Rickshaws and Rockets: Exhibiting Japan at the 1964 World's Fair

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 2:30 PM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham)
Jessamyn Abel, Penn State University
The Japanese pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair exhibited a carefully calibrated mix of cutting edge technology and relics of the past. This sometimes jarring juxtaposition reflects the fact that, while International Expositions afford nations an opportunity to present a desired image to the world, such self-presentation is constrained by the curiosity, interests, and fears of their audiences. The Japanese government and business leaders involved in planning the displays aimed to transform the predominant view of Japan as an exporter of cheap trinkets to that of an industrialized high-tech power, an ideal partner in trade and technological development. But the presentation of Japan as a tech-nation was enveloped in and punctuated by an alternative vision: Japan as the land of an exotic culture and quaint customs. The inclusion of traditional, usually feminized elements of Japanese culture was necessitated by Western anxieties and expectations. The international image associated with technological prowess is a double-edged sword. Even as Western consumers were coming to admire Japanese electronics and other high-technology products, business and labor interests began to fear competition and perceive unfair trade practices in areas such as semi-conductors. Foreign policy officials sought to combat the growing perception of Japan as a purely “economic animal” (a label that began to take hold in the 1960s) by cultivating both a “cultural mind” among policy-makers and a cultural element in such international image-making. Also pushing toward the presentation of traditional culture was a very different view dominating American preconceptions: a Japan of kimono-clad beauties in rickshaws. The need to attract an audience in order to make any impression at all meant that those who wished to change Japan’s image could not neglect the traditional Japan that Americans expected and desired. This paper will examine this tension and its impact on Japan’s international identity.