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International Expositions, an Attempt to Understand Human Progress: From Exhibition to Dialogue ―Interview with Mayuko Sano, Historian [Expo 2025 Collaboration Project] Updated in November 2021

Mayuko Sano, who studies World Expos (international expositions) as a historian

An international exposition (“expo” hereafter) is coming to Japan soon. It is “Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai, Japan” which will take place in 2025 with the theme “Designing Future Society for Our Lives.” The word “Expo” is familiar to everyone, but not many people will answer the following question with confidence ― “What is an Expo?” Perhaps “a worldwide exhibition of science and technology” or “a huge event to show us a future society” ― such vague images seem somewhat different from the Expo's original intention. We spoke with Sano Mayuko, a professor at Kyoto University, who studies expos as a historian and tries to capture the history of human society.

Expos began “in the hope of learning about the world”

How did expos begin? The first World Expo took place in London in 1851. Sano believes that expos emerged from the combination of three significant movements: trade fairs held mainly in France, attempts to educate ordinary citizens in England through exhibitions, and a move to open Royal Collections to people as public property. However, the first World Expos did not necessarily start with a firm principle.

“We could say the first World Expo was something they just attempted, with motivations as simple as, ’Why not hold a big exhibition we've never had before?’ and ‘We might as well invite overseas exhibitors.’”

The expo that began out of a sense of spontaneity was later held in New York and Paris before returning to London in 1862.

“When the process of the second London Expo started, the idea of keeping the Expo going was born. The desire to invite enough countries to represent the entire globe also began to grow, and for the first time the word ‘international’ was added. In my opinion, this is when the history of the expo began in the truest sense.”

Expo London (1862)

An enormous event born through the development of transportation technology

The 19th century, when the expo was born, was a time of significant growth in transportation technology, with steamships put into practical use. According to Prof. Sano, the birth of a technology that allowed people to travel far was the driving force behind the expo's development.

“It became possible to go to the other side of the world if you wished and so the idea of gathering things from distant places and exhibiting them in one place was born. Now, exhibiting things would in turn grow people's desire to see, know, and visit other places. It was a time of synergy between the growth of transportation technology and the desire to collect and display things that had never been seen before. These forces came together to produce an expo.”

Sano sees communication technologies such as the Internet as an extension of transportation technologies in terms of transmitting knowledge and information. She focuses not only on the growth of these transportation and communication technologies, but also on their “underdeveloped” aspects. Back then, the international telegraph was in its early days and was not in practical use extensively.

“I think that the expo was born somewhere between a certain degree of development and underdevelopment in transportation and communication technology. Not everyone could travel far, and that's what made it special. I believe that this delicate balance gave birth to this huge event like a miniature Earth.”

A place to confirm the progress of mankind

When you think of an expo, you may imagine it as a place for each participating country to introduce the “products they pride themselves on” to the world. Sano says there was a more genuine desire to learn about the world at the root of the minds who started the expo. Also, expos are often associated with the key word “future,” and many people may think that it is an event to describe the “future” of humanity. According to Prof. Sano, however, that is not what expos originally intended.

“At its resource library, I once searched to what extent the word ‘future’ was used in the collection catalogue of BIE (Bureau International des Expositions). There were few hits from the old days, and it was only relatively recently, from the 1990s, that ‘future’ started to appear pretty often. This shows that, the expo's original purpose was not to depict the future.”

Rather, from its early days, expos have been firmly linked to the concept of the progress of human society. Prof. Sano focuses on the fact that when the organizers of the second London Expo discussed holding the Expo every ten years, they were very aware that each expo was to confirm the progress of humanity over the recent decade.

“Humanity has come so far ― whether it's in terms of technology or the way we think about things. We can show it, confirm it, learn from it, and discuss how much further we can go until the next expo. I believe that is what expos were about initially.”

Books edited by Prof. Sano (Expos and Human History (SHIBUNKAKU Publishing, 2015), and Expo-logy: Expos as a Method of Grasping the World (SHIBUNKAKU Publishing, 2020)). “The Expo is a method of grasping the world,” says Sano.

Expo '70 Osaka presented a “flat world”

People often refer to Expo '70 Osaka as a brilliant symbol of Japan's era of rapid economic growth. However, Sano points out a different aspect. Its theme was “Progress and Harmony for Mankind.” In the 1960s, when it was decided for Osaka to host the event and preparations were underway, colonies of the world became independent countries one after another, and the shape of the world was changing dramatically. Expo '70 welcomed the largest number of newly independent countries in the history of world expos, as the world was undergoing significant changes.

“Expo '70 was the first major world exposition held in a non-Western country. Since Japan is a non-Western country, I suppose we were not so consciously aware about welcoming emerging countries, but it was a wonderful thing. We were able to create a “flat world” unthinkable until then. This was so precious, and I think it deserves more reevaluation.”

Another important outcome of Expo '70, Sano stresses, was human resource development: The Osaka Expo produced “stars,” including architect Kurokawa Kisho and designer Koshino Junko. They were still young at the time, but would later become leaders in a variety of fields.

“An expo is the world's largest official event. As an international enterprise, it lasts six months from its opening after a preparation period of several years, during which it mobilizes expertise and resources on an incomparable scale to any other event. Expo ‘70 was symbolic that it produced such top stars of the next generation, but the same is true for all aspects of society, not just them.”

The essential point is that the Expo developed human resources in a wide range of social sectors, not limited to prominent figures in architecture and art. This is Prof. Sano’s perspective.

“For example, building pavilions, installing new vending machines, or coordinating and negotiating for the movement of a huge number of people safely for six months ― many such challenges condense to make up an expo. These skills will have been effectively used later in various parts of society. In that sense, I think Expo '70 had the value of fostering Japan's human resources on an unprecedented scale.”

Expo '70 Osaka: It presented a “flat world” that was unthinkable back then, welcoming the largest number of newly independent countries in the history of the Expo. (Provided by NOMURA Group)

Exhibition has changed from objects to photographs, videos, and beyond

Of course, the “progress of mankind,” on which expos have etched their footprints, includes science and technology. Not only did advances in science and technology become the subject of exhibitions, but they also significantly impacted how things are displayed. For example, in the second London Expo, photography became a new field of the exhibition.

“In the beginning, they exhibited the photographic technology itself, i.e., machines used to take the pictures. Later, mainly from the 1930s, people presumably began to use photographs in various fields to convey information instead of exhibiting actual objects. Then, it became possible to show the scenery of each country through photographs as it is never possible to bring in real scenery. This way, the content of exhibitions also changed.”

Following on from this, the method of exhibiting has evolved from objects to photographs and now to video. Because videos constrain the viewer's time, the design of pavilions and the flow of visitors have fundamentally changed; and subsequently, the meaning of visiting a pavilion has also changed. As the “age of videos” that began around Expo '70 Osaka continues today, Prof. Sano thinks it's about time we should move beyond that.

“Although digital technology is now heavily used, the way of exhibiting things through videos has not changed much. How we overcome this situation is one of my interests towards the next Expo.”

Expo 2025 will return to “people”

How will expos, which were born out of a situation in which "the technology to go far away was born, but not everyone could go," change now that "many people can go?” Prof. Sano continues, “This may seem like an outlandish idea.”

“Exhibits have changed from real objects to photos and videos. When I think about what's next, I just want people to be there. The theme of Expo 2025 is ‘Designing Future Society for Our Lives.’ I want the event to be a place where real people from various cultures and backgrounds can thoroughly discuss current life issues. You visit the pavilions of each country, the people of that country will welcome you, and you can tell each other what you are thinking and discuss in person ― That's good enough, and that's what I think is new.”

Over 170 years, expos, which began with a “curiosity to learn about the world,” have reflected human activities, changing the contents and methods of exhibitions.

“Hosting an expo means bringing the world to your place and becoming the host of the world for that period. This notion has not changed since the day it started. Without forgetting the meaning, I would like to make it something that can only happen in the year 2025 by people in the flesh, not just showing off technologies.”

Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai (Image of the venue): Under the concept “People’s Living Lab,” it aims to realize the theme, “Designing Future Society for Our Lives.” It will take place for six months, starting April 2025 in Yumeshima, Osaka. (Provided by Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition)

Mayuko Sano

Professor at the Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University. Graduated from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of Tokyo. MPhil in International Relations, the University of Cambridge. Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo. After working for the Japan Foundation and UNESCO Headquarters, she was a faculty member at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture and the International Research Center for Japanese Studies before assuming her current position in 2018.
She specializes in the history of diplomacy and cultural exchange, and cultural policy. Her major works include Expos and Human History (editor, SHIBUNKAKU Publishing, 2015), Diplomatic Ceremonial in the Last Decade of the Edo period: Western Diplomats' Castle Audiences with the Shōgun (, SHIBUNKAKU Publishing, 2016), and Expo-logy: Expos as a Method of Grasping the World (editor, SHIBUNKAKU Publishing, 2020).

Original article was provided by Science Portal and Science Japan.
This has been translated by Sakura Science Club secretariat.