Progress and Nostalgia for Mankind: The Persistence of Expo ’70

If you were paying attention to Japanese social media last year, you probably noticed the image of a ring of eyeballs going viral and popping up in fanart and memes. Designed by Tamotsu Shimada, that image is the logo for the upcoming Expo 2025. A World’s Fair by any other name, Expo 2025 is scheduled to be held in Osaka, Japan. With the look of a Mister Donut Pon de Ring by way of Takashi Murakami, the logo created quite a stir on Japanese social media when it was announced and certainly challenged expectations of what a logo should look like for a global event of that scale. While events like this are typical represented by blasé logos, this otherworldly, surreal design feels oddly appropriate for an Expo held in Osaka; Japan’s second-largest city has a history with cutting-edge Expos.

World Expos have taken place in Japan four times since the end of World War II. Without question, the most interesting and influential of these Expos was the very first one, held in Osaka in 1970. Expo ’70 may not be as widely remembered as the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but the event reverberated through Japanese sci-fi subculture in the decades that followed. With a progressive, science-based theme, Expo ’70 presented a future of unlimited opportunity to the schoolchildren of Japan that influenced creative endeavors of the next couple of decades and then Showa-era nostalgia after the turn of the century.

A mood of exhilaration and hope for the future swept across Japan, bringing countless crowds to the Exposition. Schoolchildren competed among themselves to see who could go to the fair the most times! In fact, the number of attendees was purportedly equivalent to half the population of Japan at the time.
– Yasuhiro Takeda, Notenki Memoirs

An aerial view of Expo ’70.

The Future Was Sci-Fi and Sci-Fi Was Science

The theme of Expo ’70 was “Progress and Humanity for Mankind,” a slogan coined by science fiction author Sakyo Komatsu. Best known among English speakers as the writer of Japan Sinks (recently adapted for animation by Masaaki Yuasa) and Sayonara Jupiter (adapted for film in 1984 featuring design work by Studio Nue), Komatsu was one of the foundational post-war science fiction authors in Japan.

The crux of this theme was the promise of technology propelling mankind in a more harmonious future; not towards consumer electronics or fuel-efficient cars, but dramatically restructured, organically expanding cities and space travel. With a heavy focus on science and urban planning, Expo ’70 suggested that human progress was inextricably linked to technology, that hand-in-hand we’d charge into the future with computers and mechanization at our side. Consider the serendipity of Expo ‘70s timing—just a year after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and three years before the first oil crisis challenged our global perception of technological progress. In retrospect, the ideas and future presented at Expo ’70 seem wildly out of step with what would happen over the next decade. It represented an aspirational future that never quite arrived but still resonated throughout a generation of young children that visited the Expo with their classmates.

I was only an eleven-year-old boy back then, and I thought, science can do everything, and make everything better. Man has gone to the Moon, and he’ll go to Mars, and Pluto, and to other solar systems. Everything can happen, and everyone will be happy.
Toshio Okada at Anime America ‘96

With moon rocks on display and towering, futuristic buildings, it’s easy to imagine how Expo ’70 could have profoundly influenced young children who would go on to make influential science fiction over the next few decades. As you’d expect considering the company’s Kansai roots, Okada wasn’t the only Gainax co-founder who attended. An episode of Welcome Back for an Extracurricular Lesson, Sempai!, aired on TV after Neon Genesis Evangelion became an enormous success, follows Hideaki Anno as he teaches a class of elementary school children and shares insights into his own childhood. As part of the project, the children visit his home and interview his parents about Anno’s childhood. When one asks them, “What memories do you have? Like, memories of when you went somewhere?” Anno’s mom answers succinctly, “The Osaka Expo.” Anno was nine years old when Expo ’70 opened its gates in March of 1970.

Gainax’s history seemed to show strange glimpses and connections to Expo ’70 in plenty of ways, coincidental or intentional. The Nadia: Secret of Blue Water comic anthology titled Comic Blue Water (produced by General ProductsCyber Comix magazine), features a story set during the Expo. UCC canned coffee (the same company that has been doing Evangelion cross-promotions for years, now), made its world debut at the event and kicked off the canned coffee craze in Japan.

If the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics represented how far Japan had come since the war, Expo ’70 in Osaka represented how far it could go—the notion of future progress, technology, and science ran throughout the event.

I stood in line for two hours to look at some rocks. But they weren’t just any old rocks—they had been brought back from the moon. They carried the promise of a bright and powerful future; they seemed to glow with the confidence of that tomorrow.

After these early experiences, I began to nurture a new belief somewhere deep inside me, a belief that the future was sci-fi, and sci-fi was science.
– Yasuhiro Takeda, Notenki Memoirs

The Tower of the Sun during Expo ’70.

The Tower of the Sun

If there’s one enduring singular image of Expo ’70, it is unquestionably Taro Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun. It, along with a small section of Kenzo Tange’s “space frame” scaffolding (more on this later) are all that remains of the iconic physical structures on the Expo ’70 grounds today, but the influence of Okamoto’s sculpture-slash-building goes beyond just being the last standing remnant. 70 meters tall, the Tower of the Sun is more than just a striking facade, it also houses an exhibit called “The Tree of Life” inside, featuring artwork and miniatures produced by Tsuburaya Productions (yeah, the Ultraman folks). The name of the building reportedly comes from an observation by Komatsu about how it reminded him of a “sexual description” from the novel Season of the Sun by Shintaro Ishihara (yeah, that Shintaro Ishihara). Upon hearing Komatsu’s remark, Okamoto decided to name it “The Tower of the Sun.”

Kaiyodo’s 1/350 scale soft vinyl version of the Tower of the Sun, pictured next to their 1/144 pre-painted model version.

Kaiju-like in both form and size, The Tower of the Sun was used for all sorts of merchandising during Expo ’70, and in recent years has been revisited as a source of merchandise perfectly poised to tug the heartstrings of anyone with some Showa era nostalgia (real or facsimile). Some of these include modern sofubi versions by Kaiyodo—a traditional form for kaiju toys dating back to the days of Ultra Q and the original Ultraman— and transforming toys by Bandai that reimagined the tower as a transforming robot. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kaiyodo was an Osakan company, like Gainax and General Products mentioned earlier.

The tower has been referenced or included in manga like 20th Century Boys, Naruto, AD Police 25:00, and others. Fitting, perhaps, considering that Okamoto’s father was Ippei Okamoto, a prominent manga artist from the early 20th century. The kaiju comparison seems ever more apt when you consider Tsuburaya’s involvement in the original project, although the top face on the statue (which represents the future) channels the scientific focus of the Expo with a gold-plated disc that looks like it was plucked off of an Apollo program lunar lander.

Revisited today, it’s difficult not to see the influence of the Tower of the Sun in more recent forms, intentional or not. Its shape may have influenced Yoshitoh Asari’s design of the fourth angel in Evangelion, Shamshel. Its bucolic location in the middle of a grassy field is reminiscent of the life-sized RX-78 Gundam’s first location on the shores of Odaiba and indeed, being in its presence feels not unlike seeing that giant robot up close. Serene and otherworldly though by now utterly familiar as an Osaka landmark, The Tower of the Sun remains as the last physical remnant of Expo ’70 and unquestionably the most iconic part of World’s Fair.

Tokyo Bay in A Plan for Tokyo, 1960

Mecha Metabolism

Today The Tower of the Sun sits in a meadow surrounded by trees but during Expo ’70 it sat inside a large plaza called the “Big Roof.” Memorable for its intricate scaffolding, the building was designed by architect Kenzo Tange, a man who left his mark on the skyline of Tokyo and the world of architecture as a co-founder of the metabolism movement.

While its origins predate Expo ’70 by a decade, the metabolism movement was well-suited for the theme of the fair. The movement’s manifesto (which Tange co-authored) advocated for large, adaptable structures that could grow and change organically as technology advanced and urban needs changed and potentially whether any environmental calamities cities might face. At its most grandiose, metabolism proposed enormous mega-structures that could be fitted and updated with pods of varying sizes for business and residential use. In practical applications, metabolism resulted in only two buildings seeing realization, both modest and located in Tokyo; The Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center in Ginza and the iconic-yet-perpetually-about-to-be-torn-down Nakagin Capsule Tower in Shimbashi. Both of these were based around the concept of a central structure supporting pods that could be replaced as technology advanced in the comings years but today both buildings retain their original capsules in various stages of disrepair, outdated reminders of a future that never was.

Landmark Tower

Kiyonori Kikutake, another co-founder of the metabolism movement, also designed a structure for the Expo called the Landmark Tower1. Channeling the space frame design also present in Tange’s work and looking a bit like a spaceship stuck straight up on the expo grounds, the tower channeled its own form of metabolism with a cluster of pods attached to the tower’s three central pillars. Like the Tower of the Sun and some scraps of the Big Roof, the Landmark Tower was one of the few buildings that survived demolition after the fair. Closed to the public in 1990, Landmark Tower ultimately suffered the indignity of serving out the remainder of its life as a cell phone tower until it was dismantled in 2003. If nothing else, the tower managed to outlast most of its contemporary Expo ’70 structures and the dream of metabolism itself.

In 1961, Tange published A Plan for Tokyo, 1960, proposing a radical decentralization of Tokyo to allow for sustained growth and at its most dramatic, a sprawling network of structures and highways that crisscrossed Tokyo Bay. In almost every conceivable way it was a proposal for a real-world equivalent of the Babylon Project from Patlabor: The Movie, albeit nearly three decades years before the film hit Japanese cinemas. Both A Plan for Tokyo and the Metabolist Manifesto envisioned cities that were better prepared for calamity than the contemporary urban sprawl of post-war Japan, a provision not unexpected considering the destruction wrecked upon Japanese cities in the 20th century from both natural and man-made calamity. With that in mind, it’s easy to see a bit of Tange’s influence on the design of Tokyo-3 in Evangelion, albeit on a more grandiose, transformative scale.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building used in Patlabor 2 branding.

The first Patlabor film wasn’t the only part of that particular franchise to bear the influence of Tange, as promotional material for the sequel featured the non-metabolist, twin-spired Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building that he designed at the height of the bubble economy and very much removed from the Metabolism of decades earlier. His Yoyogi National Gymnasium, originally built for the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964, has been seen in countless shows and movies.

Another of Kikutake’s designs, the floating city called “Aquapolis” was a cornerstone of Expo ’75, held in Okinawa. Perhaps a more fitting real-world equivalent to Patlabor: The Movie’s The Arc2 Aquapolis was a giant, manmade floating island that fit in with that Expo’s oceanic theme. The structure was at least partially influenced by his Marine City project from 1958, which formed part of the Metabolist Manifesto. That specific project envisioned floating megastructures allowing people to live on the sea. Like his Expo Tower, Aquapolis survived the event it was built for and remained a tourist attraction until the 1990s. It was sold for scrap at the turn of the century.

There’s a bit of irony in the fact that one of the strongest showcases for the Metabolism movement would be a temporary event designed from the start to last only a year. Growth, expansion, and updating as necessitated by technology, nature, or population were features baked into Metabolism’s concept, but a World’s Fair is really just a snapshot of a specific time and place. Expo ’70 looked towards the future, very briefly, and then disappeared.

Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys

Regression and Nostalgia for Mankind

Despite the Expo 70’s forward-thinking theme and futuristic pavillions, fifty years on its most recognizable icons are used to evoke a specific kind of Showa-era nostalgia and not much else. The Expo’s inclusion, either as the event itself or the Tower of the Sun, has been used in works deeply entrenched in the idea of Showa era childhood, with two of the most notable examples being Naoki Urasawa’s manga 20th Century Boys and the film Crayon Shin-chan: Fierceness That Invites Storm! The Adult Empire Strikes Back.

There’s been more obvious merchandising, too. While replicas of the Tower of the Sun exist in plenty of forms, the most notable is unquestionably the Chogokin transforming version, a toy that imagines the tower as that other Showa era childhood fascination—the transforming robot. Bandai’s Chogokin line trades on bringing childhood robots to life in an exquisite, albeit expensive, form and so this sort of mashup somehow makes perfect sense.

Expo 70’s ephemeral status meant any lasting appreciation for it would, inevitably, turn into nostalgia. All that’s left are old videos, old photos, fading memories, and a very unusual tower in the middle of a grassy field in Osaka. It’s hard to imagine any World’s Fair really changing the world, but the happenstance of Expo ’70 and its ability to inspire a generation of Japanese schoolchildren has ensured that it has reverberated throughout pop culture in the half-century since it was held.


  1. Sometime’s referred to as “Expo Tower.”
  2. A quick refresher: The Babylon Project sought to reclaim the bay for development, but the Ark itself was a maintenance and construction hub designed to support Babylon Project development.