DESTINATIONS

Osaka’s Star Set to Rise Again

On November 23, Osaka was selected by member countries of the Bureau International des Expositions to the host the World Exposition in 2025. Odaki Kazuhiko comments.

A cruise party on the Dotombori canal passes the popular entertainment and dining district of the same name in Osaka.
COURTESY OSAKA CONVENTION & TOURISM BUREAU

When Osaka hosts the World Expo in 2025 it will be the second time it has done so, fifty-five years on from the first occasion in 1970. Coincidentally, an Osaka Expo being held a few years after an Olympic Games in Tokyo (2022) is a repeat of events last time around (1964). The locals in Osaka welcome the decision and have high expectations for their city’s re-development. Tourists visiting Japan have previously focused on Tokyo but have recently started noticing Osaka’s charm as well.

The Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe area is called “Kansai.” It is not simply a Japanese region, but it holds special significance as it is what could be termed a center of Japanese history, culture and industry.

Osaka has a longer history as a capital than either Kyoto and Nara, with gigantic imperial tombs from the fifth century still remaining. Even after the political center moved to Kyoto for a thousand years and then to Edo (Tokyo), Osaka remained the largest economic center of Japan and became a megalopolis together with Kyoto. It is only in the last few decades that Tokyo has become the undisputed center of Japan.

As such, when asked about the regional structure of Japan, many Japanese will think in terms of not “Tokyo as well as Osaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Hiroshima and other cities” but in terms of the east-west bipolar structure of “Tokyo as the eastern center and Osaka as the western center.” Moreover, the latter perception is in many ways also closer to reality.

Since Osaka and Kansai was the center of Japan for so long, the level and quality of economic activities there are high. Contrasting with Edo that was a world centering on warriors (that is, public officials) and farmers, Kansai had flourishing commercial, financial and manufacturing industries as well as a great number of companies. Most of Japan’s major companies of today originated from Osaka and Kyoto.

Since the living standard has historically been high, the level of diet and food culture is also high. While a lot of pork is eaten in Tokyo and lamb in Sapporo, meat in Kansai refers to beef. A large number of Japanese restaurants in Tokyo are Kansai-style restaurants as well.

Another characteristic of the Kansai region is the people’s passion for education. Kansai has an extremely large number of universities compared to its population. Despite that, talented students from Kansai go on to study at Japan’s top universities in Tokyo and elsewhere. The Osaka dialect is heard at medical schools across Japan. There are Nobel laureates at universities at universities all over Japan, but a very high proportion of them actually went to Kansai high schools.

 

Okonomiyaki pancakes, takoyaki octopus balls (pictured) and kitsune udon noodles are among the “street foods” in which Osaka specializes.
COURTESY OSAKA CONVENTION & TOURISM BUREAU

To tourists from overseas, Osaka is in many ways a stimulating city that turns their image of “Japan” on its head. The image of Japanese as silent, serious, obedient to rules, and emphasizing status and authority more than money is betrayed in Osaka. The Japanese in Osaka are actually talkative, eager to make people laugh through humor, and confidently give their opinions to foreigners in broken English without holding back. They cross at red lights, argue with police officers, and prioritize their business success more than appearances and pride. The wealth gap is obvious as residential areas are divided by income and children go to public elementary schools matching their parents’ level. Of course, there is considerable discrimination too. Any visitor to Kansai is sure to get the impression that the world’s image of Japan and the Japanese comes from “Kanto” around Tokyo, meaning that it is a tendency peculiar to Tokyo due to its history of many farmers and public officials, while the former Japanese center of Kansai in many ways is a universal metropolis that has a lot in common with the rest of the world.

Changes to the balance between East and West Japan became apparent from the seventeenth century. A war between east and west that divided Japan occurred in that century, and it was East Japan that emerged victorious despite their disadvantages in terms of small population and a less developed economy. This was an east-west reversal on par with possible Scottish rule over England in the event Cromwell had been defeated in the seventeenth century. The political and military centers moved to East Japan, and Japan became a nation with a bipolar structure of Osaka and Kyoto in the west and Edo (Tokyo) in the east.

The relative importance between the two then came to incline toward the east over a long period of time, so that the phrase “subsidence of Kansai” became popular after the Second World War.

Nevertheless, this shift from west to east was reversed on repeated occasions. In particular, when Japan faces difficult times in terms of great disasters, industrial decline, or population decline, it has been West Japan, with its traditional foundation of economy and human resources, that has taken the lead, rather than the emergent East Japan.

The return of the events of the Tokyo Olympics and the Osaka Expo after fifty-five years gives the impression that Japan’s rapid development has settled down. From here on, Japan will face difficult times as we take on the big challenges of population aging and the obsolescence of previous major industries. At such a time, I am convinced that Osaka and Kansai, with their ability to cheerfully communicate with people from all over the world and innovate freely without being controlled by authority, will increase its presence even more and become an attractive metropolis at the center of West Japan.

ODAKI Kazuhiko is a professor at Nihon University and senior fellow at the Research Institute for Economy, Trade and Industry.

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