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Japanese queue - gladly - for a 35-foot platypus and falafel

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 2005



AICHI, JAPAN

After 185 days and 22 million visitors, the 2005 World Expo ended here Sunday. If you didn't know the expo, themed "Nature's Wisdom," was a fantastic success, you aren't alone. Expo promotion, and 95 percent of the crowd, were local. Foreigners aren't keen, it seems, to wait hours in line, even to see interactive talking animals at the Hitachi pavilion, a 35-foot platypus at Australia's exhibit, or to sample the curry, falafel, or octopus dumplings that were part of the cuisine of 120 countries.

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Yet for Japanese, excitement about the cultures of the world all coexisting in a small high-tech park grew all summer, then turned epic. On Sept. 18, for example, some 37,000 Japanese were turned away at the expo gate. That's more people than the new Hong Kong Disneyland will allow in its park at one time.

Those who got in - waited. They waited at the Mongolian pavilion, the robot tent, the Siberia show that features a woolly mammoth. They waited hours, umbrellas raised against the sun, outside buildings that are all designed to be recycled.

World expos happen every half decade. The 2000 expo in Hanover, Germany, was considered a flop, given the amount of care local Germans put into it.

Yet in Aichi, a 90 minute fast-train ride southwest of Tokyo, the turnout exceeded official expectations. One difference: Whereas Hanover made its expo a place for the world to come and experience a German built expo, the Japanese made it a place where Japanese could indulge their broadening fascination with the world, with all its exotic splendors.

And fundamentally, Japanese know how to stand in line - in a way perhaps that no other nationality on earth can match.

The Japanese approach shopping, dining, events like the Nagoya world expo, art openings, films, and so on - with an assumption that they will queue. Lining up and waiting, and doing so willingly, is something expected, anticipated, even if not always enjoyed. In fact, many Japanese at the expo said, an event may be viewed suspiciously if there is no line. No lines indicate something possibly amiss; no crowds can mean low value.

"I don't always like the line," says Tamia Ito from Osaka. "But I know a line means that something at the end is super good. So I don't mind waiting even though I don't want to. You endure it to enjoy it. We are here to see the mammoth."

For some Japanese the line is embraced, and spoken of nostalgically. "Making a line is a good memory," says Nakajima. "You come with family and friends. You stand with them a long time. Later you will say, 'Remember that time we waited at the expo?' "

Such sentiments run counter to the commercial and cultural assumptions at the new Hong Kong Disneyland. Officials there found in test runs that Hong Kong residents and mainland Chinese abhor lines. Hong Kong media did too.

Yet publicity in Japanese media, which included a daily "expo update," relished the crowds. Newspapers told of lines for photo opportunities with the two shaggy expo mascots, Morizo and Kikoro.

"Paradoxically, at least from a line-avoiding Westerner's perspective,... a large line here does not present a barrier but an opportunity," says Ben Dorman, a scholar at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya. He says the internal Japanese dialogue roughly sounds like this: "'We're all here having fun because that's what we came for - this is fun, right?' Once the story gets around that queues are happening, it becomes a self-generating publicity machine."

Of course, the whiff of foreign culture makes waiting in line seem more attractive. "The prospect in the Japanese mind of visiting new cultures has become irresistible," says M. Tanaka, who teaches in a small Kyoto college.

Kamiko Tsunoda, a Nagoya resident, has been to the expo six times. "I can experience traveling abroad here," she says. "I can easily go to America, Germany, England, and Africa, the whole world. I want to feel and experience the world, and I will stand in line for that, yes, sure."

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