Long-term residents of the Japanese city of Osaka have fond memories of the last time it hosted a World Expo.

Shinya Hashizume, a professor at Osaka Prefecture University, recalls his father, a painter, boasting of finishing work on a pavilion at the 1970 fair.

“Every week our house was like a hotel, with my relatives and friends of relatives and acquaintances” staying over in order to visit the Expo grounds during the six-month-long event, Hashizume said.

With the eyes of the world on the port city, he said, people were “proud that we were born in Osaka.”

It’s this spirit that Osaka is hoping to recapture as it submits a bid to host the 2025 World Expo. Local officials presented their pitch to a meeting of the governing body in Paris on November 15.

Advocates hope the event would give an economic boost to the city, just a few years after Japan stages the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

It certainly dovetails with Japan’s push to increase the number of tourists coming to Japan, but do major international events like the World Expo remain relevant? The question is raised amid renewed debate about the claimed economic benefits of hosting the Olympics.

Towering history

The World Expo movement dates back to 1851 when London hosted what was known as “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations.”

With 25 participating countries and about 6 million visitors, the event showcased steam engines and railroad and farm equipment. It was held in the purpose-built Crystal Palace.

The early Expos, also known as World’s Fairs, were often associated with the building of new monuments. The most famous of these structures was the Eiffel Tower, the Paris icon constructed at the entrance to “Exposition Universelle de 1889.”

Expos are now held every five years under the auspices of the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), which also oversees smaller specialized events.

When Osaka hosted Asia’s first World Expo in 1970, more than 64 million visitors flocked to the pavilions to see attractions such as recently collected moon rock samples and some very early cordless telephone prototypes.

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The Tower of the Sun, designed by Taro Okamoto, still stands tall at the site of Expo 1970. Photo: Daniel Hurst

But, in a sign that enthusiasm for world fairs might be waning, the official estimates for the next Osaka bid suggest 30 million visitors will come through the gates or about half as many as the flagship 1970 event.

(Expo Shanghai 2010 bucked the trend, setting a new record of 73 million visitors, no doubt helped by China’s status as the world’s most populous country.)

Still relevant?

“The World’s Fair has faded as an institution, probably because it is not nearly as engaging as television programming compared with events such as the Olympics,” activist Chris Dempsey and economist Andrew Zimbalist wrote in the book No Boston Olympics: How and Why Smart Cities Are Passing on the Torch.

Zimbalist was in Tokyo earlier this year to expand on his argument that the Olympic movement has been plagued by cost overruns and often spurs the development of “white elephant” facilities.

Latest official figures show the total budget for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics stands at US$12.9 billion, roughly double the initial bid estimate.

“At the end of the day, the best way to have a good experience with hosting the Olympics is to not host them,” Zimbalist told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

However, it’s not surprising that Osaka is chasing new ways to give its economy a shot in the arm.

As a dynamic trading hub, Osaka had double-digit economic growth during the late 1950s and the 1960s as Japan rapidly developed. It then suffered badly when the so-called bubble economy burst in the 1990s and several large companies subsequently moved their headquarters to Tokyo.

The prefecture saw its output as a share of the Japanese economy decline from 10 per cent in 1970 to just under 8 per cent in 2000. Over the same period, its share of the country’s manufacturing output halved, according to a report published by the prefectural government.

Osaka was pipped by Beijing in its bid for the 2008 Olympics, and now Tokyo gets the glory of hosting the Games in 2020. Apart from the  World Expo bid, Osaka is seeking to win the right to develop one of the first casino resorts to be allowed in Japan.

Different issues

Vicente Loscertales, the secretary general of the umbrella body BIE, said Expos had evolved over time in order to maintain their relevance. In the industrial era, their purpose was to help producers and consumers to understand new products and their impact, he said.

Today such events showcase innovation in the context of a unifying Expo theme, according to Loscertales.

They are less focused on materials and products and more focused on solutions and practices, he said. They also encouraged cooperation on pressing global issues such as the environment, energy, health, education and inequality.

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Supporters of Osaka’s bid to host the 2025 World Expo attend a conference to discuss the next steps. Photo: Supplied

“Expos have evolved to become platforms for the international community to debate, probe, share best practices, and explore new solutions for the challenges that our planet faces,” Loscertales said in an email.

Asked whether Expos had a bright future, Loscertales said: “In their 166-year history, Expos have strived to facilitate the understanding that citizens have about other nations and about future opportunities in a spirit of cooperation and optimism, and we firmly believe that they will continue to do so as Expos embody the spirit of their time.”

Osaka is proposing a six-month-long event centered on the theme “Designing future society for our lives” for its 2025 bid.

The city’s Expo committee said building costs would be about 125 billion yen (US$1.1 billion), while the corresponding economic benefits would be in the vicinity of 1.9 trillion yen (US$17 billion).

The competition

Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) said hosting the event would help Osaka achieve its aim of becoming a hub for innovation in life sciences and to attract people from around the world.

Osaka is competing against three other cities for 2025: perennial favorite Paris along with the Russian city of Ekaterinburg and Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.

BIE member states will make a decision on the host site next year.

The Osaka bid depends on creation of a whole new Expo site at Yumeshima, an artificial island whose name means Dream Island, rather than redeveloping the 1970 grounds at Suita. The metro line would be extended to service the venue.

A METI official said the new site offered beautiful scenery of the Seto Inland Sea and would be easily accessible from the Osaka city center.

“A key advantage is that the site offers a blank canvas upon which we may draw a venue plan, as it is owned by the local government and essentially vacant with the exception of the mega solar power generation plant,” the official said by email.

“As the hosting of the Expo has been incorporated into the development concept by local governments and businesses, the legacy of the Expo will be preserved for future generations.”

‘Kansai power’

Supporters of the bid convened a seminar in Osaka in July to demonstrate the strength of local backing.

About 400 businesspeople and others attended the forum at the Osaka Prefectural Government building near Dream Island. Politicians held a spin-off session of a group known as The Diet (Parliamentary) League for Realizing the 2025 Osaka-Kansai World Expo.

“Here is a good opportunity for us to show our Kansai power to the world,” said Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, referring to the wider region.

Hashizume, the professor who recounted childhood memories of the 1970 event, urged supporters to think about a legacy, as 2025 should be merely “the starting point” for planning.

He acknowledged that the concept of an Expo had changed into something “completely different in the current era” and argued human capital was key.

“During the world expo, Osaka will be drawing a lot of attention from the world,” he told the gathering. “The most important thing is not only the monument; the most important is human beings.”