Spectacle nation-building: Expo ’70

In the second part of this short series on Japanese post-war nation-building and national identity, I will revisit the 1970 World Exhibition in Osaka, short “Expo ’70”. Just as with the Olympics six years before in Tokyo, the Expo gave a newly confident Japan a stage to present itself to the world and, more importantly, its own citizens.


View of the Expo grounds, with danchi housing estate in the front

Just as with the Olympics, however, there was a darker side to the Expo. On the more superficial level, the cost of the economic miracle manifested itself in the ubiquitous pollution.

More subtly, the narrative of a newly resurgent Japan from the Olympics was now augmented with an internationalist, utopian idea of mankind’s progress, with Japan at the centre. As one aim of staging the Expo was to instill pride in a new generation of Japanese, there was no space for talking about history and Japanese culpability in WWII.

The Expo was a huge success: 64 million single visits took place versus an initial projection of 35, later 50 million. Of these, only 1.7 million were recorded as ‘foreign’. Controlling for double visits, it has been estimated that every second Japanese citizen visited the event.

In post-war Japanese history, this scale was only matched by the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony six years earlier, which is said to have reached 65 million people, or about 70% of the population back then.

Under the motto of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”, 76 countries took part in the Expo to present themselves in national pavilions. On top of that came 28 mainly Japanese private companies, two for public enterprises as well as one representing Japanese local governments. The master plan was developed by Kenzo Tange and his Metabolist colleagues, and also involved Japanese artist Taro Okamoto.

Just as the Tokyo Olympics were a national project, so were the Expo ’70 steered from “above”: then prime minister Sato Eisaku was the president of the exposition, the crown prince was the honorary president. And as had been the case six years before in Tokyo, the emperor officially opened the event, on 14 March, to much fanfare and an extended flag raising ceremony.

The image presented in Osaka was again one of Japan’s progress and technological edge, embedded in an appealing internationalist narrative. Mobile phones, maglev trains, local area networks, geodesic domes were showcasing an optimistic take on the future. Okamoto’s esoteric imagery and the Metabolists utopian visions helped to shape that message.

The ongoing Vietnam War stained the US’s moral authority and the Soviet Union had lost much of its idealist appeal. Fittingly, their pavilions were smaller than that of the host nation. Grandeur was met with largesse: Japan sponsored the pavilions for poorer developing nations, enacting itself as a champion of their cause.

The eventful 1960s had just come to an end. They saw Japan’s GDP more than double, by far outperforming former prime minister Ikeda’s target. Things seemed possible in Japan, above all the notion of “catching up” and eventually overtaking the West.

The Metabolists embodied this notion architecturally. Their cooperation with the Japanese government marked the last time when “architecture was a public, rather than a private affair”, as Rem Koolhaas puts it. He also went as far as to say that the Expo ’70 was the “high point of humanity”.

For all the optimism that was on show regarding the future, however, there also was a strange reading of the present day (i.e. the downside of progress) and almost a complete disregard for the past (i.e. Japan’s culpability for WWII).

As regards the present, Sandra Wilson has argued that…

…(i)nternational tensions were not the only costs of progress, and materials on the exposition frankly admitted the destructive power of science and the underside of high economic growth in Japan. Undoubtedly, as some participants in Expo ’70 have noted in retrospect, emphasis on problems like pollution and overcrowding did reflect uncertainty about Japan’s place and role in the world. Anxiety about such problems, however, somehow does not quite ring true in the official materials. There is a sneaking sense that even the problems brought by high economic growth might fundamentally be sources of pride; for after all, land degradation and urban pollution were the markers of a highly advanced and industrialized society, at least in this analysis – and there was confidence that they would be responsibly addressed, on behalf of the rest of the industrialized world as well as Japan, by that same highly advanced society. Pollution would be overcome by ‘man’s wisdom and scientific technology’. Thus, paradoxically, problems like pollution provided another opportunity for the display of Japanese leadership.

This confidence that mankind will be able to responsibly address pollution is perhaps reminiscent of the authorities’ attempt to “sanitise” Tokyo ahead of the 1964 Games. It sees degradation largely as a by-product of modernisation but not as a symptom of a larger problem (one that would arrive in the mainstream just two years later with the Club of Rome’s report on the limits of growth).

There was an almost complete excision of WWII from the historical display in the Japanese pavilion. 25 years after the end of the war, the more important date marker was the (rough) centenary of the Meiji Restoration, symbolising Japan’s opening to the world. Schoolchildren were again the main targets for a public education campaign that had a very lopsided reading of history.

The example of nuclear is fitting. Sandra Wilson states that…

…(i)n the nineteen-sixties Japan’s nuclear capacity was growing rapidly amidst considerable local protest; nuclear energy was thus a divisive but very live issue. Accordingly, the Japan Pavilion displayed two ‘Atomic Towers’, accompanied by this comment: ‘Atomic power, if rightly used, will give us splendid power. It can enrich our life and give us high hopes’.

Perhaps the above shortcomings are all excusable if we focus on the immensely positive energy that was prevalent here. Expos were not yet about sustainability (i.e. limiting the downside of humanity’s impact on earth) but about what is possible. It is intuitive why some see humanity’s high point in Expo ’70 because of that.

However, if you scratch just a little bit on the surface, Expo ’70 had its own darker sides that are at risk of going under in this reading. The utopia purported here was government-led and employed as a not-so-subtle tool for nation-building. It required a fairly simplistic reading of the present and a selective one of the past.

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