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Monday, Sept. 26, 2005

Aichi World Expo comes to a close on a sunny note


Staff writer

NAGAKUTE, Aichi Pref. -- The Aichi World Expo ended Sunday with gorgeous weather, record crowds and a sense of a job well done among organizers and participants.

News photo
Employees toast the end Sunday to the Aichi World Expo at its Seto venue.

By late morning, long lines had formed at most exhibits and venues, with a waiting time of more than four hours for the robot and new energy pavilions. Some visitors from outside Nagoya came to the city the night before and arrived at the entrance gates hours before they opened to ensure they would get into their favorite pavilions.

"We came from Shizuoka last night and arrived at the expo site about 4:30 a.m.," said Hideki Nakamura, a 29-year-old man who camped out in front of the Toyota Pavilion with two friends to see the robots. "We've been standing in line since about 5 a.m. It's better than arriving later and waiting in an even longer line."

The weather for the final day of the six-month expo was as sunny as the mood of organizers and participants, who basked in the glory of an expo that ended up far more successful than even the most ardent optimists would have predicted six months ago.

The expo opened March 25 in snowy weather and was plagued with technical and bureaucratic problems, as one of the vaunted new train systems suffered several breakdowns and security measures were slammed as needlessly strict.

An initial ban on bringing in boxed lunches received especially heated criticism, with visitors certain the ban was designed to force them to buy food inside the park from expo-approved vendors. Only after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi voiced his support for bringing in boxed lunches was the ban dropped.

From Golden Week onward, the crowds began coming in droves. Organizers had hoped to draw 15 million people. But at Sunday's closing ceremony, they revealed they had done far better than that.

"The number of visitors has reached 22 million," said Shoichiro Toyoda, chairman of the Japan Association for the 2005 World Expo. Nearly 40 percent were repeat visitors.

The expo's theme, "Nature's Wisdom," was also subject to criticism. Several domestic and international environmental organizations boycotted the expo, dubbing it the "Toyota Expo," where, they alleged, the real purpose was to promote the corporate agenda of a few firms like Toyota, which had one of the largest pavilions, rather than address broad environmental issues.

Yet public interest in environmental technologies was extremely high. One of the most popular venues was the New Energy Development Organization Pavilion, which demonstrated how fuel cells, solar, wind and other alternate energy sources work. As one man who waited in line Sunday for three hours at the pavilion noted, it is especially popular because, for many, it's especially timely.

"With gasoline at record high prices, and with the recent two hurricanes in the U.S. causing instability in world oil markets, the dangers of relying too much on gas and oil have really become obvious to me of late. The pavilion offers alternatives Japan really needs to develop as quickly as possible," said Toshio Kusuda, a 60-year-old Nagoya resident.

For their part, Japanese officials said the Aichi Expo combined technology with lessons about the wise use of natural resources.

"Fuel-cell power generation has been utilized at the expo by using raw waste materials and biodegradable plastic items, demonstrating how the 'mottainai,' or 'don't waste what is valuable,' spirit can be effectively harnessed," Koizumi said at the closing ceremony.

Now Nagoya and the Chubu region are asking what comes next. With local economists offering rosy predictions of a 10 billion yen profit and an eventual regional ripple effect of nearly 1.3 trillion yen, expectations are high there will be no post-expo financial problems.

Whether these expectations are met will play a role in answering a more difficult question about the expo's ultimate impact on Nagoya's image abroad. Expo organizers and most local media have been quick to assert the event has raised Nagoya's international prominence.

But skepticism remains over whether this can be translated into positive developments, like an environment more open to foreigners and foreign direct investment.

"Nagoya is still very closed and insular compared to Tokyo. A changed image due to the expo is not enough. Nagoya and Chubu still have to prove to the world that the expo has made it easier for foreigners to live and work here, and I'm not sure the organizers or most citizens, basking in the glory of the expo, really understand this," said a Japanese reporter who works in the Chubu region.



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