TOKYO - The people of Japan's second city Osaka voted Sunday on a plan to streamline its governance in the mould of other global metropolises, as the one-time commercial capital seeks to recapture its glory days.
On the table is what supporters say is a way to slash waste, cut out administrative duplication and strengthen the city's brand at home and abroad, making it more attractive to investors and sports event organisers.
Apeing the set-up of big brother Tokyo, the proposal would see Osaka's current 24 separate wards merged into five "special districts".
Each would have limited autonomy under a souped-up mayoralty, which would focus on providing public services. Costly urban development would be managed by the existing prefecture, a body similar to a US state.
Proponents say it would save the city's 2.7 million people a hefty 270 billion yen (S$3 billion) over the next 17 years and make it easier to sell Osaka as a venue for business or big sports fixtures.
Opponents say the move would save just 100 million yen annually against an initial necessary investment of 60 billion yen.
Flamboyant but divisive mayor Toru Hashimoto, whose Osaka Restoration Party is backing the plan, has vowed to retire from politics if the yes-or-no referendum fails.
Recent polls put support at around 40 per cent, with 48 per cent of voters preferring the status quo.
Osaka is suffering something of an identity crisis. Hundreds of years ago, it was the nation's biggest and wealthiest commercial hub, with rice and other major commodities shipped from all over the country for auction in "the kitchen of the nation".
But it all began to go wrong in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, with the fall of the isolationist shogunate (military government) that had ruled Japan for more than 250 years.
The imperial family was brought out of seclusion in nearby Kyoto and moved to Tokyo, which was proclaimed the new capital of a rapidly modernising country.
Although still considered Japan's second city, Osaka has long since lost its status as second most populous city to Yokohama, Tokyo's sprawling neighbour.
But it has retained its distinctive culture.
Voter turnout was 36 per cent at 4:00 pm (0700 GMT), one of the highest rates in recent polls, the city's election board said. Polling stations close at 7 pm and vote-counting will start immediately.