Standard World's Fair fare, really. But what's different about the Nagoya exhibition is this: when the show is over in September and all 15 million expected visitors have gone home, the government will raze the expo, recycle the construction materials and reinstate the children's park. Other former expo host cities may proudly flout their rusting space needles and rocket-ride pavilions on postcards as reminders of glory days past, but not Nagoya. This city is moving too fast to be anchored down by white elephants-in-waiting. After all, in 30 years we may all be breathing oxygenated nanobubbles on our way to Neptune.
Above all, Nagoyans do not see themselves as quaintnot now, not in the future. Ditching the expo is the kind of unconventional thinking that has turned greater Nagoya (pop. 7.2 million) into Japan's most vibrant region. While the rest of the country wheezes in and out of the economic recovery room, Aichi prefecture has become Japan's most reliable and energetic commercial engine. Specializing in high-value, high-tech manufacturing, Aichi has posted one of the top economic growth rates in the nation in recent years. It boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates, the second highest household income, and the fastest rising property valuesand that economic muscle is pumping a boom in construction, retailing, fashion and plain old civic pride. "In many ways, this is one of the city's finest eras," says Masahiko Mori, president of Mori Seiki, a machine-tool company that has just relocated its headquarters from a neighboring prefecture to downtown Nagoya.
This is a comeback story with an excruciatingly long prologue, however. In the late 16th century, the area was home to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the country's greatest shogun. But Ieyasu abandoned it in 1603 when he established his new capital in what is now Tokyo. Overshadowed not just by Tokyo to its east, but also by Osaka to its west, Nagoya languished, developing a reputation as a backwater among many Japanese (and a complete cipher to most foreigners) despite being Japan's fourth largest city. When a new generation of bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka was introduced in 1992, the original schedules didn't even include a Nagoya stop. Two decades ago, a comedian named Tamori got laughs by mocking Nagoya's dialect, which he likened to cats' mewling.
It's Nagoyans who are laughing now. Even on weekday nights, the downtown is vibrant, lively and thronged with people. Spacious, brightly lit avenues and green ribbons of urban parks abut rows of gleaming shops, department stores and restaurants. Some of the women out for shopping or dinner have dyed-brown hair piled high with looping curls and ultra-feminine (and frequently pink) outfits replete with bows and frills. These are the "Nagoya Gals," a look that swept Japan last year when Tokyo fashion bible JJ gave it its stamp of approval. "Nagoya Gal Kits" flew off Tokyo department-store shelves, and toymaker Takara released a "Nagoya Gal" edition of Rika-chan, the Japanese equivalent of Barbie. Says Maiko Takagi, editor of Nagoya fashion magazine Trend: "People in Tokyo are paying attention to what we do like never before. After being ignored for so long, it is a little weird."
The secret to Nagoya's success: the region excels at monozukuri"making things." Around here you will quickly be disabused of the notion that it is impossible for Japanese manufacturers to compete against China's low labor costs. Fully one-third of the region's economy is tied to manufacturing, among the highest rates in the nation. China and Korea still cannot match many of the design and process-improvement techniques that are invented and perfected here, neither can they produce the high-end, R&D-heavy, design-intensive products like capital equipment, aerospace equipment and industrial ceramics that are Nagoya specialties. Much of the region's health, identity and confidence comes from Toyota City (about an hour's drive from Nagoya), the birthplace and still the worldwide headquarters of Toyota Motor, Japan's largest and most consistently successful firm. "The company is like the region's big brother, a model to emulate, someone to look up to," says Masaaki Kanda, Aichi's governor.
Kanda claims to be baffled by all the attention his city is getting in the run-up to the expo. "We are just doing what we have always been doing," he says with the humility of a people known throughout Japan as kenjitsu (rock solid). Compared with residents of Osaka, where personal and corporate bankruptcy rates are among the highest in the nation, Nagoyans are frugal. Local companies resisted making foolish bets during the bubble years, hence avoiding most of the damage from the crash. To this day, Nagoya companies sport some of the lowest debt loads in the country.
Naturally, when the prefecture set about building the new, $7.3 billion, 26-gate Central Japan International Airport on a man-made island in Ise Bay, it did so with careful cost controls. (In the rest of Japan, many public-works projects are case studies in waste.) The airport, headed by former Toyota executive Yukihisa Hirano and half funded by the private sector, was almost $1 billion under budget when it opened last month. Combined with the World Expo, it may help local leaders to build an international profile to match its rising domestic status. But will that "Nagoya Gal" look play abroad?