Clouds Gather over Japan’s Ambitious Osaka World Expo

This photo taken on April 2, 2024 shows construction underway at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka. (AFP)
This photo taken on April 2, 2024 shows construction underway at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka. (AFP)
TT

Clouds Gather over Japan’s Ambitious Osaka World Expo

This photo taken on April 2, 2024 shows construction underway at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka. (AFP)
This photo taken on April 2, 2024 shows construction underway at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka. (AFP)

One of the largest wooden structures ever built is taking shape in Osaka, but hopes that Expo 2025 will unite the world are being dogged by cost blowouts and a lack of public enthusiasm.

The imposing circular centerpiece will be crowned by a 20-metre-high (65-foot) sloping canopy, designed by top architect Sou Fujimoto, known as the "Grand Roof".

It has a circumference of a staggering two kilometers and 161 countries and territories will show off their trade opportunities and cultural attractions at pavilions within the vast latticed ring.

A crane hoisted a block of beams into place this week as organizers said construction was largely on schedule, one year before visitors will be welcomed.

Expo 2025 global PR director Sachiko Yoshimura maintained that global participants would be "united" by the event even though there are conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza and elsewhere.

Russia will not be among the participants at Expo 2025, which will run from April 13 to October 13.

"Of course, there are so many crises around the world, but we want everybody to actually get together and think about the future and sustainability," Yoshimura said.

It has also met a lukewarm response in Japan, where promotion is ramping up and the red-and-blue Expo 2025 mascot "Myaku-Myaku" -- billed by the official website as "a mysterious creature born from the unification of cells and water" -- is ever-present.

A recent Kyodo News survey found that 82 percent of Japanese companies, sponsors and others involved said "fostering domestic momentum" would be a challenge.

Ballooning budget

The construction budget has ballooned 27 percent from 2020 estimates to 235 billion yen ($1.5 billion) due to inflation and Japan's chronic worker shortage.

Some say the costs are also hard to justify when 6,300 people are still in evacuation centers and hotels after an earthquake on New Year's Day devastated parts of central Japan.

Fujimoto's "Grand Roof" alone has a price tag of 35 billion yen and has been slammed by opposition leader Kenta Izumi as "the world's most expensive parasol".

The "Grand Roof" and other structures are temporary, with no clear plan for them other than organizers saying they will be reused or recycled.

The site on an artificial island in Osaka Bay will be cleared after the Expo, with plans to build a resort there containing Japan's first casino.

Jun Takashina, deputy secretary general of the Japan Association for Osaka 2025, acknowledged budget and regulatory "struggles" among foreign participants but said organizers would help make sure the displays are ready in time.

Among the most hotly anticipated attractions are flying electric cars, which take off vertically, showcasing the event's technological and environmental aspirations.

But the vehicles -- subject to reams of regulations -- will be a "kind of experiment", Yoshimura said.

More than 1.2 million tickets have already been sold and organizers hope to attract 28.2 million visitors, including 3.5 million from abroad.

That would be four million more than the last World Fair in Dubai but pales in comparison to the 64 million people who attended the 1970 Expo in Osaka, a record until it was overtaken by Shanghai in 2010.

'Future like science fiction'

The first world fair to celebrate culture and industrial progress was held in London in 1851, with the Eiffel Tower built for the 1889 Paris World Fair.

Osaka academic Shinya Hashizume, a specialist in architecture history and town planning, said he was amazed as a 10-year-old when he saw a "future that looked like science fiction" at the 1970 Expo.

The first film in IMAX format was shown at that event and visitors could admire rocks brought back from the Moon.

"Those six months were extraordinary for Osaka. Simply put, the whole town was having a party," he said.

The advent of mass tourism and hyper-connected societies may have since lessened the attraction but some Osaka residents still think it's a good idea.

Kosuke Ito, a 36-year-old doctor, said it would "strengthen the economy".

However, Yuka Nakamura, 26, said she might be put off by adult entry fees ranging from 4,000 to 7,500 yen ($25 to $50) a day.



What is China's Panda Diplomacy and How Does it Work?

Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
TT

What is China's Panda Diplomacy and How Does it Work?

Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)

During a visit to Australia this week, Chinese Premier Li Qiang made a classic goodwill gesture that boded well for relations between the two countries: he offered to send pandas.
The offer comes as ties between Australia and its largest trading partner improve after a diplomatic dispute that led to China imposing a raft of restrictions on Australian agricultural and mineral exports in 2020.
Native to China, pandas have through the years become "envoys of friendship", earning China's outreach to countries it gifts the animals to the name of panda diplomacy, Reuters said.
They have also been used to show Chinese anger.
So what is panda diplomacy and how does it work?
WHEN DID PANDA DIPLOMACY START?
Since its founding in 1949, the People's Republic of China has used panda diplomacy to boost its international image, either by gifting or lending panda to foreign zoos as goodwill animal ambassadors.
Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1957 gifted a panda, Ping Ping, to the former Soviet Union to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution that ushered in the Soviet regime.
To further cement ties with its socialist allies, China dispatched another panda to the Soviet Union in 1959 and five more to North Korea between 1965 and 1980.
In 1972, Beijing gifted two pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, to the United States after then President Richard Nixon's historic visit, in a sign of normalized China-US relations and marking a pivotal moment for China's foreign policy.
Since then, other countries including Japan, France, Britain and Spain have also been given panda.
WHAT'S THE PANDA DIPLOMACY POLICY?
Since 1984, China stopped gifting pandas due to their dwindling numbers and began loaning them to overseas zoos instead, often in pairs for 10 years, with an annual fee of up to about $1 million.
While keeping pandas can be costly for zoos, they are seen as drawcards for visitors and help generate income.
The pandas typically return home to southwest China after the loan agreement ends. Panda cubs born overseas are no exception, and would be sent home between the age of two and four to join a Chinese breeding program.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
China has a history of using pandas to reward its trading partners. A 2013 Oxford University study said the timing of China's lease of pandas to Canada, France and Australia "coincided with" uranium deals and contracts with these countries.
The panda agreements with other countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, also coincided with the signing of free-trade agreements.
Sometimes, pandas are also used to express China's displeasure with a nation.
In 2010, China recalled two US-born pandas, Tai Shan and Mei Lan, after Beijing warned Washington against a scheduled meeting between then-President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, which Beijing views as a dangerous separatist.
In a recent downturn in bilateral ties, Ya Ya, on loan to the US for 20 years, was returned in April 2023.
Concerns over her health had also fanned nationalist sentiment on China's social media, with animal advocates accusing the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee of providing inadequate care to the animal.
In November last year, three other pandas left, leaving only four giant pandas on US soil.
That month, Chinese President Xi Jinping then hinted that he was open to sending more pandas to the US after meeting with President Joe Biden in California, a gesture seen as Chinese willingness to improve ties.
ARE PANDAS STILL ENDANGERED?
China's domestic conservation programs have seen the status of pandas improve from endangered to vulnerable.
The population of giant pandas in the wild has grown from around 1,100 in the 1980s to 1,900 in 2023.
There are currently 728 pandas in zoos and breeding centers around the world.