Coronavirus forces a scaled-down Japan Day at Expo 2020 Dubai

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japanese people parade on Japan Day on Saturday at Expo 2020 Dubai, holding a banner for Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai.

Saturday was Japan Day at Expo 2020 Dubai, a presentation of Japanese traditions and culture, but the event had to be scaled down due to the spread of the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

Each of the countries at the ongoing Dubai Expo has been given a “national day” to introduce itself. The Japanese government had positioned Japan Day as an important event to publicize Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai — the next scheduled world exposition.

A performance of wadaiko Japanese drums and a demonstration of aikido were presented at the central open space on Japan Day, and about 200 Japanese people paraded on the main street of the expo, holding a banner to promote the 2025 event.

The original plan called for a prominent Japanese musician, a performer of Japanese traditional dance, and entertainers from the Kansai region to appear.

Infections with the omicron variant have been confirmed in the United Arab Emirates, however, causing almost all these performers’ visits to be canceled.

Japanese children living in Dubai performed the traditional Soran Bushi dance. However, the main features of the day organized by the Japanese government were called off, including Android Opera, a collaboration between an android and a local orchestra that been organized by the Japan Pavilion.

“We did what we could. We strongly feel the disappointment of the people of Osaka,” said Tomiyasu Nakamura, a representative of the Japanese government for the Dubai Expo.

The Dubai organizers have also been struggling. Dubai wanted to make its expo — the first event of its kind ever held in the Middle East — a key part of heightening its national prestige, and its target is 25 million visitors to the event, which runs through the end of March.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, only 5.66 million people had come to the Dubai Expo as of early December, one-third of the way through the event’s run. According to related officials, 70% to 80% were local residents.

Long lines are hardly seen, even at the kind of popular pavilions that have usually had visitors waiting at least four hours at past expos. Since the end of November, countries such as Germany and Thailand have also held scaled-down national days.

Dubai is aiming to increase the number of visitors from December, when the heat eases, but there is no telling how things will turn out.

An official in charge of public relations for the expo said: “We’ve taken thorough measures to cope with COVID-19, and there have been no infection clusters. We believe the number of visitors will peak in the days ahead.”

Osaka officials stay home

Top officials from the Osaka prefectural government, the municipal government of Osaka and business circles in the Kansai region had planned to come to Dubai on Japan Day and participate in activities to encourage countries and international organizations to participate in Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai.

However, they canceled their visits in response to the spread of infections with the omicron variant and will have to rethink their strategies.

About 190 countries are taking part in the Dubai Expo, providing officials from Osaka and the Kansai region with a good opportunity to woo officials from other participating countries.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui and Masayoshi Matsumoto, chairman of Kansai Economic Federation, were among those originally set to take part in Japan Day and meet officials from other countries.

They had to abandon those plans, however. For the time being, such efforts will be left to three officials of the Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition who are stationed at the Japan Pavilion in Dubai.

As of Friday, 64 countries and five international organizations had declared their intention to take part in the Osaka, Kansai Expo. That is less than 40% of the Japanese government’s target of 150 countries and 25 international organizations.

However, only 15 countries and four international institutions had said they would join Expo 2005 Aichi at a point when there were about three years and four months to go before its opening.

Eventually, that event saw 120 countries and four international organizations take part, exceeding the government’s target of 100 countries.

Manatsu Ichinoki, deputy secretary general of the Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition, spoke at a press conference following the events of Japan Day in Dubai.

“As I contacted officials from other countries, I received questions and requests based on the assumption that they would participate. Therefore, I have a solid sense that they strongly desire to take part in the Osaka, Kansai Expo. We will do our best to increase as much as possible the number of countries that make clear their intention to participate.”

The next opportunity that Japanese officials aim to utilize is the closing ceremony of the Dubai Expo on March 31, 2022.

The ceremonies on that day will reportedly include Dubai Expo officials handing over the responsibility for the next world exposition to their Japanese counterparts.

Osaka Gov. Yoshimura said, “It hurt that I wasn’t able to go [to Dubai] for Japan Day, but I will make up for that.” Hiroshi Ozaki, chairperson of the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said, “I will go there during the expo,” expressing his intention to find an opportunity to go to Dubai, based on the infection situation with the omicron variant.