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In early May, Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura traveled to South Africa to attend a Japan-Africa economic meeting and chat up Osaka’s efforts to host the 2025 World Expo. At the gathering were representatives from dozens of African countries, though it is not clear how many actually had earnest talks with him.

Yoshimura’s reason for traveling halfway around the world for a couple of days was simple. Of the 170 members of the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions, nearly a third are from Africa. Their votes will be crucial when the BIE awards the 2025 Expo in November.

Yoshimura’s foray into this kind of international lobbying was preceded by plenty of “administrative guidance,” which in the previous century was recognized among foreign businesses and Japan scholars as a euphemism for “tight bureaucratic control.” In this case, those who guided Yoshimura included not only smiling suits from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and the Foreign Ministry, but also the Japanese business community.

The visit received only moderate media attention in Osaka, where local excitement over the bid, as even Osaka politicians admit, is not very high. Yoshimura justified the huge travel expense to voters as critical to Osaka’s international PR efforts. But one wonders if he, and Osaka, aren’t pursuing a flawed strategy.

Some of the most influential BIE votes are from Francophone Africa and Central and South America. While extended trips by a large Osaka delegation to those places are not practical, the mayor, his corporate friends, and the Japanese government, which says it strongly backs the bid, might have done better by using the money to fly to Paris, meet at length with African and Latin American BIE delegates one-on-one, and then decide which countries to lobby.

But even that option doesn’t address a more fundamental problem. The Expo 2025 Osaka bid still has the smell of a top-down, corporate campaign run largely by elderly Japanese men, and is one that seems devoid of a genuine “people’s movement.” It’s the same type of campaign that, in 2001, led to Osaka being kicked out of the first round of voting for the 2008 Olympics.

Nobody expected to beat Beijing, which won the bid. But neither did anyone expect Osaka to do so badly. Of course, it didn’t help that Olympic delegates were not allowed to visit bid cities after all manner of bribes and corruption in the bidding process were revealed, meaning nobody from the International Olympic Committee ever made it to Osaka before the vote.

Osaka faces the same situation with its 2025 expo bid. BIE delegates will not be flying into Kansai International Airport over the coming months with their families and hangers-on for a relaxing holiday in Osaka where their luxury hotel suites, Michelin-starred dinners, various forms of risque evening entertainment and luxury shopping sprees for their spouses are provided courtesy of Osaka taxpayers via the expo bid committee. Thankfully, that kind of nonsense is forbidden.

But, then, how does Osaka convince the BIE it deserves the expo? Flashy videos long on technical production and short on meaningful content won’t do it. Nor will an army of men and women in business attire handing out business cards and brochures while reciting the same platitudes and buzz words at large, formal events, either here in Japan or abroad, pull it off.

Osaka is sure to spend the next six months trying to figure out how to “promote its bid to foreigners.” As with the 2008 Olympic bid, they’re putting the cart before the horse. Unless Osakans of all ages, income levels, and social backgrounds demonstrate, and quickly, to the world in general and to the BIE in particular they really want to the expo, the 2025 bid may well suffer the same fate as the 2008 Olympic bid.

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

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