Osaka – One of the primary functions of local economic federations anywhere is to serve as both a political lobby and an economic think tank. Economic and social policies that are approved by local politicians, and sometimes funded by a national parliament, often originate in these federations, which have their own visions of what the future should look like.
In the Kansai region, the future, as envisioned by the Kansai Economic Federation, looks something like a penguin.
The 2030 vision released last year by the federation, which includes Kansai’s largest and most influential firms, emphasized that what was really needed to revive the region was to encourage the spirit of a “first penguin.” The concept refers to the first of the birds to break away from a huddled group on the ice, in order to jump into the sea and search for food — despite no guarantees it can be found, and the presence of predators.
In other words, a “first penguin” is a pioneer, seizing the day, unafraid to break away from the pack and try new things, even if it’s risky or may not bear fruit.
To help potential future penguins jump off the ice, so to speak, the vision outlined a number of areas where the federation wants to focus its efforts — and, by implication, where it wants local political efforts to be focused — between now and 2030. These include upgrading the region’s digital communications infrastructure, often said to lag behind Tokyo's, in order to create new ways of working. It also calls for more women to enter the workforce.
The vision noted in passing that Japan lags behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to the prevalence of working women. Worse for Kansai, however, is that an internal affairs ministry report showed that among the nation’s 47 prefectures, three of the four with the lowest employment rate for women age 25 to 44 (as of 2015), were Nara, Hyogo and Osaka.
How to do better? The vision got a bit blurry at that point, issuing a vague call to create a better working environment that allows women to hold down a job and take care of the home.
But many of the 2030 goals are simply a rehash of ideas that are years, if not decades, old. That's especially true of the plan for Kansai to look west — to western Japan and the Asian region — for future prosperity, both in terms of commerce and the service sector, especially inbound tourism.
Other well-worn suggestions included merging universities in the Kansai region and allowing more involvement in university education by nonacademic specialists. There are longstanding calls for a regional bloc system of government that eliminates current prefectural borders and creates a few superblocs with more local autonomy.
The federation offered its proposals as a remedy for Kansai's so-called three lost decades (1990-2020), when many firms and talented residents in the area, especially younger residents, relocated to Tokyo and elsewhere.
During that period, Kansai saw countless entrepreneurs, artists, NGO leaders, researchers and others, including foreign nationals, who may have otherwise stayed in the region depart for greener pastures. Or, in keeping with the penguin analogy, for more prosperous icebergs. They were, indeed, risk-takers — first penguins, if you will, unafraid to jump into unknown waters and try something new.
The reasons they did not remain or return to Kansai are multiple. But one is they realized that, for all of the rhetoric extolling bold risk-takers, Kansai’s political and corporate leadership was not being sincere.
In reality, those who left believed Kansai was too risk-averse, too suspicious of new ideas and too rewarding of status-quo thinking. The 2030 vision, to its credit, implies they were correct. It’s up to the region to prove to risk-takers who left, and those who may yet leave, that they will be supported.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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