said.

Osaka’s plan for the expo is that the event will be held on the artificial island of Yumeshima, in Osaka Bay. To reach Yumeshima, new transportation infrastructure, including extended train lines and widened roads, will have to be built at an estimated cost of at least ¥73 billion.

Taxpayer concerns are also growing about who will bear the costs of construction if Osaka does not get the expo. The local government also hopes Yumeshima will be the site of a casino resort once a law regulating their operations, currently being debated in the Diet, is passed. So there are also questions about how much money from a casino resortOsaka might receive to fund new infrastructure projects.

But Matsui insisted the necessary money was available.

“Osaka Prefecture has about ¥150 billion in cash reserves it can use whenever it wants. With a new transportation infrastructure, the value of assets in the area will go up. So we’re not uneasy over the infrastructure for hosting the expo,” Matsui said.

The 1970 World Expo was also held in Osaka and remains one of the most successful ever, drawing more than 64 million people. It came, Matsui said, at a time when Japan was the world’s second leading economy and experiencing a period of rapid growth, the legacy of which was broad international recognition that the country was an industrial powerhouse.

A 2025 World Expo in Osaka, he said, would not be a repeat of 1970. The central government expects about 28 million visitors to a 2025 Osaka Expo.

“The legacy of the 1970 Osaka Expo was one of physical structures, like the Tower of the Sun (Taiyo no To),” the governor said.

“The 2025 Expo we’re proposing focuses on people-to-people participation in wellness and life science issues. So I think its continuing legacy will likely be human life and health.”

Beyond the broad themes and technological visions of the future, a World Expo is also a chance for the area to raise its international profile. Osaka hopes the expo, officially known as the Osaka-Kansai, Japan Expo, will leave a legacy of not only increased tourism but also greater recognition, with a shift away from the Tokyo-centric perception of the country.

“I want to change the world’s image that Tokyo is Japan’s only major city and that all other cities in Japan are regional cities,” Matsui said.

“In the United States, Washington D.C. is the political center but other cities like New York and Los Angeles are economic centers. A country with only one national center is a weak country, and I want people overseas to understand that other Japanese cities create goods and services and that Tokyo is not the only major city.”

The BIE will decide who gets the 2025 Expo in November, giving Osaka bid-promoters about eight months to convince the majority of the its 170 members, who come from the likes of Africa, Central and South America, and elsewhere, to vote for Osaka.

Lobbying members in Paris and in their home countries will be key to winning the bid. Much of that work will be left to the central government.

“Basically, activities related to diplomatic efforts with BIE will be handled by the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Economy, Trade, and Industry, as well as the central government. But we’ll do what we can and have already spoken to BIE delegates in Paris at our presentation last year,” Masao Tsuyuguchi, executive director of Osaka Prefecture’s World Expo Bid Promotion Office, told The Japan Times.

Tsuyuguchi, along with Matsui and the local business community, warned last month that even though Paris, which had been seen as Osaka’s main rival, decided to withdraw from bidding for the 2025 Expo, it did not mean Osaka was now the favorite or could expect an easy victory.

Osaka faces two rivals for 2025: Ekaterinburg, Russia, and Baku, Azerbaijan. The former has many in Kansai especially worried.

Ekaterinburg was heavily promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin when it competed for the 2020 World Expo, which it lost to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in the third and final round of voting. “We face two strong competitors. If we become conceited, we’ll lose,” Tsuyuguchi said.