Just 3 years away, excitement for Expo 2025 hard to see across Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A pop-up shop selling official Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai merchandise is seen in the JR Hakata Station building in Fukuoka on April 2.

With just under three years to go before World Expo 2025 begins, enthusiasm for the event appears to be lacking.

Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai will run from April 13, 2025, for a six-month period on the artificial island of Yumeshima in Osaka. The number of countries and regions that have pledged to participate has reached the 100 mark, but domestic excitement for the event has not yet gained traction.

Not only have corporate donations for venue construction costs been sluggish, but the event is also facing the difficulty of rising construction material prices amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Depending on the region in Japan, there are noticeable differences in people’s interest in the event, the theme of which is “Designing Future Society for Our Lives.”

The Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition, the organization that operates Expo 2025, has opened pop-up shops selling official goods for one to two weeks at six locations, including Tokyo and Nagoya, since last September. On April 2, one of these pop-up shops opened in the JR Hakata Station building in Fukuoka, selling 44 items from towels to pins. Despite it being a Saturday, few people stopped by.

“I have no idea what happens at a World Expo,” said a 43-year-old female office worker from Fukuoka. “I have no interest.”

Nationwide, 30.9% of 2,000 respondents said they were interested in Expo 2025, according to a survey conducted online last October by Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc. The figure was about the same as a survey conducted half a year earlier. By region, even the host area of Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures was only at 47.6% interest, with the Tokyo metropolitan area at 27.2% and western areas of the country including Kyushu and the Chugoku and Shikoku regions at 32.5%.

According to the expo association’s plan, most of the approximately ¥80 billion in operating expenses will be covered by admission fee revenue. This means that over the expo’s six-month period, if fewer than an expected 28.2 million visitors attend, the event may run a deficit.

Tomoyuki Okada, a professor of cultural sociology at Kansai University who has studied the history of World Expos, points to the 2005 Aichi Expo as offering hints toward building momentum.

For Expo 2005 Aichi Japan, forums and other events to consider citizens’ participation were actively held for three years prior to the event, leading to the NGO Global Village, where 30 private organizations exhibited their products. The number of visitors to the Aichi Expo reached approximately 22 million, far exceeding the target of 15 million.

“It is difficult for people to see how they can be involved in Expo 2025,” Okada said. “A concrete program to involve ordinary people is needed.”

Soaring material, labor costs

The lack of interest has cast a shadow over fundraising for the expo.

The initial cost of constructing venues was estimated at approximately ¥125 billion, but this was increased to ¥185 billion when the basic plan was drawn up in December 2020 due to soaring material and labor costs. The central government, the Osaka prefectural and city governments, and the business community plan to together contribute about ¥60 billion each.

As of the end of last year, more than 130 companies and business owners based in Osaka had contributed ¥24.6 billion to the business community’s share, but this is less than half of the target.

Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, is also soliciting donations from Tokyo-based firms, but a business official in the Kansai region said, “There is a deep-rooted perception that this is an Osaka event and it is difficult to get them to comply.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put a further damper on the event. Rising prices for energy and raw materials such as iron ore are leading to higher prices for construction materials. For example, Nippon Steel Corp. raised the distribution price of H beams for building construction for two consecutive months in February and March. The cost of constructing the venue may further increase.

“We don’t want the Kansai business community to be exposed to complaints about lack of money to go around in the future,” said Masayoshi Matsumoto, chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation.

Courtesy of the Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition
Conceptual image of the venue of Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai

The construction of the expo’s symbolic ring is also posing a challenge.

The artificial island of Yumeshima located on the waterfront in Osaka will be the center of the expo site, with a roof in the shape of a ring that is 2 kilometers in circumference. The ring will have a width of 30 meters and stand 12 meters above the ground, designed for visitors to walk on or under it.

The estimated cost of the ring is ¥35 billion. The plan is for it to be built mainly from timber and using a construction method that does not require piles to be driven into the ground.

According to sources, the ground, however, is relatively soft in the area that protrudes into the sea and the possibility has emerged that it may be prone to sinking. Changing to a different construction method is being considered.

An official of the expo association said, “We will try to keep it within the budget.”