Osaka – “Osaka is phlegm. All they think about is making money. There’s no public spirit.”
So said Yoshiro Mori, former prime minister and now former president of the Tokyo Organising Committee, in April 1988.
At the time, he was an up-and-coming leader in the Liberal Democratic Party speaking to supporters in Osaka’s neighboring Kyoto.
What Mori’s audience in the ancient cultural capital — where looking down one’s nose at the merchants of Osaka has long been a cliche — thought of his remarks was not publicly recorded. But many Osakans never quite forgave Mori, who would, in later years, make more disparaging remarks about their city.
Officially, of course, all was sweet and light. Osaka’s political and corporate leaders kept quiet about his insults, especially in front of the TV cameras and newspaper reporters after Mori became prime minister in April 2000
The city was by then bidding for the 2008 Summer Olympics. It needed all of the assistance and goodwill Mori, as prime minister, could provide — especially when Beijing, the eventual winner, threw its hat into the ring.
Losing the 2008 bid was hardly unexpected. But the city didn’t even make it out of the first round of International Olympic Committee voting, and Osaka felt humiliated at the poor showing.
Mori seemed far less enthusiastic in promoting Osaka’s Olympic bid than he would appear to be a decade later when it became Tokyo’s turn to pursue the games. More proactive support for the 2008 Games by Mori would not have beaten Beijing. But, as some in Osaka grumbled later, it might have avoided the humiliating first-round knockout.
So it was little surprise that following Mori’s sexist remarks earlier this month, some of the first critical voices were heard from Osaka.
Well-known rakugo storyteller and television commentator Katsura Nanko said Mori should resign immediately. Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura called Mori’s comments inappropriate and strongly hinted that he should be replaced.
And Masayoshi Matsumoto, chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation, told reporters at the annual Kansai Economic Seminar on Feb. 4 that speaking about women as Mori did was problematic, and that there were plenty of men who spoke for too long, dragging out meetings.
Meanwhile, a group of 160 present and former local assembly members from cities and towns in Osaka Prefecture submitted a petition to the prefectural assembly and Tokyo Olympic organizing committee protesting Mori’s comments.
Of course, some protests were by older Osakans who may have remembered Mori’s dismissive comments about their city long ago and been gleefully watching him get his comeuppance now.
But even Osaka’s younger political figures were at least astute enough to see that there was nothing to be gained by attempting to rationalize Mori’s remarks. After all, the world was watching.
It’s not the fate of the Tokyo Olympics that Osaka’s leaders are thinking of now. Rather, it’s their own image set to be presented to the world via the 2025 Osaka Kansai Expo.
Since December, Osaka has quietly begun its expo diplomacy. Led by expo minister Shinji Inoue, Osaka and Kansai officials are pressing foreign diplomats, asking them to ensure their countries will attend. Those outreaches will expand further through this year, with a major delegation of corporate leaders and politicians from Osaka, the Kansai region and the national level attending the Dubai Expo on Japan Day on Dec. 11.
By then, the Tokyo Olympics will have faded into history, or been canceled, or, though highly unlikely, again postponed. It will be Osaka’s turn to prepare for Japan’s next big international event: the expo.
Much time and effort will be spent convincing the world Osaka’s leaders are open and interested in the future, and striving to host an inclusive expo. Demonstrating now that they have a different view of inclusiveness to Mori is not only the right thing to do, but also smart, pragmatic diplomacy.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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