National | VIEW FROM OSAKA

Osaka in the spotlight ahead of G20 and elections

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

January and early February in Kansai, and Japan as a whole, is a busy time for local leaders. New Year’s greetings are exchanged by (mostly) elderly men at stuffy buffet parties in luxury hotels. Their job is to stand around holding a white paper napkin-covered drink and toast to, well, something, after interminably long mumbled speeches.

It’s also a time when proposing solutions for local and regional political and economic issues is officially encouraged. But when it comes to Osaka this year, what’s noticeable is not only what politicians and business leaders have talked about, but also what they’ve played down.

2019 is being called, locally, the “Year of Osaka.” Over the next six months, Osaka faces local elections that could make or break the political careers of the governor and mayor; the hosting of the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit on June 28 and 29, one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever seen in Japan; an Upper House election; preparations for the 2025 World Expo; and contentious debates over a possible casino resort.

Let’s start with where local media attention is focused: the 2025 World Expo. At a recent gathering of nearly 700 business leaders in Kyoto, all manner of suggestions for the expo were offered. While many people, including Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, see a high-tech paradise, Takuya Nomura, a Cabinet Office policy adviser, said one area Osaka needed to consider was international media coverage.

Nomura suggested that Kansai’s leaders talk to the Tokyo-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan about an “FCCJ Osaka branch” prior to and during the Expo. There is a precedent: FCCJ’s official history states a lot of foreign journalists set up camp in Osaka prior to and during the 1970 Expo.

As an FCCJ member myself, I’m all for that idea. But at a meeting where most attendees were mainstream corporate men over 60 years old, it was perhaps not surprising, but still disappointing, that nobody also suggested reaching out to the many talented Kansai-based foreign writers, bloggers, videographers and photographers who contribute to Japan-based foreign language publications or freelance for various international media.

Yet it’s the G20 summit where the rhetoric seems a bit muted. One might think Osaka’s leaders would be shouting about the event at every opportunity. Instead, it’s often mentioned in passing, almost in an offhanded manner. Why?

Well, that depends on who you talk to. While there are fears too much publicity increases the odds of a terrorist attack, skeptics also wonder if local politicians and their supporters don’t want too much attention on the summit because it might increase local concerns about tight security in the form of closed subway stations, roads and perhaps even airports prior to and during the meeting — concerns that could lead to angry voters in April during the Osaka municipal and prefectural assembly elections.

Another reason floated by some local media and foreign diplomats is that with the May 1 accession of the new Emperor, Tokyo is devoting fewer resources than it would otherwise to the G20 summit preparations. So, the logic goes, Osaka cannot really say much because Tokyo is not saying much, although that will likely change after May 1.

A final theory also has to do with local politics. With ongoing budget negotiations in the Diet for fiscal 2019, which includes funding for the expo, some speculate the strategy of Osaka’s leaders is to not push Tokyo on G20 in exchange for hopefully receiving as much expo funding, their real concern, as possible.

One Chinese horoscope suggests 2019 will be a turbulent year and that it’s best to just stick it out.

Given how busy the Year of Osaka is set to be, that prediction is starting to feel like the unofficial policy in certain quarters of the local political and business establishments.

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