Expo 1970 Osaka: the story of Japan’s first World Expo
Fifty years have passed since the first World Expo in Japan: Expo 1970 Osaka. The Expo was held from 15 March to 13 September 1970, under the theme “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”. It was a category-one General Exhibition under the Convention Relating to International Exhibitions.
I have long contended that the former Expo 1970 venue is a historical site that symbolises Japan’s post-war recovery, and that the exhibition halls that remain standing and other legacies of the Expo are valuable parts of our cultural heritage. I was therefore very happy when this year, half a century after the Expo was held, the official Cultural Property designation was granted to the Tower of the Sun, which formed part of the Theme Pavilion and became an icon of the Expo.
I have been pursuing both research and practical action for the preservation and use of materials related to Expo 1970. When the decision was made to repurpose the Steel Pavilion — which still stands in the park that was transformed after the Expo — to an Expo 1970 Pavilion to exhibit materials related to the Expo, I was engaged to supervise the indoor exhibits.
When Expo 1970 was held, I was 10 years old. I visited the Expo site on 18 occasions and went inside all the pavilions. I came into contact with the cultures of many different countries and gained a sense of how diverse the world really is. At the same time, I was amazed by the exhibits that presented possibilities for the societies and lifestyles of the near future, which would surely be brought about by innovations in science and technology.
"At Expo 1970, I learned the crucial importance of having a society based on mutual acceptance of different values"
At Expo 1970, I learned several things that have been important to my life thereafter. One of these is the crucial importance of having a society based on mutual acceptance of different values; another is faith in the advancement of human civilisation in the pursuit of universality. More significantly, I learned of the pivotal role played by International Exhibitions and their power to ignite the imagination of ordinary people. It was at the age of 10, while visiting Expo 1970, that I decided I would work in the field of International Exhibitions in the future.
In 1990, Osaka was host to the International Garden and Greenery Exposition (Horticultural Expo 1990 Osaka), and now the city has won the right to host its third International Exhibition: Expo 2025 Osaka Kansai. I have been involved in the planning of Expo 2025 from the very initial stages. For me, the aspirations of 1970 have connected through to 2025.
I hope that just as I did back in 1970, the children who hold the key to our future will visit Expo 2025, encounter the diversity of cultures there, and be fascinated by the science and technology that will drive the sustainable development of human civilisation into the future.
Action toward hosting a World Expo in Japan started early. On the invitation of Emperor Napoleon III of France, the Tokugawa Shogunate (Japan’s feudal government) exhibited at France’s second World Expo, Expo 1867 Paris, an event that was also attended by other Japanese exhibitors, including the Satsuma domain (government of Satsuma). The Japanese Government’s first official participation in a World Expo was at Expo 1873 Vienna.
The Meiji Government in Japan learned from the World Expos in Europe how effective exhibitions could be in promoting industries. With the encouragement of Japan’s Home Affairs Minister Toshimichi Okubo, the Government began holding a National Industrial Exposition. Then in 1889, the Agriculture and Commerce Minister Judo Saigo proposed that this event be expanded and held as an international exhibition under the title “Great Asia Exposition”. Sentiment grew in support of this idea of hosting an international exhibition in Japan, the first of its kind in Asia.
In 1903, the fifth National Industrial Exposition was hosted in Osaka. Held over 153 days and attracting some 7.5 million visitors, this was the largest single event in Japan at the time. Despite the event’s “national” title, permission was also granted to exhibit products from outside Japan, so trading companies and other exhibitors presented products from a total of 18 different countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, and France, while the government of Canada, a self-governing dominion of the UK at the time, had its own pavilion. Building on this experience, the Japanese Government moved to develop the National Industrial Exposition into an international event. It set to work preparing for an event titled the “Great Japan Exposition” in 1912, but preparations were eventually abandoned owing to funding constraints.
"The idea of hosting a World Expo in Japan finally came to fruition after the end of World War II"
Nonetheless, the Government sustained its interest in hosting Asia’s first international exhibition. It planned an exhibition under the theme of “blending eastern and western civilisation” and called on other nations to put forward exhibits. Originally slated for 1935, the event was postponed until 1940, and it was given the title of the “Grand International Exposition of Japan: in celebration of the 2,600th anniversary of the accession of the first Emperor Jimmu to the throne”. Preparations were made for hosting this exhibition on land in Tsukishima reclaimed from Tokyo Bay, and on a site in Yokohama. As World War II escalated, however, the decision was taken to cancel the event.
The idea of hosting a World Expo in Japan finally came to fruition after the end of the war. The City of Osaka sent its deputy mayor (later to become mayor) Kaoru Chuma to attend Expo 1958 Brussels, and began investigating the possibility of hosting a World Expo in Osaka, at a site earmarked in the coastal industrial zone near the Osaka Nanko port. In 1964, local government authorities and the private sector cooperated to lodge an official request to the national government to host a World Expo.
In 1965 Japan acceded to the Convention Relating to International Exhibitions, thus becoming a member of the BIE, and made a request to host a World Expo in 1970. Tokyo, Chiba, Shiga, Kobe, and other regions also expressed interest in hosting the event, but ultimately the decision was made to use a site in Senri Hills, Osaka.
Japan’s application to host a World Expo in Osaka was tabled at the 57th General Assembly of the BIE. Some voices were raised in opposition to the application, pointing out that it would be just three years after Expo 1967 Montreal and the cost for participating countries may be excessive, but the application was eventually approved with Member States expressing support for hosting the first ever International Exhibition in Asia.
The bamboo thickets that covered the hills on the northern outskirts of Osaka were cleared to create an Expo site of approximately 330 hectares in total. Participants included the governments of 77 states (including Japan), the Hong Kong Government, and International Organisations such as the United Nations, the European Communities, and the OECD. This level of participation exceeded the 61 states that exhibited at Expo 1967 Montreal. A number of Japanese local government authorities also participated, and there were also around 30 pavilions hosted by companies and associations from within Japan and overseas.
Much attention was paid to the ripple effects of the Expo. Some 650 billion yen was invested in roads, railways, and other infrastructure. In just a few years, around 110 kilometres of new roads were completed, including a trunk route connecting the Expo site to central Osaka. Other projects included the construction and works of rail lines, rivers, sewerage, and the development of the Port of Osaka. International flights began using Osaka Airport in preparation for the Expo.
"The Expo had a total of 64,218,770 visitors, rewriting all records in the history of International Exhibitions"
The overall economic effect of Expo 1970 was estimated to be 3.5 trillion yen nationally, and 1.1 trillion yen within the Kansai region alone. Converted to today’s values, this represents a scale of 11 trillion yen nationally and more than 3 trillion yen in Kansai. Some 220,000 people were employed in constructing the Expo site and related construction projects at the peak of activity in 1969, and labourers from around the country flocked to Osaka.
The Expo had a total of 64,218,770 visitors over the six months it was open, rewriting all records in the history of International Exhibitions and later providing a benchmark for World Expo 2010 Shanghai. The Expo led to a growth in popularity of group travel within Japan, as many organisations arranged tour groups to visit the Expo. Promoting its Tokaido Shinkansen route as “another Expo pavilion”, the Japanese National Railways brought many visitors to the site.
The largest crowds were recorded on 5 September, just a week before the Expo closed. On this day alone there were 835,800 visitors. From the late afternoon, visitors seeking to leave the site were kept back by the lines of visitors still seeking entry, and chaos ensued. Some 50,000 people were still left onsite after closing time, and four thousand ended up spending the whole night there.
The Expo 1970 site was designed to play the role of a testing ground for ambitious social experiments. A Symbol Zone, one kilometre long and 150 metres wide, was constructed in the centre of the site and filled with structures including the Festival Plaza, the Tower of the Sun, the Theme Pavilion, and the Expo Tower. Moving walkways extended in all four directions from this zone. In zones named after the days of the week, pavilions were constructed in traditional ethnic colours or more avant-garde colour schemes, and distinctive designs.
Much was made of the country pavilions such as that of the United States, which featured the actual lunar module and rocks brought back from the moon, and the Soviet Union, which boasted displays of Lenin and the Soyuz spacecraft. Also well-received were productions such as the Netherlands pavilion’s multiple image displays and the Joint Scandinavian pavilion’s slide shows, which were projected onto blank papers with visitors’ fingertips. Meanwhile, the corporate pavilions competed with new experimental video displays such as huge screens, multi-screen displays, and the projection of images onto a veil of smoke.
Other exhibits showcased the cutting edge of information society. Among these were the IBM Pavilion, which had a computer that generated stories automatically in line with visitors’ selections of comic-book characters, and the Automobile Pavilion, which demonstrated an automated control system to prevent multiple-vehicle collisions.
The operation of the Expo site itself involved social experiments that would form models for the information society. Officials communicated using portable pager devices that later came into general use. Monochrome videophones were installed in 66 locations across the site including the Telecommunication Pavilion, interpreting centre, and lost child centre, and were used for various operational services. In addition, the Telecommunication Pavilion was linked via full-colour videophone connection to the Kasumigaseki Building in Tokyo, and visitors were given demonstrations on how the link could be used.
Many unprecedented experiments were carried out in the management and operation of Expo 1970. One of these was the use of uniform signage and pictograms that anticipated the flow of visitors. Moreover, for the first time in Japan a system was employed whereby information on special events, site entry and exit, crowding conditions, lost children and possessions, parking facilities, and meeting points could be managed on the secretariat computer and transmitted as necessary in real time to notice boards all over the site. In addition to this online system, known as the No. 1 Information System, there was a No. 2 System that enabled integrated management of various forms of information, revenue, assets and the like by the secretariat of the Japan Association for the 1970 World Exposition. The Expo was thus an experiment of centralised information management in cities.
"The Expo 1970 site was designed to play the role of a testing ground for ambitious social experiments"
While the pavilions competed with one another on uniqueness of design, innovations were also tested in terms of construction methods and structural features. The Big Roof of the Festival Plaza and the Electric Power Pavilion made use of the lift-up construction method, which had never before been used in Japan.
Several pavilions applied the concept of “metabolism”, to envisage a changing, growing urban architecture analogous to the metabolic system of a living organism. One prime example of this application was the Takara Beautillion by Kisho Kurokawa. The construction of the pavilion involved fitting rectangular units pre-manufactured in a workshop into the main frame, and the work onsite took just seven days. An Osaka business owner was especially impressed by the metabolism-inspired pavilions at the Expo, and later consulted with Kurokawa who ended up launching the world’s first capsule hotel.
Inflated membrane structure buildings were also much talked about features of the Expo. The United States Pavilion had an elliptical air dome with a major axis of 142 metres and a minor axis of 83.5 metres, providing a total floor space of 10,000 square metres. A membrane made of glass fibre coated in vinyl chloride and reinforced with wire rope was inflated using fans to create a structure that was robust enough to withstand up to 18 centimetres of snow cover. The Fuji Group Pavilion became popular for its external appearance, which resembled a covered wagon. This was created by horizontally joining together 16 “air beams” to make a giant pillar-free space rising 31 metres high.
Environmentally friendly energy systems were also proposed. A system for cooling districts was trialled for the first time in Japan across parts of Expo site. Energy plants that were among the largest in the world at the time were constructed in three locations in the north, east, and south sides of the site. At the planning stage there were also proposals to have great fountains in the man-made pond, created by sculptor Isamu Noguchi, to function as cooling towers and to create a system for recycling water within the site. The Expo 1970 site as a whole became a simulation model for the highly computerised and centrally controlled cities of today.
The legacy of the Expo 1970 Osaka, Japan endures to the present day in road and rail networks and in a variety of other forms in Japan. The Expo also made contributions internationally. One of these is the logo that the BIE uses today, which was created following an international design competition that the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper proposed as a project to mark the hosting of the Expo in Osaka. The logo was adopted by the BIE in 1968 and the flag was used for the first time during the opening ceremony of Expo 1970.
The Expo also lives on within our memories. Alongside the Tokyo Olympics held in 1964, Expo 1970 is remembered by many people as a national project that symbolised Japan’s successful post-war recovery and return to the international community.
Osaka has existed as a city for more than 1,400 years. In ancient times it served as an outer port for the inland capitals of Kyoto and Nara and grew as a port town based on exchange with the world outside Japan. In the pre-modern era it became Japan’s centre of economy and finance, and was home to the world’s first market trading in futures contract. In the modern era Osaka was transformed into a centre of industry, enjoying prosperity in the 1920s as “the leading commercial and industrial city in the Orient” with a population that ranked among the top five or six cities in the world. Most of central Osaka, however, was reduced to ashes in repeated bombing raids by the Allied forces during the final stages of the Pacific War. As the city strove to recover from this devastation and achieve economic recovery, the idea of hosting a World Expo in the nearby Senri Hills as a global celebration was established as a key goal in Osaka’s revival.
The Expo site has now been redeveloped as a verdant park, and paying a visit there is enough to conjure up visions of Japan’s “miraculous” post-war recovery and the “good old days of high economic growth in Japan” in anyone’s mind, including those who were not even born back in 1970.
"Expo 1970 emphasised the importance of harmony created through a blend of Eastern and Western civilisations"
We also maintain an enduring pride in the forward-thinking theme of Expo 1970, “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”. Precisely because it was Asia’s first World Expo, the event emphasised the importance of “harmony” created through a blend of Eastern and Western civilisations in addition to the “progress” of science and technology. This spirit was carried forward with the ideal of harmony between human civilisation and the natural world promoted at the International Garden and Greenery Exposition of 1990 (Horticultural Expo 1990 Osaka), which was held in Osaka’s Tsurumi parkland under the theme of “Harmonious Coexistence of Nature and Mankind”.
Expo 2025 Osaka Kansai has adopted the theme of “Designing Future Society for Our Lives” and is advocating contribution to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals and the concept of co-creation. Here too we can identify messages reflecting a concern for harmony in the international society.
The legacies of Expos are not limited to buildings, roads, and other physical creations. They generate new modes of living, messages that endure in people’s hearts, and novel outlooks of values first experienced within the Expo site. These things too are passed down among people living in the place that hosted the Expo. For the people of Osaka, Expos have been opportunities to experience for themselves the importance of striking a balance between “progress” and “harmony” in a context of cultural diversity. Based on this understanding of the Expo tradition in Osaka, Expo 2025 Osaka Kansai is similarly expected to generate models for sustainable growth in partnership with people from all over the world.
Shinya Hashizume is a Doctor of Engineering, Special Adviser to Osaka Prefectural Government, Special Adviser to Osaka City Government, Distinguished Professor, Organization for Research Promotion at Osaka Prefecture University, and Visiting Professor, Urban Research Plaza at Osaka City University.