Historians agree - and the great, keyhole-shaped imperial tombs that still line local areas attest - that the place was once a really big deal.
Some fifteen hundred years ago, back when a fledgling Japan was still known to the world as Yamato, the center of Honshu
area known as Naniwa was a veritable powerhouse of the East - rich, resplendent, well-respected as a port city and proud
capital of the 36th Emperor of the nation, Kotoku. For every city, however, fortunes rise and fall; and Osaka
(as Naniwa is known to the world these days), while still a port city of considerable might, is no longer quite as rich, half as resplendent and
certainly not as well-respected as it had been in days of old.
Newspapers are laden with reports of corruption, joblessness, mountains of debt
(a 2002 Taipei Times article estimated that Osaka was $33 billion in the hole)
and extravagant construction projects gone belly-up. Non-residents describe the city in withering terms
(just try asking a Tokyo native about "Osaka people");
a sampling of travel guides is enough to make any tourism bureau cringe:
"Osaka's reputation as one of the grimiest, most chaotic and most cramped metropolises in the country is deserved,"
mused the Gateway to Japan travel guide. National Geographic Traveler Japan agreed that it was
"no destination for sightseers," and - perhaps worried tourists wouldn't fully get the point - described the city as a
"hideous concrete agglomeration with a reputation for being driven, hectic, polluted and crowded."
In a final humiliation, Lonely Planet's The Cities Book, which lists the top 200 cities in the world,
had three cities from Japan make the cut: Tokyo, Kyoto and … Hiroshima.
Suffice to say that many Osakans have taken notice. "I don't think Osaka is so dirty. Many foreign guidebooks say this,
that the city is dirty, that the city is a yakuza city. It's a misunderstanding,
a lack of communication with foreign countries,"
says Hiroshi Yamanoh, Chief Producer of the Osaka 21st Century Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to (according
to press material) ‘assisting in the development of Osaka as a global cultural metropolis.'
"Most Japanese, also, do not have a good impression of
Osaka: too many jokes, too much laughter, obachans (earthy grandmother-types).
It seems too wild for people who live in other areas," Yamanoh continues. This may be why the city is currently engaged
in a PR push (or push-back, as it were) to stop the bleeding and return some merit to the city once described as the
"Manchester of the East."
"To change the Japanese impression is very hard. Osaka is
a stereotype - the Yoshimoto-Takoyaki-Tigers city," Yamanoh says, referring to the comedy juggernaut, breaded octopus
snack and baseball team that have carved their places into the city identity.
"The reality of Osaka is not so bad; we can, and should, change the image."
"Changing the image" would be no more than wisps of PR foolishness were it not for the tangible results Yamanoh's group is producing.
The Association's famed Midosuji Parade attracts one million viewers with drummers, dancers, float-carriers and passers-by every autumn,
and promises to do the same for this year's parade, held on October 8th.
"We're trying to change the bad image about Osaka to a good image, and give the city
a symbolic event it can call its own," Yamanoh says.
Still, he admits, "The ability of art direction people [to get the Osaka government to greenlight events] is not so powerful.
We show them a design for a new idea and we tell them that they should try it. But if one person says no, then the whole chain is stopped,
and none of the projects can get off the ground. If we only plan and propose, and one person refuses, we can't have
it. So, we make a branding book to present them and show them what kind of events they can have. If [they say] the plan
is good, then we beg them to implement the plans."
Other groups are taking similar steps, and are working to change the city in even more radical ways.
"The ‘creative industry' movement is the next direction for the city," says artist and social entrepreneur Ken Nakamori.
"It's very possible for Osaka to reinvent itself as a ‘creative city,' as a place creative people are drawn to.
Such a thing would bring a lot of new energy to the city." Nakamori considers something along the lines of San Jose,
California's ‘Silicon Valley,' an area defined by the industry. To that end, he's hosting the premiere of Osaka's first
"Cosmopolita Carnival," a three-day meeting of international movers and shakers which he hopes will bring more creative juice into the city.
"[The Carnival] focuses on cross culture," Nakamori says.
"We want to invite creative people from all over the world for discussion and idea-sharing.
It's kind of a social anthropology experiment - like MySpace, but done in a different way.
"I hope that it comes a movement for the cross-culture community," Nakamori continues. "If artists - and businesspeople
- come together, the area can change drastically."
Area leaders have also begun re-imagining Osaka as a ‘genuine Sports Paradise,' something which the city's official Visitor's
Guide website insists the city has long been "striving" for. "Osaka has a tremendous amount of resources in regards to sports and recreation,
and a great desire to host lots of international events to create to create the sports paradise image,"
says Asia-Oceania World Olympians Association director Laszlo Beres. "Though the city failed in its 2008 Olympic bid [see story],
Osaka has the resources to pick and choose the events it wants to host. The city has a great aquaqtic complex,
for example - it could easily host the FINA world swimming championships, world cups or a similar international event.
Beres is involved in numerous events in Osaka,
including Olympic Day in May and the annual Osaka Sports Festival/ Celebration of Sport event (set this year for October 9th);
he sees many reasons why Osaka can and should be able to become the Sports Paradise it touts online.
"[World Boxing Association Light Flyweight Champion] Kouki Kameda is from Osaka," Beres notes.
"The IAAF World Championships in Athletics will touch down in Osaka's Nagai Stadium next year;
we're having a tremendous Celebration of Sport event on the 9th. There are a wealth of resources and activities in the city."
There are parades, meet-ups and sports festivals, of course, and then there is actual, concrete change.
Osaka has seen both in recent years: the Marui (OIOI) shopping complex opened across from Namba Station last month;
a new concert hall is scheduled to go up in Nakanoshima in 2008. There are number of construction projects underway around Umeda Station,
including re-imaginings of the Hankyu department store and JR train station, as well as the project people are most excited about:
the development of the Kita Yard in the area adjacent to Yodobashi Camera.
Phase One plans for the Yard include deve-loping six hectares of it for a cyber art center, shopping area
and "Knowledge Capital" that will (if all goes according to plan) prominently feature Osaka's high-tech future in robotics.
"Development of the Kita Yard in Umeda is a very big project," says Alex Stewart,
president of Kansai's Alexander Capital Access business advisory firm.
"It's very important strategically; in 2011, the city will have a high-value city center. This is what is triggering other developments
- Hankyu Department Store, JR Station.
Many plots of land are being redeveloped and rebuilt. I think, in five years, that things will look completely different."
Steward, who also serves as an advisor to Osaka's Revitalization Task Force, says that Osaka's budgetary woes aren't big hurdles to progress
("Access to deve-lopment money doesn't depend on the government; it's all done by the private sector, so construction won't be affected that way"),
but that there could be trouble down the road, anyway.
"The problem I feel with this huge exercise is that it's done by committee," Stewart says.
"For the domestic audience, it's fine, but I'm not sure how much excitement they can generate with this internationally."
A look at an "Osaka Brand Book" produced by the city reveals an extraordinary range of ideas,
including a plan by famed Osaka architect Tadao Ando to plant 2,000 cherry blossom trees along the riverbanks around Nakanoshima
in an effort to enhance Osaka's image as a "city of water."
("Four hundred million yen [in private donations] has already been gathered to create the cherry blossom project," Yamanoh says.
"This project really will be actualized, thanks to the generous spirit of Osaka people.")
Some skepticism remains, however.
"Sometimes, Osaka is called a ‘Water City'," Yamanoh says.
"But, compared with Venice, the waterside here isn't so beautiful. Certainly, Osaka once flourished by water, but now it's a little different.
This isn't really a ‘city of 808 bridges;' Osaka has buried many of its canals, because they were very inconvenient for cars."
To an outside observer, the varied forms "the rebra-nding of Osaka" takes - Osaka as a Sports Paradise, Osaka as Hip-Hop Mecca,
Osaka as Fashion Capital, Osaka as a Creative Center - may seem something akin to the clothes-shopping montage in teen come-dies:
the audience has a bit of a laugh as lots of different outfits get tried on, though nothing substantial
comes of any of the protagonist's changes. The common complaint is that re-branding a city, as one would a car company or a hamburger chain,
is an exercise in futility; Britons, of course, may recall the "Cool Britannia" movement that officially stopped moving when the Minister of Culture,
Media and Sport declared the five-year exercise dead in 2001.
For all of that, it's certainly not a good thing for the Yahoo! Travel portal to start off its description of Osaka as
"the urban equivalent of the Elephant Man"; clearly, there is room - and incentive - for change.
Rebranding - especially a city - "has to be done with private brand consultants," Stewart says.
"You take their advice - which, likely, is to focus on one thing. Pick out your strength, or whatever it is you want to be number one at,
and keep repeating it. Advanced robotics, for example, was one of the things being discussed. Keep repeating it; make
it your underlying strategy in everything. Make it something that Osaka can be known for. You can build buildings, of course,
to re-brand yourself, but that's the old style. Kita Ward in Umeda is building itself up as a Knowledge Capital, but I'm not sure
that that will be enough."
Some argue that there is nothing Osaka needs that it doesn't already have, and that a dose of civic pride is all the city needs to rejuvenate itself.
As the argument goes, if Chicago - which is neither Los Angeles nor New York, and seemingly has no pretensions to
be - can exist on its own terms, then why can't Osaka (which is actually one of Chicago's sister cities)?
"I think most foreigners would say Kansai is a good place to visit. But, of course, those are the people living here already," Yamanoh says.
"We must give more information abroad. Last year, promotional stamps were made for the Minami art festival;
they featured [Osaka landmarks such as] the Glico Man, the Ferris wheel, Dotonbori Bridge, etc.
I don't think any similar stamps are made by the actual post office."
To better promote Osaka's image, such things as the stamps should be created, and "postcards, for example,
should be made and put in hotels in Osaka," Yamanoh continues.
"Tourists should be able to take them for free to send them back to their home countries."
However Osaka changes - or even if it doesn't - most are positive about the future.
"By 2016, Osaka will have a great city center, be even more of an exciting place," Stewart says.
"I believe integration with Asia will be much more obvious because of expansion with businesses in China, and in the rest
of Asia. Osaka will be more Asian, and more connected with Asia. I think the economy will be a bit more stable, be reasonably strong.
"I think it will look good," Stewart continues. "I just think Osaka has to stop comparing itself to Tokyo, and accept itself as a regional city
similar to Nagoya or Fukuoka, against which Osaka can more than hold its own. There was talk last year of Nagoya overtaking Osaka,
but it hasn't happened, and I don't think that it will. As the ‘second city' of Japan, Osaka is the city of choice."
Going for the Gold
July 12, 2001 was a date for much celebration in China, as news came from the International Olympic Committee's meeting in Moscow that
Beijing would be the host for the 2008 Summer Games.
The international press was awash in speculation about what hosting the Games would "mean" for Beijing;
aside from the obvious financial benefit (it's been estimated that $10 billion was pumped into the Torino economy
because of the recent Winter Olympics there) would come a rush of construction, increased prestige and - as former US Secretary of State
Colin Powell said in a truly breathless moment - perhaps even a democratic
government. Good for Beijing; less so for Osaka, one of the cities Beijing beat to lock up hosting rights.
Still, in a rightward attempt to make apples out of a failed Olympic bid, the city partnered with the World Olympians Asso-ciation and is now host
to the body's Asia/Oceania Regional office. Director Laszlo Beres explains how Olympic bidding wars get won.
KS: How does a city get chosen to host an Olympics?
Laszlo Beres: The idea may come from a major leader or a group of the community.
If the city has enough infrastructure, this person may be able to gather enough energy and create enough enthusiasm to create an intention for a bid.
Their country's Olympic committee is informed, other cities which have also posted bids are collected, and then there is a contest.
Then the country's Olympic Committee decides which city from the country will get the bid, and it's entered into competition with other cities
from around the world. The International Olympic Commi- ttee considers a number of factors - sports affiliation, financial strength, infrastructure,
market analysis etc. - to create their short list, which is then held to a vote before the entire body.
It's a very long gap between creation of the bid and the announcement of who wins. I was in the USA in 2000,
for instance, when Houston, Dallas, LA, San Francisco, Washington DC, and New York were all trying become the US's official bid city for the 2012 Games.
In 2005, of course, London was selected as the host, over New York and others.
Why was Beijing chosen for 2008?
Beijing put in a very good bid. And, by 2001, it was actually the third time the city had placed a bid.
Beijing had only narrowly lost to Sydney - by only two votes, I think it was - to host the 2000 Games. In a way, they were due to win.
So Osaka and the other cities that weren't chosen only lost because Beijing was due?
Not quite that. Which city is the best choice to host the event is always the most basic question.
But it's also a political decision. The IOC doesn't cluster its Olympic Games; they were held in America in 1996, in Australia in 2000,
in Athens in 2004. There was always a pretty good chance the Games were going to Asia for the 2008 Games, and then back to Europe for the 2012 event.
And, I would not be surprised if a Latin American or African city won the bid for
the 2016 Games. As for Japan's host city for 2016, Toyko and Fukuoka have both put in bids;
I think the final decision for that will be coming at the end of the month.
[On August 30, the Japanese Olympic Committee selec-ted Tokyo over Fukuoka by a vote of 33-22.]
Why didn't Osaka even put in a bid for 2016?
Maybe, economically, Osaka is having some difficult times. Maybe they didn't
feel strongly enough about their financial situation to put in a bid against the compe-ting cities.
Putting in an Olympic bid is a very expensive undertaking; it's not two pennies to create all of the promotional materials,
printed materials, case studies, media involvement, community/private sector support and the bid materials required by the IOC.
Is there a limit to the number of times a city can enter?
A city can enter as many times as they want; Beijing, for example.
But, if a bid doesn't work out, the city obviously has to be able to answer why it didn't work, and what they can do to improve their bid for next time.
[Failing in the 2008 Olympic bid] was not a tremendous loss for Osaka City.
A lot of positive things have come out of it; the city's partnership with the WOA, for just one example.
What's going to happen in the future?
I hope it's going to go to Africa or South America in 2016; I've heard that Rio de Janeiro has put in a very strong bid before.
If the Games move back to Asia for 2020 Olympics, which I think they might, I think Osaka could be in a very good candidate.
Tokyo, however, has indicated that they may be trying for the 2020 Games, if their current bid doesn't work out.
If the vote comes down to Osaka versus Toyko, which city is going to get the nod from the JOC?
I live here, so I'm going to say Osaka! I'd like to see Osaka win; it'd be a great thing for this city.