Japan's Osaka city to vote on bringing back former glory

TOKYO - The people of Osaka vote this weekend on a plan to streamline Japan's second city in the mould of global metropolises like London, New York and Tokyo, 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 boost the brand of the city at home and abroad, making it more attractive to investors and sports event organisers.

Apeing the set-up of big brother Tokyo, the modern capital that casts a long shadow over Japan, 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, while 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 as a venue for business or big sports fixtures.

"Voting yes, let's create a new Osaka," flamboyant Mayor Toru Hashimoto told voters as the campaign kicked off.

Hashimoto, whose Osaka Restoration Party is backing the plan, has vowed to "retire from politics" if the yes-or-no referendum this Sunday fails.

Recent polls put support at around 40 per cent, with 48 per cent of voters preferring the status quo.

The plan comes with Osaka 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.

Osaka has long since lost its status as Japan's second-most populous city, displaced by Yokohama, Tokyo's sprawling neighbour, although it has retained its distinctive culture.

The city is known for its plain-talking people, who speak a dialect of Japanese rich with its own vocabulary and shorn of some of the politesse that characterises the capital -- a place Osakans often regard as somewhat effete.

Its inhabitants are reputed to be feisty, but funny -- many comedians boast of their Osaka roots -- and usually fiercely proud of the city's working class culture and down-to-earth cuisine.

Hashimoto, a rough-and-tumble former lawyer with a sharp wit and a quick tongue, has made the remodelling of the city the centrepiece of his three-and-a-half years as mayor.

But he is a divisive figure and opponents have cast Sunday's referendum as a power grab and a vanity project.

"Mimicking Tokyo will not lead to the development of Osaka," said Akira Yanagimoto, a member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, who sits in Osaka's assembly.

Tomoaki Iwai, professor of politics at Nihon University in Tokyo, says the proposal is big on promises, but short on substance.

"There is no guarantee that the plan can improve Osaka's finances and boost its economic competitiveness," Iwai told AFP.

"There must be many other ways to streamline the city," he said. "This is more or less a political move by Mayor Hashimoto."