With less than five months to go until the host of the 2025 World Expo is decided, Osaka is gearing up for a final push that will include efforts to raise local enthusiasm and draw international attention with financial incentives for countries that can’t afford to attend the event.

But with strong bids by rivals Baku, Azerbaijan, and Ekaterinburg, Russia, and questions growing about why Japan should host a third World Expo following the Osaka and Aichi expos in 1970 and 2005, respectively, the Kansai bid no longer looks like a sure bet. Earlier this month, the three candidates made their final presentations to the 170-member Bureau International des Expositions in Paris.

Osaka officials remain concerned about Ekaterinburg, which is pitching an expo that will emphasize technological innovations for younger generations, and has promised to turn its site into a “smart city” once the event finishes.

The oil-rich city of Baku is proposing to showcase ways of developing human capital and meeting several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including those related to improving global health, education and labor standards.

Baku’s efforts come across as less focused on new technologies compared with Osaka and Ekaterinburg, and more focused on nontechnological methods of addressing common social issues.

Ekaterinburg, which lost its bid for the 2020 Expo to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is believed to have the support of many European delegates.

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura were joined in Paris earlier this month by industry minister Hiroshige Seko, senior business leaders and Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka.

Seko announced that Japan would provide $218 million to 100 countries, or $2.2 million each, so they can travel to Osaka and build their own pavilions.

“You should have absolutely no worry about the cost,” he said.

Osaka officials also used the Paris presentation to lobby directly with BIE members. Delegates from Africa as well as Central and South America are the key to obtaining the majority of the votes, and Osaka announced it would offer its own support.

Matsui said the city and prefecture were both prepared to provide public housing to delegates from developing countries during the course of the Expo, which would take place from May to November. In addition, shuttle bus services between the public housing units and the expo site on Yumeshima, a man-made island in Osaka Bay, are being considered.

“We want to offer assistance, as a local government, that doesn’t burden the delegates,” Matsui told reporters in Paris.

Whether that will be enough to convince the BIE members, who are not scheduled to visit Osaka between now and November, when the winner will be decided, is unclear. Osaka is selling its bid as the safest choice financially, and, implicitly, as the safest choice in terms of security.

Azerbaijan Prime Minister Novruz Mammadov is directly involved in international lobbying efforts for Baku’s bid and led the city’s delegation in Paris earlier this month. The former Soviet republic hosted a reception at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January and its presentation in Paris hinted at the question Osaka is now most concerned about — why award Japan a third World Expo?

“Baku is a strong rival. The prime minister touched on aid to developing countries and said that because the city had no experience hosting an Expo, there was potential and that it needed to be given a chance,” Yoshimura tweeted after Baku’s presentation.

The Osaka mayor added that the city’s “air war” for the 2025 Expo had gone well so far, meaning that official, public events to promote the bid had succeeded. Now, he said, it was time to step up the “ground war,” the direct, face-to-face, personalized lobbying that would be required to win.

But it’s there where Osaka faces a geographic hurdle. It is much easier and cheaper for delegates from Baku and Ekaterinburg to meet with BIE delegates or their representatives at the organization’s headquarters in Paris or, in Ekaterinburg’s case, Russia during the World Cup.

Osaka, by contrast, must figure out how to promote its bid effectively from a distance while also relying on the central government and business representatives to lobby on its behalf, since extended overseas tours are beyond the budgets of Matsui and Yoshimura. The good news for Osaka is that BIE has given high marks to the technical aspects of its bid, and the governor and mayor are satisfied the theatrical production they staged in Paris earlier this month received rave reviews.

But now that the spotlight has dimmed, Osaka’s leaders have to work the backstage over the summer and autumn effectively and, along with the central government, use financial incentives and other means to convince individual BIE members to return once again to Japan rather than take the event to a new country.

As Yoshimura hinted, a superior strategy is required to win the ground war.

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

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