On-site Report

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Vol.11 Remembering the Future: The Legacy of the Osaka Expo

by Yagi Hiroyuki


From the Osaka Expo to Expo ’70 Commemorative Park: The View from 40 Years in the Future

Last year (2010) marked 40 years since the Osaka Expo was held in Suita, Osaka. With the latest world expo unfolding in Shanghai, it was a year of extensive media coverage of the event in print and on television. Echoing the recent wave of nostalgia for the Showa Period (1926-1989), many middle-aged people earnestly recounting visions of the future they glimpsed at the expo were presented. Having been born around a decade after the event, it was literally impossible for me to share in the nostalgia. However, as an area native for whom the park on the site of the former venue and Tower of the Sun rising above are familiar sights, I feel I can share in the memories vicariously through these abiding landmarks.

A vast green oasis in the Osaka suburbs, the park is well-loved by people throughout the country, drawing around 1.6 million visitors a year (2009) – nowhere near the 64 million people over the six months of the actual expo, but still a respectable figure. Hearing about the Expo ’70 Pavilion, opened in March 2010 to give today’s youth a glimpse of the event, I decided to pay a visit. What is left of the expo, what is its legacy today, and how will it appear to future generations?


Celebrating the Future: Senri Hillside Development and the Staging of the Osaka Expo

The 1970 Osaka Expo was the first world exposition to be held in Asia. Japan had been officially chosen to host the event by the Bureau of International Expositions committee in 1965, at the height of the country’s miraculous postwar economic growth. Sites in Hyogo and Shiga Prefectures were also considered, but in the end a 3.3 square-kilometer area in the Senri Hills of Osaka’s northern Hokusetsu region were selected. Convenient public transportation, serene surroundings, and easily developable land helped influence the decision, but another major factor was the ongoing construction of nearby Senri New Town, a gargantuan housing project and the first of the large-scale “new town” developments of postwar Japan. Based on a meticulous urban planning scheme, block after block of new apartment buildings containing two-bedroom units were springing up, and the promise of a contemporary, Western lifestyle wafted through the area.

In the venue’s pavilions, corporations and nations staked their prestige on futuristic displays incorporating the latest cutting-edge technologies. The Theme Space, presenting the event’s grand theme, “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” was overseen by Okamoto Taro. He intentionally placed the timeless, tribal Tower of the Sun in the center of the cluster of space-age pavilions to offset their homage to progress and modernization, emphasizing the event’s role as a festival rather than just an exposition. Next door to Senri New Town, the “city of the future” rising up under the auspices of national and local government, was another space for people to rejoice in the future, created through the unified efforts of the nations of the world, Japan’s top corporations, and various artists and cultural figures.


The Technology on Stage and Backstage at the Osaka Expo from the Perspective of Today

Amid fervent nationwide enthusiasm, the Osaka Expo eventually drew to a close. However, I believe its impact lasted long afterward, and influences our lifestyles to this day. Why is this?

Visitors to the pavilions saw things like wireless telephones and electric vehicles – technologies we are familiar with or even take for granted, and products that are just over the horizon today. One example is the ultrasonic bath (nicknamed the "Human Washing Machine”) in the Sanyo Pavilion. Recently, it has been drawing attention as a promising bathtub for people requiring special care.

Behind the scenes at the venue as well were telecommunications systems, which although they commanded less attention than the exhibits, played key roles in making the expo a success. These included a vehicle parking system that detected the number of cars in a particular parking area using loop coil units embedded in the ground, triggering signboards that automatically directed drivers to available parking. There was also a system that collected and managed data on the flow of traffic within the venue. And for visitors with children, there was the “lost child” badge system. Parent and child would be given ticket stubs with matching numbers, which could be searched for with a computer at a Lost Child Center if they were separated.

To track the flow of people and goods, the entire venue was centrally managed using what was then cutting-edge computer technology.

Looking back on the Osaka Expo, one tends to dwell on the imposing futuristic edifices created by architects, and the remarkable exhibits by nations, corporations, and artists. However, it was the technological advances behind the scenes that made the event run smoothly and presaged the information-saturated digital society of today.


Culture Amid the Serenity of Nature: The Self-Sustaining Forest Experiment at Expo ’70 Commemorative Park

After the event ended, the site was designated as Expo ’70 Commemorative Park in 1972, and various projects have been carried out there to date.

Founded in 1971, the Commemorative Association for the Japan World Exposition ’70 put together a basic plan for how the site would be used, with a concept, “culture amid the serenity of nature,” that was a far cry from the festive hubbub of the expo. In the northern area of the park near the monorail station, approximately 600,000 trees of around 250 species were planted. The man-made landforms left over from preparatory development for the event were covered with pavement and rubble from demolished pavilions, and earth piled up, with the terrain around the periphery also being raised higher. What was the purpose of all this landscaping?

It was not to return the land to its original state, but rather to create, through human ingenuity, a “natural” forest housing a biodiversity-rich ecosystem. The entire park could be seen as a massive testing ground for the concept of a self-sufficient forest created by human hands.

This experiment continues 40 years later. As of 2006, 115 species of wild birds, 112 species of insects and amphibians, 79 species of fish and other aquatic organisms, and 105 species of soil organisms inhabit the park on a continual basis. Goshawks have even been found to inhabit the grounds.

However, since the trees in the park were all planted at the same time, there are a great many tall trees of the same height, which block the sun below and cause lower trees and shrubs to die off, reducing biodiversity. Recently, steps have been taken to combat this problem, with a joint project by Kyoto University, Osaka Prefectural University, and others in which tall trees are cut down at intervals so that sunlight reaches lower trees, in a man-made replication of the effects of tall trees being knocked down by typhoons and so forth in the wild.

The forest experiment at Expo Park can also be seen as a pilot study for potential reforestation of urban areas in an era of population decline. The observations made here will no doubt prove useful in efforts to promote coexistence between humanity and nature in the suburbs of the future.


A New “Expo '70 Pavilion” in 2010

In 2006, the Commemorative Organization for the Japan World Exposition '70, which took over from the above-mentioned association, formulated a vision for the future to meet the needs of an era of slow economic growth and a public in need of spiritual enrichment.

The vision for the future consists of three elements: “preservation of the natural environment,” “construction of a vibrant human society,” and “carrying on the legacy of the Japan World Exposition.”

Various projects are afoot, aimed at creating culture in a natural environment and making a contribution to public health. In addition to the above-mentioned self-sustaining forestation, the organization conducts nature-based learning programs and environmental surveys in conjunction with NPOs, volunteer organizations, and the community, and works with nearby advanced medical institutions on creating a training-friendly environment for people in physical therapy (including expanding accessibility for the physically challenged and outlining model walking courses).

The organization also preserves donated items and data related to the Osaka Expo. To convey the significance of the event’s legacy to contemporary audiences, the Steel Pavilion of the original Expo was renovated and reopened as the new Expo ’70 Pavilion in 2010. The Steel Pavilion was run by the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, and along with the Folk Crafts Museum and a few others, was among the small number of buildings in the park remaining from the original event. It was spared demolition because of its extremely sturdy structure employing steel construction techniques such as girders and reinforced concrete, but served as a mere warehouse after the event finished. Finally, however, it was reborn as a memorial pavilion in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Osaka Expo.

The pavilion displays about 3,000 artifacts, photographs and audiovisual items. Apparently the most difficult part of putting it all together was obtaining permission from the architectural firms and construction companies in charge of the various pavilions, as well as the consent of nations, corporations, designers, and manufacturers (such as department stores) for the creation of replicas of the hostess uniforms of each pavilion.

The Space Theater Hall, featuring the most advanced sound and lighting technology of the time, takes up the majority of the Steel Pavilion. Visitors can view it from booths mounted in corners of the hall, with a panorama of countless globular speakers suspended from the ceiling giving them a sense of what the theater was like.

The hall also has photos and relics donated by ordinary visitors to the expo which constitute a precious legacy to be handed down to future generations.

Many young people are among the visitors to the pavilion. It is to be hoped that future exhibitions and projects will continue to invite the participation of younger generations unfamiliar with the Osaka Expo.


Preserving the Memories of the Future Glimpsed at the Osaka Expo

As a young boy, contemporary artist Yanobe Kenji witnessed the Osaka Expo pavilions being demolished one by one in the aftermath of the event, leaving him with an image of the Expo as “the ruins of the future.” This image, seared into his memory, became a strong influence on his future work. He says it evoked, “along with overwhelming pathos, a sense of adventure and anticipation when I speculated as to what might arise from those ruins.”

Forty years have passed since the “celebration” ended, and the area around the former venue has been drastically transformed. In the future, how will the expo be viewed by generations who, like this writer, have no direct experience of it?

The Expo ’70 Pavilion retains the bright red floors and walls of the original Steel Pavilion, which look futuristic even to the contemporary eye.

On the other hand, the pavilion’s renovation included installation of an elevator. In an era when accessibility for the physically challenged is already the norm, it’s surprising that 40 years ago it wasn’t even conceived of as part of “the future.”

A certain era’s vision of the future tells us a lot about that era itself, its atmosphere and attitudes. The spectacular event that was the Osaka Expo constitutes a perfect time capsule of Japan’s rapid economic growth at its zenith. When technology and concepts ahead of their time become relics of the past, we glimpse a fossilized vision of the future as it used to be envisioned. With the site of the Expo now a commemorative park where the memory of the event is preserved, people are able to come face to face with its legacy and find in it new meaning for themselves. In this park, the woods growing atop the footprints of the demolished pavilions aptly symbolize the memories of the future people dreamed of at the Osaka Expo, like a geological layer slumbering beneath the ground.

(English translation by Christopher Stephens)


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