From Airports to Zucchini

New Possibilities on the Horizon for Kansai and Italy

By Brian Covert

Whether it is the nearly completed Kansai International Airport, popular fashions or savory cuisine, Italy’s influence in the Kansai region is clearly being felt. Despite an economic recession on both sides, Italy-Kansai relations show good reason for optimism in the years ahead.

An Active Start

If there were any one phrase to describe the image of the Kansai area in the minds of many Italians, it would have to be
Molto Attivo!

“Very active,” indeed, according to Italians living and working here in the fields of business, government, culture and religion. The personal experiences of people like Dr. Domenico Cantatore, a resident of Kansai for the past 28 years, aptly illustrate just how much things have changed between Italy and Kansai, as well as the shape of things to come.

Almost 30 years ago when Cantatore started his business, sales did not go well, but now he employs more than 40 people in his import-export company with outlets in both Fukuoka and the Shinsaibashi district of Osaka. Connoisseurs of Italian food rank his cuisine as among the best in Japan.

High-Flying Design

Supplying Kansai with a unique recipe of a different kind is Italian architect
Renzo Piano, whose architectural design was selected for the passenger terminal building of the offshore Kansai International Airport scheduled to open next year.

In a dramatic, Academy Award-like bidding in 1988 among 15 other architects from various countries, “Exhibition L” — Piano’s proposal to the airport company — won the approval of a panel of eight judges for its humanistic conception that was said to defy traditional air terminal design.

“This project is fantastic. It’s something almost out of a dream,” Noriaki Okabe, president and project leader of the Osaka-based Renzo Piano Building Workshop, has said.

The futuristic wave-like shape of the terminal’s roof is said to be based on its aerodynamic function. Inside, the passenger terminal will feature a “canyon” of plant-life 28 meters wide, 275 meters long and 22 meters high — “a very big greenhouse” according to Okabe — where all vertical movement of passengers takes place via escalators and elevators. This canyon leads passengers to international departures on the top level, domestic flights on the middle level (directly connected with trains to the mainland), and international arrivals on the bottom level.

Already renowned in Europe for his architectural expertise, Piano is fast becoming a familiar name to residents throughout Kansai and Japan as well. After all, it will be Piano’s own design that greets the estimated 30 million foreign and domestic travelers who pass through this newly dubbed “Gateway to Asia.” At least three weekly flights are scheduled between the Kansai Airport and the Italian cities of Rome and Milan via Alitalia airlines.

The accomplishments of Piano and other Italian residents in Japan have inspired a sense of pride and renewed optimism for next year. “With 1994 as the first year in which Alitalia operates flights to Osaka and an Italian architect who has contributed to that project, we hope that 1994 is going to be the ‘Year of Italy’ in Kansai,” Adolfo Parodi, head of the Italian Trade Commission in Osaka, says proudly.

Fashion, Foodstuffs and Service

This year, however, is the year Italy joins the European Economic Community — a move some in Japan fear may lead to protectionism and closed markets. But Parodi dismisses any major changes in his country’s position. “As far as trade between Italy and Japan is concerned, it’s quite balanced. So there shouldn’t be so many problems between our two countries.”

Japan is Italy’s top trading partner in Asia, and the massive figures for last year reflect it: Overall Italian exports to Japan amounted to ¥530 billion in 1992, while total Japanese imports to Italy came to ¥494 billion. Parodi acknowledges that the worldwide economic recession contributed in large part to a 14-percent drop in the former figure and a 3-percent decrease in the latter.

The bulk of Italy-Japan trade is, of course, in the fashion world of textiles and apparel: ¥250 billion in total fashion-industry exports to Japan last year. But the fashion trade suffered too, with a 15-percent decrease in such items in 1992. “The Japanese economy is not that bad and it’s much better than the economies in Western countries,” Parodi said. “But the psychological impact of the situation on Japanese consumers has generated a decrease of Italian fashion exports to Japan.” Counterbalancing that setback, however, is the sale of Italian textile machinery, which Parodi notes is growing at an annual rate of 25 percent. “Notwithstanding the so-called ‘economic crisis’ in Japan, they still buy more and more textile machinery every year.”

Ranking second behind fashion in Italian exports to Japan is the wide-ranging field of Italian foodstuffs, wine and other related products. And of course, Kansai itself is blessed with some of the best Italian restaurants this side of Rome.

With the opening of the new Hankyu International Hotel in Chayamachi, Kansai residents and visitors now have another opportunity to experience fine Italian hospitality and service. The cooperative venture is being administered by Italy’s Ciga Hotels, renowned throughout the world for their unique collection of exclusive landmark hotels. Managing Director Reto Wittwer was enthusiastic that the project would serve as a “true cultural bridge between Italy and Japan.”

Both locally based Italian businesspersons and official representatives alike are hopeful that any lag in trade with Japan will fade out with an improvement in the worldwide economic situation.

Cultural Values

It is said these days that the one thing Japan and Italy have in common at the highest levels is political corruption: “The Italian electorate is not composed of fools. Everyone knows that corruption is endemic to Italian politics. But until recently it has been viewed, much as it is here, as an unseemly spectator sport. Graft has been part of the ‘game’ of Italian government no less than it has been part of the ‘logic of Nagatacho’,” editorialized the
Japan Times.

Be that as it may, the view of Italy-Japan ties from the community level in Kansai looks quite different. According to official figures, an estimated 200 Italian nationals live in this region of Japan, the overwhelming majority of whom are said to be missionaries. It is cultural interchange between Japanese and Italians at the community level where some of the most progressive movement is found.

A longstanding devotion to the arts and an expressed hospitality are among the most common traits found between Italy and Kansai, the “cultural birthplace” of Japan.

Yuki Shintani, a professor and renowned sculptor from Kansai who has spent many years in Italy, easily finds such common links. “Italy (like Kansai) has many small companies full of vitality and creativity,” Shintani said. “A sense of the people can be found in both countries’ foods as well:
okonomiyaki and pizza, pasta and udon noodles. Like Osakans, Italian people are open and friendly.”

A similar lively sense of humor is another factor strengthening the bonds between Kansai and Italy. Two of the top executives of the Osaka-based
Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy and entertainment company were recently selected to serve as judges at the world-famous “International Performance” show held in Verona, Italy. Yoshimoto in turn has enriched popular Japanese culture by inviting entertainers from Italy — and other countries — to perform in Osaka.

There are also Italy-Japan cultural associations in Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto — each playing its part in the “internationalization” so often touted throughout the Kansai area. In 1956, the “Associazone Italo-Giapponese di Osaka” was founded; it later played an important role in fostering the official sister-city ties between Osaka and Milan. The “Associazione Italo-Giapponese di Kobe” and “Centro Culturable Italo-Giapponese di Kyoto” both continue to issue quarterly magazines — “Il Porto” and “Corrente,” respectively — to keep their many members up on the latest topics and trends. Members of such cultural groups include businesspeople and artisans alike.

A spiritual kind of devotion to art and creativity, in particular, is a characteristic often cited when the subject is Kansai-Italy cultural bonds. “I see a common sensitivity to artistic and aesthetic values,” said Pierluigi Squillante, the Osaka-based Consul General of Italy. “There is this common tendency to make objects that not only are useful and practical, but also beautiful to look at.”

Renzo Piano’s passenger terminal design for Kansai’s new international airport easily stands as a testament to such thought. But while the airport does represent new possibilities between Italy and Kansai, many hold even higher expectations for the future.

“Kansai is trying its very best to [work toward] this so-called ‘internationalization’…but there is a long way to go,” said Squillante. “I think that Kansai has made some very good progress towards opening itself to the outside world. But I do hope that these efforts will be continued because it would be [more] fruitful and beneficial to Japan and the countries with whom Japan has relations.”

Looking ahead, one thing is certain: Considering the sheer volume and diversity of all that is shared between Italy and Kansai,
molto attivo! describes only the beginning of a “very active” and long-lasting relationship.