Business

Tokyo Big Sight: Experiencing all the hustle and bustle of Japan's biggest convention center before it reports for Olympic duty

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

One thing you notice pretty quickly when you spend some time attending events at Tokyo Big Sight is that there is a lot of esoteric language on display.

“Higher yield with improved juicing screw,” reads one sign visible among the labyrinth of booths filling the halls of Japan’s biggest convention and exhibition center in February.

“Eighty-eight-millimeter flap gate,” says another.

“Contributing to boiler life extension.”

“Repeated flexing demonstration.”

“Bakery scan.”

“Tapioca world.”

“Sign magic.”

“Flood zest.”

These phrases may seem indecipherable to the casual observer, but they all mean something to the people visiting the venue at various points in February and March.

Located in the capital’s Koto Ward, Tokyo Big Sight welcomes around 15 million visitors to the 300 events it holds each year, which range from high-profile consumer events like Tokyo Motor Show and Comiket to trade shows such as the International Food Ingredients and Additives Exhibition and Conference.

Shimmering against the backdrop of Tokyo Bay like a colossal inverted pyramid, the venue is split into eight East Halls, four West Halls and an eight-story Conference Tower. It currently has an overall floor space of 95,420 square meters, which will increase to 115,000 square meters when the new South Halls open in July.

Tokyo Big Sight, which opened in 1996 to replace the former International Exhibition Center in Chuo Ward, is owned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and run as a private company. Next summer, it will be used as the main press center for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The convention and exhibition center is accessible from Tokyo Station in about 30 minutes and served by two nearby train stations. It has 23 conference rooms, 15 restaurants and cafes, three convenience stores, a rooftop exhibition area, 80 toilet blocks, 180 vending machines, 114 employees and eight works of art, including a giant red steel-and-cast-plastic saw by Claes Oldenburg that is wedged into the ground near the front entrance like a pop art Excalibur.

Visitors examine exhibits on display during World Smart Energy Week at Tokyo Big Sight in February.
Visitors examine exhibits on display during World Smart Energy Week at Tokyo Big Sight in February. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

For the uninitiated, attending an event there can be an overwhelming sensory experience.

For four days from Feb. 19 to 22 this year, almost the entirety of the East Halls are taken up by a series of trade shows aimed at the catering and hospitality industry under the banner HCJ 2019. This comprises Hoteres Japan, Caterex Japan, the Japan Food Service Equipment Show and Inbound Market Expo. A smaller event named Original Product Development Week is also being held in East Hall 8.

HCJ 2019 features 1,000 exhibitors in 2,450 booths and has 65,000 registered visitors. Walking into the catering side of the event, which is being held in the 25,690-square-meter open-plan space of East Halls 1-3, feels like entering an enormous, otherworldly bazaar.

There are booths displaying meat slicers, dishwashers, industrial deep-fat fryers, juice machines, 140-liter kettles, freezers, double-bevel knives and robots that wash rice. Cooking demonstrations are in progress everywhere. Chefs are hunched over frying pans, barking commentary into their microphone headsets while women with clear plastic shields covering their mouths hand out samples.

Standing beside a 1,600-kilogram pizza oven that reaches temperatures of over 400 degrees Celsius and bakes moist-yet-crispy pizzas in 90 seconds, Nicola Strambini, import-export coordinator and online store manager for Gunma-based Masuda Brick Co., Ltd., explains why the annual show is so important for his company.

“We sell ovens that are very heavy, so it’s the only occasion we have to show the product in action to this many people,” Strambini says, as one of his colleagues serves up another round of pizza slices for visitors to taste.

“We have them at our factory, but people who are interested have to come to us to see them or try them,” he says. “In four days, all of Japan comes here.”

Bjorn Heiberg, a Danish-Canadian who works for Osaka-based knife retailer Tower Knives, is perusing some blades at a nearby booth.

“Coming to a trade show like this always gives inspiration and new ideas,” Heiberg says. “Not only in our own field, but also looking through other fields and trying to see what’s new, what’s happening, what’s changing.

“I used to attend trade shows in Europe from time to time,” he says. “Size-wise, it’s a little bit smaller than the big trade shows in Frankfurt, but quality-wise there are a lot of really interesting items here.”

Although Tokyo Big Sight is Japan’s biggest exhibition center, it is a relatively minor player on a global scale. It ranks only 78th in the world’s biggest venues and is almost five times smaller than Hannover Fairground in Germany, which tops the list. China has 18 exhibition centers bigger than Tokyo Big Sight, which has caustically been dubbed “Tokyo Medium Sight” by some industry insiders.

It still feels pretty massive when you are trying to negotiate your way around HCJ 2019, though, especially when you realize you haven’t even been to the West Halls yet.

Staff at Slush Tokyo attend the event at Tokyo Big Sight in February.
Staff at Slush Tokyo attend the event at Tokyo Big Sight in February. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Taking place in that part of the venue on the same day is Slush Tokyo, a startup tech conference featuring 400 volunteers that bills itself as “a movement.”

That Slush is different from the corporate bustle of HCJ 2019 is clear from the moment that press credentials are confirmed with an email that begins “Howdy there! Grrrreat news!” The people involved in Slush are overwhelmingly young, international and enthusiastic about the tech industry to the point of evangelism.

“Something that’s amazing about Slush is that we don’t really do this to make money,” says Victoria Daet, a 25-year-old from the Philippines who runs Slush Tokyo’s marketing department. “We purely do this because we are passionate about helping these startups, because we believe that startups could be the future.

“Another thing that’s different about us is that events in Japan, especially business events, tend to be very serious. People are all in suits and it’s all in Japanese,” Daet says.

“We’re the only tech event in Japan that operates purely in English and promotes casual clothes and talks,” she says. “We try to set the tone. We try to destroy these fears and boundaries that would be present outside and bring people into a world where everyone is open.”

A female employee at Slush Tokyo attends the event at Tokyo Big Sight in February.
Slush Tokyo’s Victoria Daet attends the event at Tokyo Big Sight in February. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Dry ice and moody lighting greet visitors as they enter the hall, which bends around the atrium in an L-shape. Smashed phones and fax machines have been mounted on the walls and splattered with neon paint in an apparent comment on the traditional Japanese business world’s enduring attachment to outdated technology.

Precisely what each booth is promoting is not as readily apparent as it had been at HCJ 2019, but everyone seems to be deeply engaged. A group of muscular, bearded men in tight-fitting shirts are discussing blockchain with furrowed brows. A woman with a laptop sticker that reads “MUGS NOT DRUGS” is interviewing a casually dressed executive in front of a crowd of hundreds. A man on a fold-up bicycle is weaving around the booths.

There are free hamburgers to eat, glass cubicles to work in, swing chairs to sit on and, in the corner, even a stage where startup wannabes can pitch their ideas live to three potential investors, who sit like Roman emperors amid the decorative potted plants.

“I like it a lot,” says Adam Clarke, chief technology officer of social media startup PlayLog, who has traveled from Toronto to visit the event. “At the very least, they’re putting a lot of attention to detail into the presentation.

“Before I even entered, I saw the smoke coming down the hall,” Clarke says. “It’s cool. Everything just looks really interesting. You feel more like you want to engage with booths, even if you’re not necessarily into white labels for banking software.”

After the rock ‘n’ roll spectacle of Slush Tokyo, the following week’s World Smart Energy Week, featuring the International Photovoltaic Power Generation Expo and International Biomass Expo — among others — promises to be a slightly less visceral experience.

The chief priority of any trade show is, of course, to facilitate business, but many exhibitors at Tokyo Big Sight’s various events seem keenly aware of their essentially unglamorous nature. Many try to compensate by deploying platoons of young women in short skirts outside their booths to distribute promotional material.

Debbie Kuroda hands out bags containing a notepad and information about PV monitoring service Taoke at the Photovoltaic Power Generation Expo in February.
Debbie Kuroda hands out bags containing a notepad and information about PV monitoring service Taoke at the Photovoltaic Power Generation Expo in February. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Debbie Kuroda is handing out bags containing a notepad and information about PV monitoring service Taoke at the Photovoltaic Power Generation Expo. She is wearing a white sleeveless top, white shorts, an orange neckerchief and heels.

Kuroda explains that the companies she works for vary, and she is given a brief outline of what each one does before she starts so she can converse with visitors. Her ambition is to become a promotional emcee, and she has no opinion one way or the other about the outfit she has been given to wear for the week.

“I’m able to work for lots of different companies and meet lots of different people, and I can get all kinds of information from different places, so it’s a great job,” Kuroda says. “There are times when I don’t really like standing here handing out things, but it’s not bad at all. I think it’s a fantastic job and I’m proud to do it.

“Everyone has different reasons for doing this job,” she says. “Some want to become TV personalities, some want to be race queens, some want to be models and some, like me, want to become emcees. Some do it for the money and some do it to chase their dreams.”

A hologram of a dinosaur is displayed at the Architecture and Construction Materials exhibition at Tokyo Big Sight on March 7.
A hologram of a dinosaur is displayed at the Architecture and Construction Materials exhibition at Tokyo Big Sight on March 7. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

World Smart Energy Week, like most shows at Tokyo Big Sight, is being held over three days. Walking along the rows and rows of solar panel displays, it seems incredible to think that this same venue was being used to promote hotel room card locks and rice cookers just a few days previously.

Christopher Eve is the managing director of UBM Japan Co. Ltd., a Tokyo-based company that organizes about 30 different trade shows each year, covering everything from shipbuilding to jewelry. He says that the shows generally take place at the same time each year and are “a bit like a Christmas party — it’s off in the distance but we know we need to be preparing now.”

Eve’s staff of 80 will analyze trends in each industry and then use that information to target buyers and sellers to invite to the shows. They also arrange a tailored program of seminars and lectures to run alongside the main event.

UBM rents space from Tokyo Big Sight and then sells it on to exhibitors. Eve estimates that the cost of hiring all eight East Halls for a three-day exhibition is around ¥40 million.

The actual physical preparation begins at midnight Sunday, when a team of carpenters, electricians, decorators and others will move into the hall. According to Eve, hundreds of workers, employed by various contractors and subcontractors, will be involved.

Then, by midnight Friday, seven hours after the show closes, the hall must be handed back to Tokyo Big Sight before it turns into a pumpkin.

“One of the magic things about an exhibition for me is that we move in on Sunday midnight, and we open the door and it’s just a dark hall,” Eve says. “Nothing but concrete floor. And then it all gradually builds up and the show opens on Wednesday.

“All these people come together and they’re all talking the same language,” he says. “It’s a community of people coming together. Then, on Friday, it all disappears and at midnight we hand over the hall to Tokyo Big Sight and there’s nothing left. It’s a bit like a hologram that we build over three days.”

Eve stresses the importance of “inertia” when organizing international trade shows, explaining that once a show has established itself in the calendar, any interruption can set it back years.

So it was with a collective gasp of horror that Japan’s exhibition industry greeted the news, in 2015, that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had chosen Tokyo Big Sight to be the main press center for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Short cut: Ride-on lawn mowers sit on display during World Smart Energy Week at Tokyo Big Sight in February.
Short cut: Ride-on lawn mowers sit on display during World Smart Energy Week at Tokyo Big Sight in February. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Initially, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government proposed shuttering the entire venue for 20 months to carry out upgrades, but revised its plans after a furious backlash from exhibitors, led by the Japan Exhibition Association, which argued that the closure could cost the industry ¥1.3 trillion.

Tokyo Big Sight’s East Halls will now be unavailable for exhibitions from this month to December 2020, while both the West Halls and South Halls will be out of action from May 2020 to October the same year.

Japan Exhibition Association Chairman Tad Ishizumi warned at a 2017 news conference that the venue’s temporary closure was “nothing less than a matter of life and death” for small and medium-sized businesses, and some exhibitors at World Smart Energy Week also express their concern.

“There are other venues, like Makuhari Messe or Yokohama, but they’re smaller than Tokyo Big Sight,” says Daisuke Neishi, of Takasago Industry Co. Ltd., a Gifu-based company that makes industrial kilns and vacuum furnaces. “If we’re paying the same amount to exhibit our products but there are less visitors, the cost performance is not as good.”

It is not just exhibiting companies who will be affected by Tokyo Big Sight’s temporary closure. A whole ecosystem has grown up around the industry, with construction workers, printers, caterers, hotel staff and cleaners all dependent on the money it generates.

To offset the disruption, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has built a temporary exhibition venue close to Tokyo Teleport Station with a floor space of around 25,000 square meters that opened on April 3.

Smaller venues outside of Tokyo, including Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture and Pacifico Yokohama, will also be used, although Makuhari Messe’s inclusion as an Olympic and Paralympic venue limits its availability.

An exhibitor sits beside a display of food products at Tokyo Big Sight in February.
An exhibitor sits beside a display of food products at Tokyo Big Sight in February. | ANDREW MCKIRDY

Tokyo Big Sight’s management has been frantically trying to reschedule events and provide exhibitors with information, but Planning and Public Relations Division Director Mayumi Inoue acknowledges “there is a limit to what we can do.”

Eve, who is also a director on the board of the Japan Exhibition Association, praises Tokyo Big Sight for “doing an amazing job in reducing the period that the halls are going to be out of commission,” and says the disruption could have been much worse.

Meanwhile, at Nikkei Messe, an exhibition for shops, offices, houses and urban innovation being held at Tokyo Big Sight’s East Halls from March 5 to 7, business continues as normal.

A man with a microphone is interviewing a woman in a blue bikini who is taking a bath in a clear plastic tub on a stage. Visitors to a booth promoting Canadian wood products are bending down to smell the rich aroma of a carpet of cedar shavings. An elderly gentleman laden with promotional bags is taking a nap outside the hall entrance.

“I’ve always either seen something here or met someone that I end up doing business with,” says Darren Watkins, a visitor from Melbourne, Australia, who works in the printing industry.

“I met a guy here five or six years ago,” Watkins says. “One of his friends needed something printed in Sydney and Melbourne. The man said, ‘I know a guy,’ and they rang me up. I’ve come back here just to reconnect with a few people, more than anything else, to keep relationships going. It’s about people.”