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Monday, April 16, 2001

USJ attacked over disclosure stance

Citizens' group demands progress report on theme park's performance


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Only a month into its grand opening, the management of Universal Studios Japan is under fire from citizens groups and the local media for refusing to divulge information about the park's operations.

USJ is a joint public/private enterprise in which the city of Osaka is the largest shareholder. Universal Studios Recreation Group, based in California, is the second-largest investor, with other companies, including Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Hitachi Shipbuilding, also holding stakes.

"It's OK for a private company not to release information on their operations. But USJ is not a purely private company," said Yoneko Matsuura of the Osaka citizens' watchdog group Mihariban.

What has angered Mihariban is that USJ officials will only say that park operations are proceeding as planned and that they are confident attendance will reach 8 million in the first year.

In addition, USJ officials have said that sales at souvenir stands and restaurants inside the park are exceeding projections. But no detailed figures have been released, and officials have refused to comment in detail on the results of the first two weeks of operations.

USJ officials defend their silence by noting that Universal Studios theme parks in the U.S. do not release detailed information about their operations. But Matsuura says this argument is not relevant to USJ.

"The largest investor in the USJ project, with 25 percent, is the city of Osaka. Taxpayers footed a large portion of the bill and have a right to know how their investment is doing," she said.

Mihariban will file a formal request during the week of April 15 with the city to release sales data related to USJ since the March 31 opening, as well as to explain how 30 billion in city funds appropriated to USJ for fiscal 2001 is to be spent.

A reply from the city to both questions is expected by the end of April.

What especially concerns both Mihariban and a growing number of people in USJ, is what will happen in the future if USJ runs into problems.

"Look at what's happened to other theme parks around Japan, like Seagaia. Officials rush to assure the public that everything is just fine, until one day, bankruptcy occurs.

"If Osaka officials were really confident of their boasts about USJ, they would make their accounting more transparent. A lot of people are wondering if the city really knows what it's doing," said one USJ official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

For their part, some in the Kansai business community note that, although USJ's largest investor is a public entity, disclosure laws in the United States are different from those in Japan.

"American public entities have much stricter disclosure standards than Japan, and third-sector projects are not as open as purely public projects," said Yoshihisa Akiyama, chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation.



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