Flying cars, new medical technologies for the elderly and hydrogen- and ammonia-powered vehicles and buildings: These are just some of the things visitors are expected to experience, both in person and remotely, at the Osaka, Kansai Japan 2025 Expo, which will take primarily but not exclusively in Osaka.

But with the 2020 Dubai Expo still underway after being postponed by a year due to the coronavirus, less than half of the 150 countries Japan hopes will be at the 2025 Expo have formally promised to come.

Countries have been slower to make formal commitments largely because they won’t decide whether they will attend the Osaka event until after the Dubai Expo finishes, but also because they’re not ready to spend money on a 2025 Expo amid the domestic and international economic damage caused by COVID-19.

Countries that have agreed to come, on the other hand, may also spend less money than they might have done otherwise on constructing their pavilions, also due to the economic worries.

In Osaka, meanwhile, there are three main challenges. The first is convincing more people in other parts of Japan that the Expo is a worthwhile national, not local, project that will financially benefit other regions besides Kansai.

The second is ensuring planned transportation links to and from the Expo site are up and running by 2025. And the third is getting the central government to make new rules, or change current ones, to allow for some of the technologies that will be on display.

With the Dubai Expo not concluding until March 31, there will be only three years, instead of the usual four, until the Osaka Expo opens on April 13, 2025 — leaving organizers with a very tight schedule to address these issues.

No repeat of 1970

When the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) awarded Japan the 2025 Expo in November 2018, there was a sense that history was repeating itself.

Tokyo, which hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics, won the right in 2013 to host them again in 2020. The 2025 Expo, likewise, would be the second time it was held in Osaka, 55 years after one of the most successful Expos ever.

Students perform a Japanese traditional dance on Japan Day at the Dubai Expo on Dec. 11. | KYODO
Students perform a Japanese traditional dance on Japan Day at the Dubai Expo on Dec. 11. | KYODO

The 1970 Osaka Expo, the first to be held in Asia, drew 64 million visitors — mostly from Japan. It is remembered today for the long lines that formed in front of a moon rock at the U.S. pavilion, for introducing the prototype of what would, many years later, become the cellular phone and for artist Taro Okamoto’s “Tower of the Sun.” The tower was the Osaka Expo and created controversy over its design — which, as Okamoto said, was intended to send a message that technological development has a dark side as well as a bright side.

Today, the 1970 Expo is fondly remembered in Osaka and Kansai among those who were children at the time, and it’s natural to hope the 2025 Expo will have a similar impact. But Osaka officials involved with the planning emphasize there are likely to be differences.

“The 1970 Osaka Expo was unique, and reflective of Japanese society and attitudes toward the world at the time. The 2025 Expo will be different for a different age,” Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, who was governor when Osaka was awarded the expo, following the 2018 win.

How different? For starters, nobody expects the total number of visitors to come anywhere near the record 64 million people who came to the 1970 Expo.

Before the pandemic, organizers expected 28.2 million visitors, including 3.5 million from abroad, for 2025.

The 1970 Expo capped a decade of high national economic growth at a time when Japan’s postwar generations were still children or young adults. The 2025 Expo will be held at a time when the children of 1970 will be senior citizens, and the world is worried about pandemics.

“The 2025 Osaka/Kansai Expo is a national project for a new age that has overcome the coronavirus,” Kenji Wakamiya, minister for the expo, said during a question period in parliament on Dec. 14.

An illustration of flying cars | METI / VIA KYODO
An illustration of flying cars | METI / VIA KYODO

The expo will take place on a 155-hectare plot on Yumeshima, a 390-hectare artificial island in Osaka Bay. Under the theme “Designing Future Society for Our Lives,” 150 participating countries and 25 international organizations will set up pavilions to introduce their political, social, economic and technological ideas for meeting the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Exhibits will focus on the future of technologies related to artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine, mobile data, virtual reality, clean energy, smart grids and smart cities as well as new technologies for the transport sector, including flying cars.

There will also be “virtual exhibits” and programs at the expo, allowing people who cannot get to Osaka in person to experience some sights and performances remotely via the Internet and social media. The exact nature and details of such experiences have yet to be decided.

As the expo is officially known as the Osaka/Kansai Japan Expo, plans are also underway to create an expo satellite area in Kyoto — about an hour and a half away by train from Yumeshima — and other Kansai cities like Kobe. In addition, the Union of Kansai Governments — which consists of the leaders of eight prefectures and four major cities, including Osaka and Kyoto, as well as major regional business lobbies — are pushing the central government to invest in new tourism opportunities for foreign visitors in particular, so that they can more easily visit other parts of western Japan by sea as well as by land.

“In order to stimulate inbound tourism demand before, during and after the 2025 Expo, we need to take advantage of the fact that Yumeshima lies in Osaka Bay and faces the Seto Inland Sea,” the union and business lobbies said in December, in a formal request to the central government for new expo-related funding. “Therefore, it’s important to promote cruises, including cruises around Osaka Bay as well as those that go through the inland sea.”

Guides for different countries' pavilions at the 1970 Osaka Expo. | OSAKA PREFECTURE / VIA KYODO
Guides for different countries’ pavilions at the 1970 Osaka Expo. | OSAKA PREFECTURE / VIA KYODO

Challenges ahead

Dec. 11 was Japan Day at the Dubai Expo. At past Expos, high level VIPs from the political and corporate worlds, as well as sports and entertainment celebrities, have all flown in from Japan to celebrate.

But the coronavirus made that impossible this year, forcing Japan Day organizers to greatly scale down the event.

The decision not to send a large delegation from Japan for Japan Day meant the loss of a key opportunity for top Japanese leaders to conduct face-to-face diplomacy in Dubai and promote the 2025 Expo.

“Those who couldn’t come from Japan, Osaka and Kansai must be disappointed and regretful,” Tomiyasu Nakamura, commissioner general of the Japan Pavilion, told a television interviewer following a parade around the Dubai Expo to promote the 2025 event in Osaka.

Expo officials are running out of time to promote it abroad. As of Dec. 14, only 67 countries and 5 international organizations have confirmed their participation in the 2025 event. While these include the United States and China, which are expected to have some of the largest pavilions, the total is less than half of the goal Osaka Expo organizers have set.

Narihiro Yamashiro, a public relations official for the 2025 Expo, says that while other countries have not yet formally committed to 2025, they have indicated that they will be there.

“Although the situation is very difficult due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’ll continue to work closely with the central government in order to take advantage of invitation promotion opportunities,” he said.

The spring of 2022, Yamashiro added, offers a couple of opportunities to continue expo promotion efforts. “At the end of March 2022, BIE Day and the closing ceremony are scheduled to be held as official events of the Dubai Expo. We’d like to take advantage of these opportunities to further invite participation and build momentum,” he said. “April will mark three years until the opening of the 2025 Expo, and the official mascot character for the expo will be chosen in spring.”

Drummers perform on Japan Day at the Dubai Expo on Dec. 11. | KYODO
Drummers perform on Japan Day at the Dubai Expo on Dec. 11. | KYODO

Whether the coronavirus situation will allow a large delegation of high-ranking Japanese officials to attend those events remains unclear. Most countries are waiting until the Dubai Expo finishes before they seriously consider what kind of — if any — pavilion they will set up in Osaka in 2025.

With only three years left for countries to fund and build pavilions, Japanese officials are racing against the clock, pressuring countries and international organizations not only to attend but also to formally sign detailed pavilion agreements as quickly as possible.

In addition to getting other countries to quickly confirm their attendance, there is the challenge of generating increased interest and excitement for the 2025 Expo in other parts of Japan.

Wakamiya, the expo minister, has stressed the event is a national project. In 2022, local corporate leaders — including those from the Kansai Economic Federation — plan to meet with their counterparts in other parts of the country in order to obtain various forms of assistance, including financial assistance, for the expo.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in Osaka and the Kansai region for the Expo, but less in Tokyo, Hokkaido, Kyushu and other regions,” said Manabu Nojima, director and general Manager of the Kansai Economic Federation’s Industrial Affairs Department. “From the spring of 2023, advance ticket sales for the expo will begin. So we have to raise the level of interest before then if we expect to sell a lot of tickets.”

The closing ceremony at the 1970 Osaka Expo | OSAKA PREFECTURE /VIA KYODO
The closing ceremony at the 1970 Osaka Expo | OSAKA PREFECTURE /VIA KYODO

Practical concerns

When Japan won the right to host the expo, Japanese officials estimated site construction would cost ¥125 billion.

But in December 2020 that estimate suddenly increased to ¥185 billion, due, the central government said, to rising labor and material costs.

Under the agreement for expo funding, one-third of the cost would be borne by the central government, one third by municipal and prefectural authorities in Osaka and the remaining third by the private sector.

With the original cost estimate having been raised once, the corporate community, in particular, is wary of being asked again to cover further cost increases.

“The burden for the private sector has increased from about ¥41.7 billion originally to ¥61.7 billion,” Nojima said. “Thankfully, in Kansai, businesses are cooperative and the funds are being collected. But it would be difficult to put additional demands on the private sector to raise more money because of a lot of negative coronavirus-related economic impacts on them that are raising their costs.”

Another issue is getting people to the expo on public transportation. Currently, there is no subway or train access to Yumeshima, but Osaka Metro’s Chuo Line will be extended by three kilometers to provide service to the island. Construction costs are estimated at ¥54 billion and the new station is due to open in fiscal 2024, which ends in March 2025.

An illustration of 2025 Osaka Expo in Yumeshima, Osaka. | KYODO
An illustration of 2025 Osaka Expo in Yumeshima, Osaka. | KYODO

In addition, a 4.4 kilometer stretch of road needs to be widened for a shuttle bus-only route that will connect Shin Osaka station, where shinkansen services arrive, to the expo site in just 20 minutes. But while the central government has agreed to make completion of the subway extension and road projects a priority, Nojima said construction firms are concerned there may not be enough time to get them finished.

Finally, there are regulatory issues that need central government attention by 2025, if not sooner. Flying cars are being touted as a star attraction at the expo, but in their request to the central government in December the Union of Kansai Governments called for new regulations on flight routes, the development of takeoff and landing sites and deregulation or relaxation of current laws and regulations that would otherwise inhibit their use at the expo.

According to the organization, other areas of regulatory reform needed to enable technologies planned to be on display at the expo include rules that apply to driverless vehicles, medical technology and even the use of head-mounted displays and virtual reality goggles by children under 13 years old.

The legacy question

In early February, major business leaders in the Kansai area will meet in Kyoto to discuss expo promotion strategies, deregulatory issues and cost concerns. But underlying those discussions is the larger question of what kind of legacy Japan wants the expo to leave behind.

The stated goal of officials at a national level and in Osaka is for the Expo to contribute to a post-coronavirus world and to the Sustainable Development Goals. That is how it has been presented by the government, the business community and the media since Osaka won the rights to host the event three years ago. But whether that will be enough to spur public enthusiasm is unknown.

A Mitsubishi Research Institute survey conducted in May showed that while 80% of respondents nationwide knew the 2025 Expo was taking place, only 29.5% said they were interested or extremely interested in the event.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, organizers forecast the total impact of the expo on the Japanese economy to be ¥2 trillion. But if the pandemic continues well into 2022, plans for the expo may have to be scaled down or altered as participants from Japan and abroad face deadlines related to the pavilions in the coming months.

That would save money, but also create concerns about attendance levels and lower expo-related spending by visitors in 2025.

Expos are both technological showcases and public festivals. While expo officials have spoken in general terms about the legacy of the 2025 Expo, the public’s perception of the event and how it will be shaped seems likely to depend — at least in part — on what happens with the pandemic and the world economy in 2022.

A parade on Japan Day at the Dubai Expo on Dec. 11. | KYODO
A parade on Japan Day at the Dubai Expo on Dec. 11. | KYODO

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