It was a busy 2019 for Kansai, particularly in the days leading up to the June Group of 20 leaders summit in Osaka. While the Tokyo Olympics will be the focus of much of the nation’s attention in 2020, here are some major issues that will impact Kansai next year:

A referendum on the merger of the city of Osaka: After years of stalemate between the local chapters of all major political parties and Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) over the wisdom of a merger, the anti-merger Liberal Democratic Party was hit with tough losses in April’s Osaka municipal and prefectural elections. The LDP and Komeito changed their stance as a result and agreed to hold a referendum over whether to combine Osaka’s 24 wards into four large wards with more autonomy and abolish the current city assembly.

Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui is aiming to have a referendum proposal put to the public sometime in autumn next year. Will it pass? A previous effort in 2015 failed by the slimmest of margins. Many younger Osakans with small businesses, as well as large corporations, support a merger in the hope that it may lower taxes and boost bureaucratic efficiency. Opponents warn that supporters are overstating the economic benefits and suspect that all a merger will do is widen the economic gap between the wealthier northern and central parts of Osaka and the less prosperous southern and bay area districts. Both sides will spend most of 2020 presenting their arguments and counterarguments. The result could once again be close.

The Osaka casino project: With the central government announcing that the proposal deadline for localities vying to host one of Japan’s first integrated casino resorts is July 2021, Osaka’s original goal to open such a resort in time for the 2025 World Expo now appears remote. Osaka, considered a front-runner for a resort, will spend 2020 lobbying the bureaucracy and Diet politicians to make sure that construction can immediately proceed if it is selected in a bid to meet the 2025 opening date. But with reports of growing nervousness among bureaucrats and ruling coalition members over the potential for gambling addiction and money laundering — and related laws being worked on — there’s no guarantee that construction of a casino resort will start in 2021.

Kyoto’s overtourism issue: Kyoto voters head to the polls in early February to elect a new mayor. Incumbent Daisaku Kadokawa, known as “the Kimono Mayor” for his regular style of dress, is seeking a fourth term and is likely to get it. The main issue is dealing with problems related to growing crowds of mostly foreign tourists. Irritated residents are becoming more outspoken about the hordes of tourists who behave rudely, not only by most commonly accepted social standards, but also by the city’s standards, which even other Japanese often find overly fussy.

The future of the Osaka/Nippon Ishin movement: Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura and Mayor Matsui have long had a good relationship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. But if a scandal finally does bring down the Abe administration, they will find themselves, and their political party, more isolated. The Ishin political movement, in the form of Nippon Ishin no Kai, hasn’t caught fire outside of its Osaka base.

If 2020 leads to an early Abe exit, it’s not clear how much clout the party would still have in Tokyo, regardless of the outcome of a merger referendum.

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

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