Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura and the Governor of Osaka Prefecture Ichiro Matsui have big plans to put the city of Osaka on the map, and they could be as bold about it as making the announcements in a “rival” city, Tokyo.
On February 19, they spoke to a full house at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, sharing their vision for creating a new metropolitan system. They are reforming the current local government system, where the prefecture and city government work on two levels.
They cited as well how Osaka’s growth is higher than Tokyo, but the two leaders also met with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike later in the day.
Road to Osaka Kansai EXPO 2025
The G20 global economic forum will be meeting in Osaka in June this year, Japan’s first time to host the event. In addition, the city has been chosen as the location for the Osaka Kansai EXPO 2025.
The city drew up a ￥125 billion JPY plan for the Expo, which will include an entertainment center on the man-made island of Yumeshima. The Expo proposal, which follows the theme of “designing cities of the future” will make use of IA technology, as well as aim to conform to UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The crown jewel of the space is set to be the IR, or Integrated Resort, an entertainment hub which will include a casino complex. This space is intended to attract people from all over the world to the city of Osaka.
“This is a man-made island where currently nobody is living. We want to create a space where people will seek to challenge themselves,” said Mayor Yoshimura.
Regarding the future of the space after the Osaka Expo, he commented: “The other day, in an interview, I even discussed the possibility of bringing Formula 1 to this space.”
In the immediate future, the city will be engaged in projects to expand the Kansai International Airport and commercialize the metro system.
This comes in the context of Osaka attracting an increasing number of inbound tourists, both in its own right and as part of the wider Kansai region, which is home to cities like tourist-favorite destinations like Kyoto and Nara.
“When I became governor in 2011, the number of tourists was 1.58 million. Last year, it was 11 million, more than a 7-fold increase,” said Matsui.
In 2018 the total number of tourists coming to Japan exceeded 30 million. More than one-third of them visited the city of Osaka, an impressive feat considering that Kansai was in the news for 10 weeks in 2018, following the damaging event of typhoon Jebi and other natural disasters.
Change Driven by Ambitious Politics
What was clear during the press conference was that both Yoshimura and Matsui had a clear vision about what they want Osaka to become.
Yoshimura explained, “We are now entering an age where, rather than countries taking the lead, it’s the cities leading their countries.”
However, both leaders acknowledged the main obstacle to their grand plans: the system that defines, or separates, the work of the prefectural and city governments.
Currently, the mayor of Osaka City and the governor of Osaka Prefecture draw up different independent policies, so their respective local government policies go in different directions.
Governor Matsui gave the example of two skyscrapers built by the city and prefectural governments. “Both of these buildings ended up not having enough tenants, and both developments went bankrupt.”
Yoshimura pointed out that currently Osaka’s economic growth is higher than Tokyo’s. Matsui then added: “Human relations are fragile. We want to put in place a system where the growth of Osaka is not dependent on that.”
The will to change the bifurcated system extends to the desire to bring changes more generally to the system, to put more emphasis on the prefectural governments.
“This is a constitution which was drawn up when people would still go around on horses. But it needs to change. We know that if we don’t change the prefectural system first, this change will never happen,” explained Yoshimura.
Osaka’s Politics: The Comfort Women Issue
Formerly a lawyer, the young mayor of Osaka gained international attention in August 2018 when he decided to break sister city relations with San Francisco over a comfort woman statue. Yoshimura had opposed the statue, claiming the plaque carried biased and inaccurate information. San Francisco’s mayor ignored his plea and he therefore broke off the 60-year sister city relationship.
When Yoshimura was asked at the press conference whether he planned to change Osaka’s policy regarding the comfort women issue, his previous determination did not seem to waver.
“I think for the issue to move forward the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to put more effort into spreading the correct facts about Japan. I think that we should treat it the way we talk about crimes of war — as an internationally relevant issue rather than something specific to Japan,” he said.
Given the coming G20 forum in June and the local leaders’ creative energy, it will be interesting to see what other plans the mayor of Osaka and governor of Osaka prefecture come up with for the city in Kansai.
Author: Arielle Busetto