National / History

The 1970 Osaka Expo: Looking back at the past to gauge where Japan sits in the present

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The year was 1970. The Cold War was current news, not ancient history, as the United States, Western Europe and Japan were locked in a worldwide political, economic, social and cultural struggle with the Soviet Union and mainland China that all feared could, with one wrong move, erupt into a war involving nuclear weapons.

It was also a time of incredible scientific achievement. The previous year, Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 astronauts took “one giant leap for mankind” by walking on the moon, beating the Soviet Union to the honors and mesmerizing the world. Back on Earth, an entire generation born after World War II had come of age in the 1960s. As 1970 dawned, there was much commentary about the international “youth movement,” and the political, social and cultural values it espoused, which rebelled against and often shocked conservative older generations.

In Japan, 1970 marked a decade of unprecedented growth and optimism among large numbers of Japanese, who were convinced the future would only get brighter despite growing problems of environmental pollution and an urban infrastructure struggling to keep up with the waves of people relocating from rural to urban areas in search of prosperity. Newspapers touted Japan’s first satellite, the Lambda 4S-5 rocket, and reported on an experimental technology being tested at a Tokyo bank called an “automatic cash dispenser,” which allowed you to withdraw cash with a special plastic card.

Against this background, the Osaka Expo opened to the general public on March 15, 1970. It came just six years after the hugely successful 1964 Tokyo Olympics. By the time the expo ended 183 days later on Sept. 13, a record 64 million visitors had passed through its gates.

Under the theme of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” the Osaka Expo was held in the northern part of the city and included 135 foreign and domestic pavilions. The expo halls traced the history of life on the planet from unicellular organisms to today’s homo sapiens. A section devoted to life in the present world featured an exhibit of 500 photographs taken by amateur photographers from all over the world.

Futuristic exhibits drew some of the strongest interest. Early versions of video games and cell phones were shown, while organizers boasted electricity for the expo came from the Tsuruga No. 1 nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. Nuclear power’s promoters at Expo ’70 promised it would, with the future development of a nationwide system of nuclear plants, solve Japan’s energy supply and environmental problems for decades to come, cheaply and safely.

Man on the moon: The 1970 Osaka Expo's American Pavilion included material from the Apollo 11 mission of July 1969. | THE JAPAN TIMES
Man on the moon: The 1970 Osaka Expo’s American Pavilion included material from the Apollo 11 mission of July 1969. | THE JAPAN TIMES

A half a century later, though, it’s the moon rock from America’s Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 that is most likely recalled when Osakans or the media reminisce about Expo ’70. Marty Kuehnert, who would go on to make sports history in Japan by becoming the only foreign general manager of a Japanese professional baseball team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2004, was then a young guide at the American pavilion during the expo. He recalled the excitement the rock generated.

“We had lines averaging three or four hours long and, at the longest, it was about eight hours. If you wanted to get into the American pavilion to see the moon rock, you were really only going to see one pavilion that day,” Kuehnert recalls.

“People would come running up and ask us interpreter guides ‘Where’s the moon rock?’ We’d say, ‘Well, it’s in roughly the middle of the pavilion, so just keep going.’ But some people would then take off and run right past it, all the way to the exit to ask the security person there, ‘Where’s the moon rock?’ ‘Well, you missed it,’ the security person would say.

“But they didn’t let people at the exit turn around and go back. If you ran past the moon rock and didn’t see it, you had to go back outside and wait to come in again.”

For many, Osaka Expo was the first time they’d ever come into contact with so many people from different countries and cultures, and vice versa. Big in Japan columnist Mark Schreiber worked as the manager of a Thai government concession selling silk and jewelry.

“I was a bit overworked most days, so I was seldom able to enjoy encounters with the customers,” Schreiber says. “But after work there were opportunities to form friendships with other people at the site. It was also my first chance to get to know some really nice Zainichi Koreans, quite a few of whom took jobs in shops and restaurants.”

The 1970 Osaka Expo's Telecommunications Center served as a dual passageway and exhibition space. | THE JAPAN TIMES
The 1970 Osaka Expo’s Telecommunications Center served as a dual passageway and exhibition space. | THE JAPAN TIMES

Back to the future

For many Japanese, the Osaka Expo was another chance, six years after the Tokyo Olympics, to display the country and culture to the world and talk about Japan’s role in it. In a series of supplements published by The Japan Times in March 1970, as well as a cover story on the Osaka Expo in an issue of Japan Illustrated, a photo magazine then published by The Japan Times, commentators offered various opinions on Japan’s place in the world and where it might be heading after the expo.

Tokyo University professor Kentaro Hayashi’s front page article for one supplement spoke at length about how Japan was historically, culturally and socially unique compared to Western society in particular.

“The Japanese culture is Oriental, still it retains unmistakable imprints of uniqueness,” he wrote. “Though the Japanese style of life becomes markedly Westernized, the pattern of sentiments and behavior supporting that style of life are still qualitatively different from that of Western peoples.”

In comments that would raise eyebrows today, Hayashi said it was Japan’s purity as a national state that made it unique.

Others who wrote in the pages of The Japan Times’ 1970 supplement offered predictions for the future that, in some cases, proved remarkably accurate. A Tokyo University academic, Shigeru Ito, wrote that Japan was on the threshold of a highly urbanized society that would lead to the erection of mammoth structures, particularly in Tokyo, in the coming decades. Another article touted the 1970s as the era of “knowledge revolution” and its eventual effect on all industries, especially publishing.

“New businesses, such as personal information retrieval services and data banks, will emerge in the publishing world, gearing their sales appeal to the astronomical speed, accuracy and range of application of computerized indexing,” wrote Iwao Yoshizaki, managing director of Japan Publications, Inc.

However, future printers and booksellers need not worry, he added.

“Will the implementation of computerized systems make such traditional information distribution media such as the book obsolete?” he asked. “I have a feeling the book will win a final victory in the coming age of the ‘knowledge revolution.'”

Still, others interviewed by The Japan Times at the time spoke less about the wonders of technology and more about what they hoped the expo’s legacy would be in terms of human development. The ultimate symbol of the expo is artist Taro Okamoto’s “Tower of the Sun,” a 70-meter structure that still stands. He offered readers his thoughts on past and current Japan, and what the future might bring.

The interior of Taro Okamoto's 'Tower of the Sun' | KYODO
The interior of Taro Okamoto’s ‘Tower of the Sun’ | KYODO

“Japan has so far been too preoccupied with catching up with Western civilization,” Okamoto wrote in one essay. “She has succeeded in her efforts to a large extent. The Japanese are known for their industriousness. They are clever and bright, but tend to be fussy and narrow-minded. The Japanese themselves are well aware of this shortcoming.

“I hope that my venture (the “Tower of the Sun”) will rekindle the innate vitality in the minds of the Japanese people and help, even if to a small degree, to cultivate a trait of generosity and open-heartedness in the national character of post-1970 Japanese,” he concluded.

On a personal level, many people had more fundamental wishes and hopes. A 1969 opinion survey by the Prime Minister’s Office showed that 43 percent had made building a peaceful home their main goal, and that only 1 percent wanted to become “men of wealth” or “win a high social position.”

Shigeri Noda, 28, was a housewife in Tokyo with two sons, age 6 and 5. Her dream, she said in another supplement interview, was to own a home at a time when Tokyo land prices were rising and there were acute shortages of new houses.

A 'capsule room' for personal use was exhibited at the Sanyo Pavilion during the 1970 world fair in Osaka. | THE JAPAN TIMES
A ‘capsule room’ for personal use was exhibited at the Sanyo Pavilion during the 1970 world fair in Osaka. | THE JAPAN TIMES

Kuniaki Hayashi, 27, spoke for a generation of “salarymen” at top-tier Japanese firms. The Sanyo Electric employee, who made ¥820,000 per year, spoke of the importance of human relations between employees in the pursuit of his job.

Other interviewees expressed criticism and concern. Takahiko Yasu, a 24-year-old Tokyo University student, said he was sympathetic to leftist student radicals who shut down the campus in 1968, even though he disagreed with their methods. He also criticized Japan’s university system.

“After (the students) enter universities through severe competition, they study in mass production universities,” Yasu said. “Personal and close relations between teachers and students is no longer observed. As they begin to feel frustrated with college life, they also turn their eyes to social injustice, inequality and dangers.”

Gunma farmer Teruso Hayashi, 80, was seriously worried about the future of Japanese agriculture with so many young people leaving their farming communities for the big cities.

“Farming is dying. It might just as well because industry progressed so rapidly but agriculture remained much the same,” Hayashi said, adding that introducing mechanized and scientific farming might help make it easier to keep younger people from fleeing to the cities.

Life-changing experience

Worth the wait: Visitors to the 1970 Osaka Expo stood in line for an average of three or four hours at some pavilions. | KYODO
Worth the wait: Visitors to the 1970 Osaka Expo stood in line for an average of three or four hours at some pavilions. | KYODO

The Osaka Expo would be long remembered as a phenomenal success in Osaka and elsewhere. While Schreiber cautions that the 64 million figure often cited as the total number of visitors includes Kyoto, Shiga, Hyogo and Osaka residents who visited the expo five or six times, he said the expo was still quite unique.

“Tokyo Disneyland, Universal Studios, Huis Ten Bosch and so on were still years off,” Schreiber says. “There were no huge theme parks where people could go. The Osaka Expo had an amusement park with a roller coaster and other rides, shooting galleries, ethnic restaurants — including a German beer hall — an area with souvenir shops and, of course, the national pavilions.”

Another reason for the expo’s popularity was that, for most Japanese, it was still far too expensive to go abroad in 1970.

“There was still intrigue about the outside world. So Expo ’70 was a chance for Japanese to get a glimpse of it,” Kuehnert says.

For Osaka itself, Expo ’70 would come to represent something of a postwar high-water mark for the city and region. In the decades that followed, more Osaka-based firms would relocate to Tokyo. By the early 21st century, middle-aged political and business leaders who had been teenagers or college students in awe of the 1970 Expo were anxious to re-create the same sort of magic.

In 2001, the city lobbied for, and was soundly beaten by, Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. That effort had followed years of promoting various one-time mass events and public works’ projects all designed to revive the local economy, a failed policy blasted by critics as “festival economics.”

The futuristic Soviet Pavilion was the tallest at the 1970 OSaka Expo. | THE JAPAN TIMES
The futuristic Soviet Pavilion was the tallest at the 1970 OSaka Expo. | THE JAPAN TIMES

In November 2018, however, Osaka won the rights to host the World Expo a second time. The Osaka-Kansai Expo takes place in 2025, on the man-made Osaka Bay island of Yumeshima under the theme of “Designing Future Society for Our Lives.” Osaka expects only 28 million visitors this time around, and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui has warned everyone not to expect a repeat of Expo ’70 because the times are markedly different.

In addition, Matsui has suggested that costs for the 2025 Expo might be three times more than the officially announced ¥125 billion figure at a time when the city is aging and shrinking in population. Add to that concerns about a possible casino resort on Yumeshima about the time of the expo, and worries that Yumeshima could be vulnerable to flooding due to typhoons or heavy rain, as well as concern over the new coronavirus, and it’s no wonder there doesn’t seem to be a lot of visible excitement — at least not yet.

However, the biggest reason why the 2025 Expo is unlikely to repeat the success of the 1970 Expo may have to do with the Japanese themselves, especially the younger generations.

“There is not as much intrigue about foreign things in Japan today as there was then,” Kuehnert says. “Japanese students are going overseas in ever smaller numbers, and there is no wanderlust among them like there was back then. They have an excessive belief in how great Japan is and they are content with their own world right now.”

“What sort of attractions (at the 2025 Expo) will appeal to millennials (and their kids)? Will Japanese exhibit the same stoic patience to wait in long queues that they did at the first Osaka Expo?” asks Schreiber, who met his Taiwanese wife while working there. “If you’re a young person and you are afforded an opportunity to work at the next expo, I say do it. It might change your life. It certainly changed mine.”

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