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Sunday, April 17, 2005


OSAKA 1970

'Man Friday' recalls time in line at Japan's first record expo

Special to The Japan Times

With the 2005 World Expo Aichi in full swing until September in Nagoya, it may come as a surprise to some that Japan's first world exposition was to have taken place as long ago as in 1912. But that was cancelled due to the death of Emperor Meiji. Another one, to have run in conjunction with Tokyo's scheduled hosting of the 1940 Olympic Games, fell foul of World War II.

News photo
Some of the more than 64 million people who attended the World Exposition in Osaka in 1970

Finally, in 1970, Japan hit pay dirt. Rather than Tokyo being the venue, though, the host city was the second-largest metropolis of Osaka, which five years before had got the nod from the International Exhibitions Bureau.

Opening on March 15, 1970, Asia's first World Exposition celebrated the ambitious theme of "One World -- Progress and Harmony for Mankind." During its six-month run, the Osaka Expo did, too, manage to attract a considerable portion of mankind -- about 64,210,000 paying customers, with a record and mind-boggling 835,832 going through the turnstiles on Sept. 5, 1970 alone.

This attendance not only surprassed the projected 30 million, but also topped the turnouts at the two previous expositions -- in New York (1964) and Montreal (1967) -- by nearly 15 million each.

The record still stands, as subsequently held expositions, including the current Aichi Expo, have been considerably scaled down. It remains to be seen whether the event planned for 2010 in Shanghai will surpass Osaka.

Thirty-five years ago, this writer -- then a fuzzy-cheeked lad of 22 -- found himself employed at Expo 70, as a Man Friday for Peter B. Forgham, a flamboyant American entrepreneur.

Billing himself the "New Thai Silk King" (the previous king, American Jim Thompson, had mysteriously disappeared three years before), Forgham won the right to represent Thailand as official concessionaire at the Expo. In preparation, he hired six Southeast Asian beauties to model silk fashions in his shop. Despite this parade of Asian pulchritude, sales were disappointing -- Japanese women found the hot pinks and floral patterns too loud for their tastes -- but the shop attracted a regular stream of male admirers and our salesladies seldom had to purchase their own meals.

My duties at the store left me with scant time to engage in tourism, but I recall visits to some of the 44 foreign and 32 domestic pavilions. Like most workers at the site, days off were spent elsewhere, usually at downtown Osaka's movie theaters or restaurants.

Along with busloads of uniformed school children, the hordes of Nokyo dantai (agricultural cooperative members) that descended on Expo each day were a sight for sore eyes. To keep group members from winding up at Expo's "lost child" center, tour participants were issued an assortment of distinctive headwear, such as pastel-green cowboy hats, pink bonnets and giraffe-shaped caps they good-naturedly wore as they were herded from site to site. Foreign visitors must have beheld these middle-aged rustics, adorned in their visit-the-big-city finery topped off with surrealistic headgear, as nothing less than hilariously bizarre.

The crowds were invariably friendly, but schoolkids treated any hapless foreigner as fair game, waving autograph books while demanding "Sign! Sign!" We non-Japanese workers quickly learned to move around on routes where we were least likely to encounter such groups.

Stoic forbearance

Nonetheless, Expo visitors' stoic forbearance was truly a thing of wonder. On the hottest summer days they sometimes endured queues of up to five hours to gain a glimpse of a little chunk of Moon rock that had been plucked from the lunar surface by Apollo 11 the previous year. But it was probably their encounters with the Japanese-speaking foreign-pavilion guides that gave them the best stories to take home.

"Many Japanese had never even seen a foreigner up close," recalls Caryn Callahan, a U.S. Pavilion guide now in Hawaii. "I learned I should never stand stock still, because then the guests would assume that I was a statue or a mannequin. Several of us had the surreal experience of having someone come up and touch us, and then watching the person recoil in shock when we moved and they realized we were living and breathing people, not statues. I used to make a point of constantly moving when I was on duty."

In a similar vein, Californian Beverly Gray, back then another U.S. Pavilion guide, and more recently the author of a book on the B-movie horror director Roger Corman, recalls: "The crowds were horrendous, and on my vacation days I wanted to get as far away as I could. But I discovered some fascinating people, and learned a lot about many cultures. I'm not sure how much the average fairgoer got from his or her few days there -- but for me it was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life."

With the decidedly mixed headlines the current Aichi Expo is attracting, its organizers will surely be majorly hoping that, one day in the future, someone somewhere will draw on just such fond memories of their ambitious event.

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