Osaka: a world-class city working hard to shake its second-rate status in Japan

May 10, 1992|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,Boston Globe

OSAKA, Japan -- Don't talk Tokyo in this burg. It is a subject on which the natives tend to be downright churlish.

"Japan is not Tokyo," insists Hironari Masago, president of the Osaka Chamber of Commerce. "Tokyo this, Tokyo that. All one hears about is Tokyo."

This mammoth city, vigorous, prosperous and certainly no uglier than its rival, the capital city to the east, suffers a bad case of the second-place blues. Osaka is fighting hard to change its image and attract businesses, but it has centuries of inferiority to contend with.

Once the political and economic capital of Japan, Osaka saw its for tunes take a turn for the worse in 1603, when a new shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, spurned Osaka in favor of Edo, then an obscure castle town surrounded by even more obscure hamlets set in a smelly mud marsh.

It was a blow to Osaka's prestige, but hardly a fatal one. After all, the emperor still reigned in nearby Kyoto, part of the Osaka-dominated Kansai district. So Osaka could still claim to be the spiritual as well as economic heart of Nippon.

Come 1868, and more hard luck. The Tokugawa dynasty collapsed, much, one imagines, to the pleasure of Osakans, who had nursed a long grudge. The smiles were quickly wiped from their faces, however, when the emperor packed his bags for Edo, which was promptly renamed Tokyo, or Eastern Capital.

"There has been too much overconcentration on Tokyo ever since," grumbled Mr. Masago.

That is putting it mildly.

Today Tokyo is the undisputed center of Japan, if not the universe, as some Tokyoites would have it. It boasts the world's greatest concentration of humanity and wealth. More than a third of Japan's 123 million people live within 100 miles of the capital.

Tokyo is home to a disproportionate number of the country's top universities, the biggest and most famous department stores, the country's tallest skyscraper and Japan's busiest (if horribly inconvenient) airport. It is rich, powerful and self-assured to the point of arrogance.

Osaka has Osaka Castle, which is photogenic, sure, but really just a ferroconcrete reproduction of the original. It is also home base for the Yakuza, Japan's Mafia, although city boosters don't harp on that. The boosters do harp on Osaka's many canals, not all of which resemble open sewers. Still, describing Osaka as the "Venice of Asia," as local tourist brochures are wont to do, is stretching it a bit.

All this tends to make Japan's second city feel, well, second-rate -- and more than a bit peevish. But Osaka is neither down nor out. Its factories boom, its shops bustle. The gross economic output of greater Osaka is larger than that of Great Britain and growing in leaps and bounds.

Moreover, Osaka is spending huge sums to lure more industries, contracts and multinational contracts.

It has already committed $115 billion to 130 development projects, chief of which is the $6.5 billion construction of Kansai International Airport on a 1,300-acre artificial island in Osaka Bay.

With two runways and the ability to operate 24 hours a day (the approach is over water, so jet noise will not force nightly shutdowns, as is the case with Tokyo's Narita Airport), the Kansai airport could become the most important gateway to Japan when it opens sometime in 1994. Narita, by contrast, is so crowded that airlines cannot get landing rights and established airlines cannot open new routes.

Osaka is seeking to shed its second-rate image in other ways as well. Last summer, it opened one of the world's largest and most impressive aquariums.

Designed by a Massachusetts firm, Cambridge Seven, the $107 million Ring of Fire Aquarium features 16,000 species of sea creatures from around the Pacific Rim. It already has become a major tourist draw.

Other projects in the works include construction of a huge science research center, a World Trade Center, the world's longest suspension bridge, an urban monorail system and more parks and gardens.

"Osaka is already a world-class city," said Mr. Masago. "We are working hard to ensure that the world recognizes this and, when it thinks Japan, it thinks of Osaka as naturally as it thinks of Tokyo."

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