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Construction workers at expo site: All waste and no dreams

Construction of the “Grand Roof,” known as the “Ring,” a symbol of the 2025 Osaka Kansai Expo, is under way in Osaka. (The Asahi Shimbun)

OSAKA—Organizers of the 2025 Osaka Kansai Expo are predicting a bright future for the site, one filled with visitors, economic windfalls and a sense of unity for the entire nation.

But some on the front lines of the construction work on Yumeshima island do not share that enthusiasm.

“This is just going to waste,” a worker in his 20s said at the site in November. “That’s what I’m thinking while working.”

The expo has come under enormous criticism, particularly over its ballooning costs.

Now, grumblings are being heard on Yumeshima, or dream island, by the construction workers toiling under pressure to meet their strict deadlines.

PORTABLE TOILETS

Yumeshima is a man-made island across the water from the Universal Studios Japan theme park and the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan.

The worker, who lives in Osaka Prefecture, has been involved in building Yumeshima Station on the island as part of the Osaka Metro Chuo Line extension.

As an employee of a subcontractor of a major general contractor, he is on site five days a week.

Construction for the expo is proceeding at a rapid pace. Large parts of the island are closed to the public.

The island was reclaimed from incinerated ash and dredged sediment generated from a river bottom. It is at risk of soil contamination, liquefaction and land subsidence.

Every day, vehicles of electric and plumbing companies and trucks carrying construction materials enter and exit the island.

A cloud of dust rises from the dirt roads when vehicles pass by. There are no large buildings on the island that can block the north wind blowing through the area. When the soil is wet, it sticks to the bottom of shoes.

Currently, there are only two routes to Yumeshima island: via the Yumemai Bridge from the adjacent man-made island of Maishima, and through the Yumesaki Tunnel connected to the man-made island of Sakishima.

Foot traffic is not permitted on either route. Workers enter and leave Yumeshima island by private cars and shuttle buses.

Electricity is expected to be available on the island in summer 2024 while a sewerage system is scheduled to be installed in January 2025.

Until then, workers must use portable toilets.

There are two convenience stores on the island, but one is temporary and open only to certain parties.

In a building with construction company offices, a shop sells take-out curry, bento lunch boxes and cigarettes.

Sitting inside a minivan with a colleague during a break, the worker sipped hot milk tea bought at the convenience store that can be used by anyone.

“We are building a station in a place like this, but who in the world will come here after the expo is over?” he said.

Some of his co-workers have said they “won’t go to see the expo,” he added.

34-BILLION-YEN ‘PARASOL’

“Please watch your step,” an official of the Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition said during a site tour held for the media on Nov. 27. “Here it is.”

A humongous structure on assembled wooden pillars towered above the official. A few meters away, a crane roared as it hoisted about 2 tons of lumber.

The object under construction is the “Grand Roof,” nicknamed the “Ring.”

With a diameter of 675 meters, a circumference of 2 kilometers, and an inner height of 12 meters and an outer height of 20 meters, it will be one of the largest wooden structures in the world.

It is also one of the most heavily criticized projects at the site.

The construction cost for the Ring is 34.4 billion yen, and it will be dismantled after the expo ends.

Organizers tout the Ring as a symbol of the expo representing “Unity in Diversity.”

The Ring is designed to surround the pavilions of participating countries and companies, as well as other “themed” facilities. Visitors will use it as a “sky walk.”

Hanako Jimi, the state minister in charge of the expo, said at a news conference on Nov. 10 that the Ring “also functions as a sunshade or rain shield and is expected to be effective in preventing heat stroke.”

Her comments drew an immediate backlash from opposition lawmakers.

One said, “It is one of the biggest wastes of money in the world.”

Another opposition party member said at an Upper House Budget Committee meeting, “If you want to shade people from the sun, just hand out parasols.”

But such criticism has not deterred developers from selling the dream.

During the press tour, a representative of Obayashi Corp., one of the companies building the Ring, said of the critics, “I believe they will have more positive things to say once they see the finished project.”

The representative also said: “All of the construction workers will share the vision of Japan welcoming (foreign tourists) with the Ring and work together to complete the project.”

BITTER LEGACY AGAIN?

Yumeshima island, which covers an area of about 390 hectares, or about 100 times the size of Hanshin Koshien Stadium, has long been called a “bitter legacy” because of setbacks in plans to use it.

Development of the island started in the 1970s, but work was stalled when the economy cooled off.

Osaka city had planned to use the island for venues and the athletes’ village for the 2008 Summer Olympics, but Beijing won the bid to host the sports event.

In 2014, then Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui announced their plan to host the expo and build a casino-centered integrated resort on the island.

They wanted to open the casino resort first to produce a synergistic effect. But the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the opening of the casino has been pushed back to autumn 2030, five years after the expo closes.

15-MINUTE BREAK, OVERTIME WORK

In one construction zone on the island, workers huddle at 7:55 a.m. each day. After conducting safety and other checks, they head to their posts.

They take a noon lunch break and finish work at 5 p.m. The island is completely dark in the evening.

A truck driver in his 60s who transports water pipes to the island from a factory in Osaka Prefecture said, “Look at this.”

While waiting in his truck to unload the deliveries at the site, he showed the screen of his smartphone, which displayed the words: “Took a 15-minute break.”

His employer has told workers to report their working hours accurately using company-issued smartphones.

Under the Labor Standards Law, such “waiting times” while on duty should be included in the “working hours.”

But he said he posts periods, such as when he waits for unloading, as break times” to shrink the amount of overtime work on record.

From fiscal 2024, new regulations on overtime limits under the central government’s workplace reform policy will be applied to the construction and logistics industries.

“We make money off of driving,” he said. “If you want to make money, you have no choice but to (lie about working hours). We will be busier with the expo (construction). I bet there will be no drivers who follow the rules properly.”

The expo will open on April 13, 2025, and will continue until Oct. 13.

As of November this year, 159 countries and regions have announced their participation, and about 28.2 million people are expected to visit the island during the expo.

The construction cost of the expo venue has nearly doubled from the initial 125 billion yen estimate to 235 billion yen.

And on Dec. 14, the organizers, citing rising labor expenses, revealed that the operation cost for the expo will be 116 billion yen, almost a 40-percent jump from the initial budget of 80.9 billion yen.

Assembly of the 34.4-billion-yen Ring is about a third of the way through. One large ring in the structure will be formed in autumn 2024, the organizers said.

However, not a single country has started construction of the pavilions that the Ring is supposed to enclose.

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