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Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2002

Osaka hopes concerns ease in 2002 over economy, crime, the homeless

Staff writer

OSAKA -- From concerns over the economy to renewed hopes for the pro baseball Hanshin Tigers, here are some local issues, in no particular order, that many people in the Kansai region are focusing on for the coming year.

* The economy: In 2001, the Kansai economy went from bad to worse. Several large firms based in the region, including Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., announced massive job cuts, while bankruptcies, especially those of smaller businesses, soared.

The region already has the highest unemployment rate in Japan, at roughly 6.5 percent. How Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is going to carry out structural reforms without adding to Kansai's woes remains the number one topic of concern, especially among small companies.

"I'm doing OK now, but 2002 is going to be tight," said Akira Tanabe, owner of a small computer firm in Osaka's Minamimorimachi district. "If the prime minister ever follows through on his reforms, we small businesses are going to be in worse shape."

* The World Cup: First-round matches will be held in Kobe and Osaka, and the English national team will be camped out on Awaji Island, Hyogo Prefecture.

"We're very excited about the fact that the English team will be staying on Awaji. Their presence will bring a lot of foreign tourists and media people to Kobe and Hyogo Prefectures," said Kazushige Yamada, executive director general of the Hyogo International Association.

But some fear that hooligans will also be on the team's trail, and many local shopkeepers in Osaka and Kobe have already met with police to express their concerns.

"Yes, I'm pretty worried about large numbers of hooligans. Many of us want police to beef up their patrols," said Yukiko Yoshitomi, who runs a small liquor store in Kobe's Motomachi district.

* The homeless: Osaka has by some estimates nearly 15,000 homeless, by far the largest number of any city in Japan. The municipal government has not conducted a formal survey on the homeless since 1998, largely, citizens' groups claim, because it was afraid of the negative effect such a survey would have had on the city's bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, which it lost to Beijing in July.

"Osaka officials have ignored the homeless problem for years, but now they have to face the fact that many are elderly and have nowhere to go," said Sen Arimura, a volunteer worker in the city's Kamagasaki day-laborer's district. Many people are also worried the government will force the homeless off the streets just prior to the World Cup.

* The Hanshin Tigers: Hanshin Manager Katsuya Nomura resigned, not because of his team's dismal record -- last in the Central League four years in a row -- but to take responsibility for the antics of his wife, who was charged with tax evasion.

His replacement is the fiery-tempered Senichi Hoshino, former manager of the Chunichi Dragons, who is infamous for his temper tantrums and physical abuse of umpires.

"Hoshino's passion may be just what the Tigers need after Nomura," said freelance baseball writer Tetsuzo Inamine. "However, it will take at least three years to turn the Tigers into contenders."

* Kansai International Airport: It just keeps sinking, literally and financially, and the battle between local government officials and the Finance Ministry over funding for a second runway is now very heated. Many in the ministry, as well as many foreign airlines, see funding a second runway, due to open in 2007, as unnecessary given both the lower-than-expected demand and a terminal building continuing to sink further on the man-made airport island.

After a highly public struggle in the latter half of 2001 between the Kansai business community and the central government, the project received just enough money in the fiscal 2002 budget to continue. But nobody expects that to be the last word from the Finance Ministry.

"If the airport continues to sink, and if airlines continue to cancel flights or cut back services, we'll be facing the same threat of budget cuts this time next year," said one Osaka prefectural official, speaking anonymously.

* Street crime: From the number of illegally parked cars to gropers on trains, and from reported handbag snatching to stalkers, Osaka has the dubious distinction of being number one nationwide for crime.

Few agree on what the causes might be. Osaka officials blame narrow streets and alleyways, and call for yet more roads and construction projects. Police say there are not enough patrolmen to do their jobs adequately, and that more officers and tougher laws to deal with petty crimes are needed.

Social workers and community activists, in turn, blame the problem on the poor economy, official neglect, public indifference and the breakdown of the traditional family. And there are even those who suggest that a major cause is that Osaka police and gangsters no longer cooperate like they once did.

"In the past, Osaka police and the Osaka gangs had certain ways in which they cooperated, unofficially of course," said Masahiro Yamada, a journalist who follows the Kansai underworld. "The advantage was that they knew each other and the police could go to the gangs for information in the investigation of crimes committed by nongang members.

"But since the Antigang Law was enacted in 1993, many of the gangs have stopped cooperating with police. One result has been that street crime has gone unpunished."

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