Patricia G. Steinhoff frequently talks about an “invisible civil society” in Japan: a wide and vibrant swath of social movements, particularly remnants from the radical cycle of protests in the 1960s and 1970s, that are essentially unknown and given little coverage by the mainstream media. And so we have another example.
When Osaka was awarded the 2025 World Expo in November last year, there were scenes of celebration from the bureaucrats in Japan’s second major city (and incidentally, my one-time stomping ground). But like with that other gravy train, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, not everyone is pleased about this mega-event as a use of public money for regeneration projects and expensive spectacle.
The Banpaku Aho chau ka Demo Jikkō Iinkai (loosely, Stupid Expo Demonstration Committee) is apparently organised by people in their twenties and thirties based in the Hokusetsu northern part of Osaka Prefecture, specifically the cities of Minō and Toyonaka. (The name is distinctly Osakan, since aho, or “idiot” or “fool”, is commonly used in the local dialect. The group’s flyers are also sprinkled with the Osaka vernacular.) It has so far held one formal protest, on 8 December in Toyonaka, and has another planned for 27 January in the same area.
Its activists oppose the forthcoming world fair for three main reasons: firstly, that it allows politicians to escape from tackling real social problems; secondly, that they should prioritise expanding social welfare rather than boosting the economy for the rich; and thirdly, that this model of economic competition, such as the way cities vie with each other to host these expos, is pointless and that we should focus on building solidarity.
While participant numbers are unconfirmed, this is obviously a small movement (so far) and has received coverage only from media with a focus on left-wing social movements, such as Jimmin Shimbun and Labornet. No images have been published online of the December protest, though this is not atypical in Japan for social movements that are careful to protect the privacy of participants. There are signs of wider discontent, however.
To coincide with the 2025 expo, Osaka has also announced plans to overhaul several of its main subway stations as well as extend a line and build a whole new station to serve the expo area in the port. However, the concept images released in December attracted immediate criticism for their tasteless design as well as an online petition demanding the city preserve the historical legacy of the stations.
Given the current escalation of the Tokyo Olympics controversies, with the head of the Japanese Olympic Commitment facing indictment in France for corruption allegations, the reputation of the mega-event is anything but healthy in Japan. Did vote-buying, indirectly or otherwise, play a part in the recent decision to award Osaka the World Expo? One imagines investigative reporters are now contemplating this question.
It should be noted the Olympics scandal is not new, having first surfaced in the foreign press back in 2016. It was, however, dealt with somewhat tentatively by the mainstream media in Japan, leaving subscription-based publications like Facta to name Dentsu for its alleged role in the bribery. Since Dentsu, which was a central part of organising the 2020 bid and stands to make handsome profits overseeing the publicity for the actual games, is by far the most influential force in the Japanese media, the ethics of reporting the news inevitably jut up against the realpolitik of appeasing the agency that handles media purchases for almost all major brands in the country.
The 2025 expo is, like the 2020 Games, hinging heavily on nostalgia. As next year’s Olympics hope to capture the zest of the 1964 Summer Games that cemented Japan’s return to the world stage after its humiliating wartime defeat and occupation, the 2025 expo is emulating another crowning achievement in the post-war Japan narrative, not to mention one of Osaka’s greatest modern triumphs: the 1970 World Expo. This event was an enormous success in terms of visitor numbers and impact on popular culture. It was also unprecedented in allowing avant-garde and visionary ideas in art and architecture to play a central role in such a publicly funded (and corporately sponsored) event, not least the presence of Tarō Okamoto’s immensely iconic Tower of the Sun — pointedly referenced in the protest publicity, in a sarcastic nod to the sentiments of the bureaucrats. However, the 1970 expo had its lesser-reported, darker side, too, in its inflated budget, the huge infrastructural costs and damage to the local environment, the incredible level of consumption that its millions of visitors necessitated and the complicity of artists with the nation-state during a time when Japan was co-operating with the United States in its conflict in Vietnam. The World Expo, or Banpaku, even had its own counter-event, the World Fair for Anti-War (Hansen no tame no Bankokuhaku), or more simply Hanpaku (Anti-Expo), which was held over several days in summer 1969 in Osaka Castle Park and other venues as a pacifist alternative organised by a local chapter of Beheiren. It featured music, teach-ins, talks and performances, and while certainly eclipsed by the actual expo, has nonetheless passed into the memory of the period as a key moment in the anti-war movement. “Hanpaku” was actually a label that appeared in relation to several manifestations of anti-expo feeling by various groups. The members of Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension) and other artists, for example, joined together to form Banpaku Hakai Kyōtō-ha (Expo ’70 Destruction Joint Struggle Group), which spent months in 1969 staging art actions in protest at the artists who had elected to contribute to the expo. Over the course of these, Zero Jigen’s Katō Yoshihiro and others were even arrested for one typically provocative “ritual” event it enacted at a university.
While disappearing into police detention is undoubtedly not something the organisers of the current anti-2025 protests will want to emulate, we can perhaps hope they create a Hanpaku to counter the official extravaganza in Osaka six years from now.