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Monday, March 21, 2005

Aichi Expo to open Friday with attendance very much in doubt

Staff writer

NAGAKUTE, Aichi Pref. -- The past, present and future will be on display at the World Exposition in Aichi Prefecture, which opens to the public Friday with exhibits ranging from an 18,000-year-old woolly mammoth fossil to experimental energy sources predicted to be in common worldwide usage within the next century.

But concerns remain that the six-month extravaganza, which has been plagued by international criticism and controversy, will fail to draw the predicted crowds or much interest outside the Nagoya region.

With more than 120 countries, numerous international organizations and major corporations in attendance, the Aichi Expo will feature hundreds of concerts and performances, from Yo Yo Ma to Sarah Brightman. Numerous royalty and heads of state, including French President Jacques Chirac, are expected to attend the expo, which will be held in the Nagakute and Seto regions about 40 minutes by bus from Nagoya Station.

The expo is expected to draw 15 million visitors, including 1.5 million from overseas. This is down from the original projection of 20 million visitors and not even one-fourth of the 64 million who came to the 1970 Osaka Expo.

The idea to host the expo was hatched in the early 1990s. After Nagoya lost the 1988 Olympics to Seoul by a mere two votes, local officials wondered how to best make use of large tracts of land east of Nagoya which had been set aside for the Olympics. The solution was to hold an expo.

Once the decision was made, controversy erupted. The chosen theme of "Nature's Wisdom" was attacked by domestic and international environment groups as hypocritical. Wide tracts of virgin forests in the still relatively underdeveloped Nagakute and Seto areas were destroyed to build the facilities.

Construction plans were changed following the discovery in 1999 that endangered goshawks were living near the site, but only after intense pressure on the organizers from domestic and international environmental groups.

The theme and site of the expo also drew public criticism from central government officials, who noted that an entire transportation, water and sewage infrastructure would have to be built for the Nagakute and Seto sites.

In 2000, Hiroshi Akai, then director of transport ministry's regional transport planning division, argued the expo should be relocated to an area near Nagoya Station that had been slated for redevelopment anyway and posed no major logistic problems. He also proposed changing the theme to "Environmentally Friendly Manufacturing."

At a special three-day preview ended Sunday, it was obvious that Akai's proposed theme was closer to the spirit of the Aichi Expo. The largest and most elaborate pavilions belong not to countries but to corporations, notably Toyota and Hitachi, where a variety of environmentally friendly technologies drew huge crowds.

"It's so exciting. It's really great to see all of these new technologies, especially the various robots," said Yutaka Morioka, a 23-year-old man from Nagoya who says he hopes to start his own technology firm some day.

Others, like 16-year-old Mari Toda, also from Nagoya, were more interested in the wide array of food available, a variety which sparked an interest in international travel.

"I want to go to Turkey," she said after a taste of Turkish ice cream.

Organizers will have to hope the crowds remain as large and enthusiastic as those at the preview. But that could prove problematic without substantial ticket discounts or reduced package tours.

At 4,600 yen per person, tickets are not cheap, although expo officials counter it's cheaper than a ticket for Tokyo Disneyland.

Expo organizers also admit there could be congestion problems, especially at the most popular pavilions and restaurants. Long lines and waits of 30 to 90 minutes were common at the preview, causing many to wonder what is going to happen when the expo opens for real.

An even bigger potential headache is security. Visitors will have to empty their pockets, have their baggage checked and pass through a metal detector before entering the site. A long list of items are forbidden, and there will be additional security at some of the attractions, including the U.S. pavilion.

"This is ridiculous. It's like we're going abroad and have to pass through airport customs and immigration," said Miyuki Goto, a 36-year-old woman who came from Toyota city with her two daughters on Saturday and spent nearly 40 minutes waiting to get in.

But perhaps the organizers' biggest worry is a lack of sustained interest nationally once the initial rush of visitors subsides.

In November, media surveys indicated nearly half of those surveyed in Tokyo had not even heard of the event. And many in Osaka who knew about it said they doubted they would attend.

"It's kind of far to go, and it seems to be more for the people of the Nagoya region who aren't as familiar with other countries and cultures as people in Tokyo and the Kansai regions," said Kimiko Tanaka, an Osaka resident who attended Expo 1970.

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