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Osaka: The Sun Rises on Japan's Second City

The two-and-a-half-hour ride into downtown Osaka from the bullet train station north of the city center offers little more than an anonymous skyline of high-rise buildings. Then the giant red Ferris wheel atop the HEP Five department store comes into...

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The two-and-a-half-hour ride into downtown Osaka from the bullet train station north of the city center offers little more than an anonymous skyline of high-rise buildings. Then the giant red Ferris wheel atop the HEP Five department store comes into view.

No wonder citizens here, whether they be teen girls strolling the shopping streets or city officials beaming with civic pride, are quick to point out their hometown is far from ordinary.

For what They Are Wearing in Osaka, click here.

Many in the fashion industry know relatively little about Osaka, which is Japan's second-largest retail market after Tokyo and third-biggest city in population, behind Yokohama. But within Japan, Osaka residents enjoy quite a reputation for their gregarious, fun-loving nature and cheekily irreverent streak. The city is famous for churning out some of Japan's top comedians, and, true to local insistence to do things their own way, citizens here ride escalators on the right side, unlike Tokyoites, who veer left.

It's an interesting and important time to examine the city, as Osaka embarks on some heavy lifting to jump-start its economy, lure foreign investment and emerge from recent political scandals and turmoil in its public finances. The city, one of the biggest casualties of Japan's late Nineties bubble burst, has an ambitious roster of construction projects and revitalization schemes under way, including the $8.3 billion development of a 59-acre rail yard into a sprawling complex of residences, offices, shops and hotels, which city officials expect to generate tens of thousands of jobs. A new Mitsukoshi department store and St. Regis hotel are also on tap.

"There has rarely been so much development work going on in Osaka, even in the boom of the bubble period," asserted Alex Stewart, president of investment promotion company Alexander Capital Access Co. Ltd. and an adviser to the city of Osaka for five years. "But this is not a construction bubble. Osaka, especially by comparison with Tokyo, had become tired looking. Most of the office and commercial building stock was outdated. It needed a major overhaul."

Once a prime manufacturing hub for Japan — the city boasts a variety of impressive achievements from having invented Cup Noodles ramen to producing the first television set in Japan — Osaka has been shifting its economic focus to areas such as robotics, biotechnology and IT services. Traditional industry still plays a significant role in the region, and electronic giants Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., Panasonic's parent company, and rival Sharp Corp. both recently announced plans to open new flat-screen television factories in the Osaka bay area.
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