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Osaka Reemerging as Japan’s Second Metropolis

SNA (Tokyo) — Eclipsed for many decades by its much larger Tokyo rival, Osaka is reclaiming its former status as Japan’s second metropolis. The recent G20 Summit held in Osaka which briefly put the city’s name on the lips of a global audience was indicative of its rising prominence, and is not likely to be the last time in the coming years that it will become the focus of the world’s attention.

Still, Osaka often struggles to get respect when matched up against its gargantuan rival to the northeast, and some facts and figures quickly make apparent why that is the case.

The Tokyo metropolitan area has a population of nearly 14 million people, a figure that grows to more than 38 million when the greater Tokyo area, known as the Kanto region, is factored in. This is the largest metropolitan area in the world by population. Osaka Prefecture, by contrast, is home to less than 9 million people, rising to almost 23 million for the entire Kansai region.

However, even within the Kansai region, Osaka’s dominance is not as complete as Tokyo’s is for the Kanto region, which often seems little more Tokyo and its seemingly endless suburbs, with the possible exception of Yokohama. The Kansai region, by contrast, also includes Kyoto and Nara, two of Japan’s ancient capitals, as well as the port city of Kobe, all of which possess identities quite distinct from the mercantile hustle and bustle of Osaka.

The economic story is much the same. The GDP of the Tokyo metropolitan area had exceeded 104 trillion yen (US$9.6 trillion) by 2015. In the case of Osaka, the figure was a much lower at 39 trillion yen (US$3.6 trillion).

Moreover, Tokyo is Japan’s capital city, home to its government and the Emperor, and next year it will host the 2020 Olympics, an international showcase even larger than the recent G20 Summit.

And yet, what any proud Osakan will quickly tell you is what really counts is quality, not quantity, and they assert that this is where they come out ahead.

Osaka does gain some support in this claim from outside observers. For example, the latest edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Livability Ranking put Osaka as the No. 3 most livable city with Tokyo trailing behind at No. 7.

Steve Iwamura, special advisor to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan – Kansai, who lived in the city for more than three decades, agrees that the quality of life in Osaka is better, citing factors such as it lower population density and living costs, the best department stores, easier access to natural areas, excellent public transport, and, in his opinion, “Osaka people are more open and friendlier than Tokyo.”

Moreover, economically and politically, Osaka appears to be on the march.

Osaka business leaders strongly support this push. Stephen Zurcher, a dean at Kansai Gaidai University and program’s director for the nation’s first academic program focused on hotel management, tells the Shingetsu News Agency, “The goal of the leaders of the various business organizations that I liaison with is that Osaka will become recognized as the second city of Japan.”

In recent years, the local government has been in the hands of the Osaka Restoration Association, a regional political party which has proven to be the only party on the Japanese main islands that has repeatedly defeated the national ruling party led by Shinzo Abe. As recently as April this Osaka-based party electorally wiped up the floor with the local chapter of Liberal Democratic Party, and is providing young and dynamic leadership to the prefecture and city.

In fact, the signature policy of the Osaka Restoration Association—which is otherwise similar in ideology to the current prime minister—is to administratively unite Osaka Prefecture and Osaka city, and create at a formal, legal level Japan’s second metropolitan government.

The Osaka Restoration Association already failed in its first attempt in 2015 to win a popular referendum on this issue, but with their recent round of convincing local electoral wins, they are preparing a second referendum, which may come late next year.

One victory the local leaders have already notched up is that they won their bid to make Osaka the host of the 2025 World Expo.

The World Expo, which will be open to the public from May 3 to November 3, 2025, is expected to draw in about 28 million visitors over a six-month period to what is currently an undeveloped island in Osaka Bay called Yumeshima.

At around the same time, Osaka is anticipated to be opening the doors of Japan’s first major market integrated resort—a casino and entertainment facility that is expected to involve an investment of about US$10 billion to construct.

The 2025 World Expo and the anticipated integrated resort are both designed to drive tourism to Osaka, but in fact, according to a recent Reuters survey, the city has already emerged as the Japan’s fastest-growing destination for inbound tourism, with a five-fold increase between 2012 and 2017.

Iwamura concludes, “Everyone here feels the new wind blowing in Osaka.”

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