By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
Today we are going to take you on a numismatic journey to Osaka, Japan, host of the 1970 World’s Fair, better known as Expo ’70.
Just 25 years removed from Japan’s surrender to American forces at the end of World War II, and 18 years after the end of American military occupation that fundamentally transformed the country’s military and civic society, Expo ’70 was a major coming out party for a country that had invested seriously in areas of education, industry, and public infrastructure.
These investments were put on proud display at the exposition, alongside an impressive number of international pavilions and exhibitions, which kicked off on March 14, 1970, and continued through September 13 of that year.
More than 64 million visitors attended the fair, the motto of which was “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”. Besides giving attendees a glimpse of the future and a chance to participate in foreign cultural exchange, it also gave them the opportunity to purchase mementos to commemorate the experience.
While not definitive, the following overview demonstrates the sprawling nature of the event and the opportunity for discovery through the many numismatic objects produced for public sale at the Expo.
Official Commemorative Coin
The Japan Mint struck an official commemorative 100 Yen coin in copper-nickel. This coin was sold individually and in Mint Sets produced for the domestic and international markets.
In the United States, companies like Littleton sold annual foreign mint sets that were housed in vinyl booklets, with the coins situated in PVC holders. Coins in these sets carry minimal numismatic premiums and buyers today are advised that most of the coins found in these sets will be coated with PVC residue.
The deluxe box illustrated below contained two examples of the commemorative 100 Yen.
The coins were also sold in plastic holders: a square one with a black plastic insert featured gilt lettering that read 100 YEN (EXPO ’70) MINT BUREAU JAPAN, and a rectangular one with a red insert featured the EXPO ’70 Cherry Blossom graphic along with gilt text that read EXPO ’70 OSAKA JAPAN.
The Japan Mint also struck medals for the event; we will discuss these later.
The Expo’s Centerpiece
This interesting desk pennant features a glued-on (and, we assume, uniface) medal that features the Tower of the Sun. This impressive structure was designed by artist Tarō Okamoto and was the centerpiece of Expo ’70. The structure remains standing today and operates as a museum. During the COVID pandemic, local authorities illuminated the structure in red and green lights to communicate to the public whether it was safe to converge in public spaces.
Souvenir medallion sets honoring 20 of the key pavilions were produced and sold at the fair. These 38 mm medallions were likely (the authors have seen no documentation) struck in aluminum and gilt. Each medallion measures 38 mm and weighs 117 g. These were sold in a number of set configurations. The following set includes one example of each medallion. A deluxe set included two copies of each medal so that both the obverse and reverse could be viewed. The medallions are unsigned and share a number of design elements.
The same motif is depicted on this 2.5″ cast iron medal. The obverse is inscribed EXPO ’70 1-07 – 2 AB. The reverse features the Expo’s official symbol with EXPO ’70 printed below. Interestingly, the center dot is actually a loop to which one could fasten a ribbon or other media.
The Japanese Mint produced Official Expo ’70 medals in gold, silver, and bronze. A three-piece set was offered that included one example of each. Although they are not rare, intact sets with the gold medal are less commonly found online. Medals were also sold individually.
Official Expo ’70 Medals
The copper medal features a design by internationally-known artist Shigeo Fukuda (1932-2009) and depicts a man “reaching out towards space subsuming the endless progress of [the] 20th century and pray[ing] for the harmony of peace and goodwill of mankind.”
The three medals feature a shared design, which presents the Expo ’70 symbol along with inscriptions that read 日本 万国博覧会 (same as English), JAPAN WORLD EXPOSITION, OSAKA, 1970, and EXPO ’70.
Each of these medallions highlights the architectural splendor of the Expo ’70 fairgrounds, starting with the Progress & Harmony for Mankind medallion featuring the Tower of the Sun.
The aforementioned Tower of the Sun is depicted on the obverse of this aluminum medal against a pebbled backdrop. The inscription reads PROGRESS & HARMONY FOR MANKIND. The reverse features the simple inscription EXPO’70 OSAKA in a pebbled circle, bordered by a brilliant outer ring that extends to border beads.
The Australian Pavilion featured a futuristic design was the work of architect James Maccormick.
The structure’s attention-grabbing design referenced Japanese culture and reinforced how the economic relationship between Australia and Japan were of vital interest to both countries. Most striking is the cantilever tower, which rises 10 stories up and terminates in a hook that support’s the main structure’s canopy roof. The design for the roof was inspired by Japanese haiku, with the arm representing a wave and the disc shaped pavilion hall resembling a lotus flower. The architect said that he wanted the structure to communicate concepts related to Japanese metaphysics, culture, and the island nation’s unique flora and fauna.
On the obverse, the Australian Pavilion is pictured against a pebbled background. AUSTRALIA PAVILION below. The reverse features a Kangaroo and Joey inset in a circle with concentric rings in the background. EXPO ’70 above and OSAKA JAPAN below.
The Australian Pavilion was also commemorated in a large 3″ bronze medal sold at the Expo.
The medal features a view of the pavilion from a different perspective. The Furukawa Pavilion is depicted in the background. The Furukawa group is a made up of consortium of companies, some of them more than 1,200 years old. The structure is a recreation of Nara’s Todaiji Temple. Inside, viewers were treated to a high arial view of the fairgrounds and could create their own music by feeding an “electronic composer” musical cues. The medal’s reverse is inscribed in Japanese and reads 日本 万国博覧会 記念メタル 1970 (“Japan International Exposition Commemorative Medal 1970”).
The same medal was struck in white metal with a semi-Proof finish.
The British Pavilion’s exhibition hall was supported by four red 121-foot-high steel masts. Inside, visitors were treated to four uniquely different exhibition spaces, each focusing on an entirely different facet of the United Kingdom’s cultural and industrial contributions to the world. The “British Heritage” exhibit promoted Britain’s contribution to learning and culture. The “Progress for Mankind” exhibit provided an overview of Britain’s scientific and past technological breakthroughs. In “Building of the Future”, visitors caught a glimpse of emerging technologies that could transform the world in the next few years. And finally, visitors got a glimpse of the British countryside and cityscapes in the “British Scene” exhibit. The roof of the building was painted in the colors and design of the Union Jack.
No translation needed. This aluminum medallion features the British Pavillion on the obverse. The fields are pebbled. The reverse features a brilliant outer ring, a beaded border. The inner circle has a pebbled field. EXPO ’70 OSAKA JAPAN is inscribed above and a rose wreath is positioned below.
A second medal was struck in silver with a Proof finish.
This example features a frosted depiction of the pavilion and shows off the shrubbery around the venue. EXPO ’70 and BRITISH PAVILION is inscribed below. The reverse depicts the famous London Bridge. Below is the inscription PROGRESS AND HARMONY FOR MANKIND. The medal was struck in pure silver and weighs 19 grams. The assay mark and a privy mark is located to the right of the main inscription.
British Columbia (Canada) Pavilion
The Western Canadian province of British Columbia constructed a pavilion with architecture that was designed to invoke the natural geography and geology of the region. Metal spars fan out at the pavilion’s entrance and are depicted in the left portion of the design. BRITISH COLUMBIA PAVILION is inscribed at the bottom. On the reverse, the Canadian maple leaf is illustrated in a center circle. In a middle circle is inscribed EXPO ’70 OSAKA JAPAN. A brilliant outer ring is extends to a beaded border.
The anepigraphic obverse features a depiction of the traditionally-styled Burma Pavilion against a radial background. The reverse features the symbol of the exposition, with the inscriptions BURMA and ビルマ館 (“Burma Pavilion”).
The obverse of the Canadian Pavilion medallion features the pyramidal structure against a radial backdrop. CANADA PAVILION written below. The reverse features the Canadian maple leaf, same as the British Columbia Pavilion medal. The inscription is in English and Japanese and reads EXPO ’70 and カナタ館観覧記念 (“Canada Pavilion Viewing Commemoration”).
Visitors could also purchase a Proof silver medal, which features an elevated view of the pavilion with the English inscriptions EXPO ’70 and CANADIAN PAVILION. The reverse features a maple leaf and the inscription PROGRESS AND HARMONY FOR MANKIND. A horizontal line separates the two motifs. The assayer marks and a privy mark are located to the right of the inscription. The medal weighs 19 grams is struck in pure silver.
An even more elegant memento is this bronze medal featuring an abstract design and top-down (or bottom-up) view of the roof of the Canadian Pavilion. カナダ (“Canada”) is positioned in the upper right corner; CANADA below. The reverse features the Expo symbol at the 11 o’clock position. EXPO ’70 OSAKA is written in stylized font. This is one of the more attractive pieces from the event. The medal weighs 31 grams. The box the medal comes in leads us to believe this was manufactured by the Royal Canadian Mint.
The obverse of the Cuba Pavilion medallion features a depiction of the modern structure in fully-reflective cut out in the foreground. The background has a pebbled appearance. The inscription wrapping around the bottom reads 日本万国博覧会キューバ館 (“Japan World Exposition Cuba Pavilion”).
The reverse features a stylized outline of the structure seen on the obverse. The inscription is written in English: EXPO ’70 OSAKA PAVILION OF THE REPUBLIC OF CUBA.
The Ethiopian Pavilion is depicted in a brilliant finish against a radial background. Below the structure is an inscription in a stylized Ge’ez script (we apologize for our inability to transcribe or translate it). Inscribed at the top of the design in Japanese is 大陸を越える友情 (“Friendship Across Continents”). Below: ETHIOPIAN PAVILION EXPO ’70.
The reverse features a depiction of the Lion of Judah, an important symbol connecting Ethiopia to its imperial past. This symbol was used as the national coat of arms of until a military junta seized power in 1975. Two English inscriptions wrap around the top and bottom of the design: LAND OF 13 MONTHS OF SUNSHINE and FRIENDSHIP ACROSS THE CONTINENTS. Dots separate each inscription.
The Indonesian Pavilion medal is struck in gilt. It features a stylized depiction of a bird in a centered circle. A canted square frame outlines the central motif. On an outer ring with a pebbled surface is inscribed PAVILION INDONESIA EXPO ’70 OSAKA JAPAN. On the reverse is a pleasing depiction of a traditional female dancer.
This medallion features the Irish Pavilion against a radial backdrop. The reverse features the familiar Irish harp. EXPO ’70 above and OSAKA JAPAN below.
The Japanese Pavilion was, by far, the largest pavilion on the fairgrounds. Inside, viewers got to experience a number of exhibits that promoted the fair’s theme of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind” and the story of Japanese history from the perspective of the Japanese people’s harmony with nature, through its philosophy, and its yearning for peace. Gone was the overtly militaristic perspective of the Imperial Japanese Government of the World War II-era. The five spherical structures were designed to look like a cherry blossom from above.
The Japanese Pavilion offered this 3/4-ounce medal in silver. The obverse features an aerial view of the pavilion, along with an inscription that reads EXPO ’70. Assayer marks are punched below. On the reverse are two branches surrounding a shield emblazonned with a lightning bolt. The inscriptions are written entirely in Japanese and read 100 億達成 (“100 Million Achievement”), 創立10周 (“10th Anniversary of the Founding of”), and 株会社宗形製作所 (“the Munakata Manufacturing Company”).
A second silver medal, weighing 19 grams and struck in a Proof finish in pure silver, also features an aerial view of the structure. On this example, the obverse inscriptions read JAPAN WORLD EXPOSITION, EXPO ’70, and OSAKA 1970. The reverse features a sprig of flowers and the inscription PROGRESS AND HARMONY FOR MANKIND. The assayer marks and related information are positioned below. A vertical line separates the two motifs.
New Zealand Pavilion
The New Zealand Pavilion medallion shows the pavilion against a backdrop of radials. NEW ZEALAND PAVILION is inscribed in the foreground in a pebbled field. The reverse features a kiwi bird facing left. EXPO ’70 above and OSAKA JAPAN below.
Ontario (Canada) Pavilion
The province of Ontario’s 31,000 square-foot pavilion featured a then state-of-the-art theater that allowed fairgoers to watch the 70 mm color film A Place to Stand created by Oscar Award-winning director Christopher Chapman. The film debuted in 1967 and was the world’s introduction to IMAX. Another innovative multi-media experience at the site was a 12-minute sequence of rapidly flashing photographs that told the story of Ontario’s development from wilderness to cityscapes.
This 32 mm token features the Ontario Coat of Arms on the obverse along with the inscription Ontario·Canada written in English and Japanese (オンタリオ·カナダ). The reverse features a modernist interpretation of a trillium flower. Wrapping around the inside of the rim are the dual languages inscriptions オンタリオ州·日本万国博’·大阪 and ontario pavilion expo 70 · osaka.
South Korean Pavilion
The Korean Exposition Pavilion is depicted against a radial background. Inscriptions in England and Japanese wrap around the rim. Obverse: KOREA PAVILION above. 日本万国博覧会韓国館 (JAPAN WORLD EXPOSITION KOREAN PAVILION) below. The medallion’s reverse features the Taegeuk symbol, the national symbol of South Korea, with Japanese and English inscriptions. The background has a pebbled finish with an outer brilliant border that extends to the beaded rim. Reverse: 参観記念 (“Commemorative Visit”) EXPO ’70 OSAKA.
Soviet Union Pavilion
The Soviet Pavilion and the likeness of communist revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin are depicted on this medallion. On the obverse, you see the pavilion against the backdrop of a radiant sun. The Soviet Pavilion was the tallest structure at the Expo, with the hammer and sickle element at the top of the highest point of the edifice reaching 110 meters in the sky. The pavilion’s exterior structure was painted soviet red.
Below the structure, the inscription reads ЭКСПО · 70 (EXPO · 70).
The reverse features a left-facing head of Lenin, inset in a circle with a pebbled background. Wrapping around the design is the inscription 100 ЛЕТ СО ДНЯ РОЖДЕНИЯ В и ЛЕНИНА · 1870 * 1970 (“100 Year Anniversary of the Birth of Lenin · 1870 * 1970”).
Visitors could also purchase this bronze medal commemorating the centennial of the birth of the Soviet revolutionary leader.
The Lenin medal came housed in a long rectangular case with a circular opening that allows one to view the medal without removing the case from the paper sleeve. The obverse features a right-facing portrait of Lenin drawn from a two-thirds perspective. The lettering is executed in Latin script and reads V. LENIN (above) and 1870-1970 (below). The Soviet Pavillion is depicted on the medal’s reverse. The familiar hammer and sickle symbol surmount the highest point of the edifice. At the top of the design is the Coat-of-Arms of the Soviet Union. Below: EXPO ’70 OSAKA. In the exergue: USSR.
A second style of the Soviet Pavilion medal appeared in Pavilion medal collections that were sold in glass and medal frames, mounted in heavy red cardboard stock. These were likely produced together by a private concern, as the medals feature similar characteristics.
This Soviet Pavilion souvenir pin features red, white, and blue enameled paint on a gold-colored pin. A small safety pin is affixed to the back.
Additionally, visitors could purchase this aluminum medallion featuring the Soviet pavilion against a crosshatched background. The reverse displays the Seal of the Soviet Union with the inscriptions WORLD EXPOSITION and OSAKA 1970 wrapping around below. This design layout is similar to the format of the pavilion medals sold in the red-framed sets but obviously the motifs and inscriptions are changed.
Taiwan (China) Pavilion
The obverse features a depiction of the (Republic of) China Pavilion. The walls of the structure have a mirrored finish, while the background is granular.
The reverse features an illustration of a plum blossom, the national flower of Taiwan. The inscriptions read EXPO ’70 and 中華民國館観覧記念 (“Republic of China Pavilion Visit Commemorative”).
On the reverse is a stylized illustration of a ratchaphruek, the Thai national flower, EXPO ’70, and the Japanese text タイ国 (“Thailand”) below.
United States Pavilion
The United States Pavilion was designed by Davis Brody Bond, an innovate American architectural firm that continues to set the standard for innovative design and is responsible for the 9/11 Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.
The U.S. Pavilion featured a sprawling translucent ceiling and a number of exhibits, including ones on American photography, folk art, and technology. The most popular exhibit, however, was probably the installation featuring the Apollo 11 capsule and a floating astronaut. Here, visitors got an opportunity to see an actual moon rock.
Attendees had the opportunity to commemorate their visit by purchasing this 1.5″ bronze souvenir medal. The obverse features a view of the moon from earth’s orbit. EXPO 70 arcs upward, the contrail of a spacecraft. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND ** APOLLO ** wraps around the edge. On the reverse is a scene of the Apollo capsule floating on the ocean with dinghies carrying astronauts in the background. The flags of Japan and the U.S. are depicted above the horizon. Inscribed at the top of the inner circle is EXPO 70. At the bottom in small text: MADE IN USA. Wrapping around the edge is the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA *** OSAKA JAPAN ***.
The Mint of Japan produced a two-piece 34mm medal set in silver and copper. The torch motif depicted on the obverse rising from the sun is symbolic of peace throughout the free world, while the United States Pavilion is depicted on the reverse with the Expo’s theme “Progress and Harmony for Mankind” wrapping around the top of the design.
Washington State (USA) Pavilion
This limited-edition 24 karat gold-plated medallion was sold to visitors of the Washington State Pavilion.
The obverse features a depiction of the complex with the inscription WASHINGTON STATE EXPO 70 OSAKA JAPAN wrapping around. The reverse features a depiction of a tree inside a circle. With inscriptions in English and Japanese that read THE HARMONY OF NATURE AND MAN and ワシントン州 (“Washington State”).
The Expo was also an opportunity to show off Japan’s leading businesses. For the Japanese people, these pavilions offered a chance to get a glimpse of the technology of the future.
The Japan Gas Pavilion medal is struck in aluminum and features the face-like pavilion with a background made up of concentric circles. The reverse features a stylized G in a circle. Above: EXPO ’70. Below: 笑いの世界 (“World of Laughter”).
The red “nose” of the pavilion resembles an oven’s heating element. This was certainly one of the most distinctive and humorous installations on the fairground. It reminds us of a dollop of marshmallow or a slime from the Dragon Warrior videogame series (which came out 15 years later). The Japan Gas Association, an industry trade group comprised of over 200 Japanese utilities, dubbed their exhibit the “World of Laughter”. Inside, viewers could take in a mural by Joan Miro, or take in a 20-minute film starring the Japanese comedy team the Crazy Cats. Visitors could also use a gas-operated toilet, whatever that was.
The Mitsubishi Pavilion provided attendees the opportunity to experience the power of nature in an expansive multi-media experience co-produced by Toho Studios. Toho Studios famously produced international smash hits like Godzilla and a large swath of the filmography of Akira Kurosawa. Also on display were a number of products and devices that Mitsubishi expected to be in the homes of tomorrow.
The obverse of the pavilion medal features the Mitsubishi Pavilion against a radial background. EXPO ’70 written at the top. 三菱末来館 (“Mitsubishi Pavilion of the Future”) written below. On the reverse, the inscription reads: 50年後の日本 日本の目然と日本人の夢 (“Japan in 50 Years… Japanese Eyes and Japanese Dreams”).
The obverse features the Sumitomo Corporation Pavilion in all its futuristic splendor. Inscribed in the exergue is 住友商事株式会社 (“Sumitomo Corporation Story House”). The Sumitomo Corporation was one of the largest general trading companies in Japan. It played a pivotal role in the postwar recovery and today operates on a global scale.
The reverse features a depiction of an abstract male and female form inside of the an oval. EXPO ’70 above and 美と愛と希望の泉 (“Fountain of Beauty, Love and Hope”) below.
Beyond this set, there were other commemorative medals sold at the various pavilions as well.
Other Medals and Tokens
The three piece 38 mm aluminum and gilt-aluminum medal set is housed in a plastic case. Two Expo ’70 stamps are affixed inside the shell. A white and blue paper sleeve features a cutout to allow one of the medals to be seen. The Japanese text 万国博記念メダルセット translates to “World Expo Commemorative Medal Set”. In smaller text, 日本万国博シンボルマーク・万国博統一シンボルマーク translates to “Japan World Expo Symbol Mark / Universal World Expo Symbol Mark”.
The first aluminum medallion features a depiction of Mount Fuji. Around the bottom is the inscription No. EXPO ’70-1-OT-2-K-17.
The reverse features the symbol of the Expo surrounded by the inscription JAPAN WORLD EXPOSITION *** OSAKA 1970 ***.
The second gilt medallion features the Tower of the Sun design with the inscription Progress & Harmony for Mankind.
On the reverse is the inscription EXPO ’70 OSAKA.
The third aluminum medallion (on the right) features the official emblem of Universal and International Exhibitions. Is is an abstract design created by (then) 22-year-old artist Masanori Matsushita. Its meaning is represented through its symbols. The circle expresses peace, friendship, and human exchange. Six horizontal lines span across the design. The lines are raised in an area that forms the shape of an arrow, which indicates the improvement of the human condition as we progress to the future. The inscription reads DRAPEU des EXPOSITIONS (“Emblem of the Exhibition”).
The same motif is depicted on the this rounded square bronze official Expo ’70 medal.
This medal measures 45mm and weighs 65.7 grams. The obverse features the Matsushita design with the following inscription expressed in English, Japanese, and French: IN COMMEMORATION OF PARTICIPATION IN EXPO ’70. OSAKA, JAPAN. The reverse features the symbol of the Expo along with the inscriptions: 日本 万国博覧会, JAPAN WORLD EXPOSITION, OSAKA, 1970. EXPOSITION JAPONAISE. UNIVERSELLE ET INTERNATIONALE, OSAKA, 1970.
The same emblem is depicted again on this frosted medallion.
An Expo of Numismatic Wonder
The luster of international expositions has worn off over the years. The cost associated with producing these extravaganzas outweighs the returns, and though many of these events retain some currency in the public memory (especially for collectors), it seems that the era of the United States hosting one is long in the past. A 1992 expo was planned for Chicago but cancelled. Before that, you would have to go back to the World’s Fairs in Knoxville, Tennessee (1982) and New Orleans (1984).
Expo ’70 was a big deal for Japan. It was held at a moment in time when the island country was ascendent. Japanese industrial and cultural exports were already freely flowing. By the end of the decade, many of the technological innovations that were put on display in the summer of 1970 were ubiquitous in everyday life.
Beyond that, Expo ’70 may have been one of the most visually interesting expos of the 20th century. Its many numismatic mementos may not reflect the originality or craft of the construction of the many structures on site, but they are a reflection of the decline in the quality of the medium as we entered the later half of the century.
For cultural collectors, this is an area rich with opportunity.