Osaka has won the right to host the 2025 World Expo — 55 years after the 1970 Osaka Expo, a landmark event that symbolized Japan’s rapid postwar economic development. The decision at last week’s meeting of the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris has fueled hopes that the expo — yet another big international event for Japan on the heels of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games — will once again boost the Kansai region’s economy, which has been in a relative decline as the nation’s population, businesses and other resources concentrate in Tokyo. It would, however, be too much to expect a repeat of the excitement and economic benefits that accompanied the 1970 expo, which was held in an entirely different social and economic background. Organizers should instead grapple with the meaning of holding the 2025 event at a time when the very relevance of international expos is in doubt with the advance in information technology.
The government won a competition with Russia and Azerbaijan to host the 2025 expo, which it plans to hold with the theme “Designing future society for our lives.” The expo is expected to showcase advanced technologies, particularly in fields such as life science, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and biotechnology, although the specifics of the exhibits are still up in the air.
Officials anticipate 28 million people will visit the 185-day event from May to November of 2025 and it will provide a roughly ¥2 trillion boost to the economy. The last world expo held in Japan, in Aichi Prefecture in 2005, is said to have attracted 22 million visitors and generated more than ¥1 trillion in economic benefits.
Since the first one was held in London in 1851, world expos have served as events to demonstrate the industrial power of the host country and other participants, showcasing the latest and future technologies and lifestyles. The 1970 Osaka Expo — the first-ever such event hosted by Japan — was a phenomenal success that attracted more than 64 million visitors and celebrated the rapid growth that had transformed the nation into the world’s second-largest economy. The region’s public transportation infrastructure was developed in time for the expo, while the event’s site and its surrounding areas were redeveloped as housing projects to accommodate the urban population flowing into the growing economy.
The 2025 expo will be held on Yumeshima, a man-made island in Osaka Bay that had been created in a redevelopment project that went bust with the collapse of the bubble boom in the early 1990s — in an area that had reportedly been considered as a site for the athletes’ village in Osaka’s unsuccessful bid for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. In that sense, the 2025 expo will make positive use of the negative legacy of Osaka’s past development projects. The Osaka Prefecture and the city plan to leverage the successful bid for the expo to build new subway lines and roads that will provide access to the venue. They also reportedly hope to launch an integrated resort complex featuring a casino on Yumeshima that would open ahead of the world expo.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the Osaka expo will bring much more than the benefits of a one-off event and contribute to a sustained recovery of the region’s economy. Osaka used to be known as the home to manufacturing firms during the heyday of the nation’s leading home appliance makers, but has suffered from the hollowing out of its industries when the companies moved their headquarters to Tokyo or shifted their production overseas. Osaka Prefecture’s share of the domestic economy has declined from 10 percent in 1970 to around 7 percent in recent years. The relative decline of Osaka’s economy in comparison to Tokyo has been the subject of much discussion over the years.
At the same time, Osaka today is one of the most popular destinations for visitors from overseas as the inbound tourism boom continues. Of the record 28.7 million tourists who visited Japan last year, about 11.1 million, or nearly 40 percent of the total, are estimated to have visited Osaka — a sharp increase from 2.63 million in 2013. Those tourists are said to have spent some ¥680 billion while visiting there.
The government expects that 3.5 million of the anticipated 28 million visitors to the 2025 expo will come from overseas. Measures to help sustain the tourism industry will no doubt contribute to a long-term revival of Osaka’s economy. In that respect, the anticipated shortage of hotel rooms will be a source of concern. While the government estimates that the daily number of expo visitors staying in the Kansai region will reach 364,000 at its peak, the anticipated total capacity in the areas as of 2025 will barely accommodate 365,000. That will be one of many problems that must be addressed as we prepare for the event.