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World Expo in Japan

A TV set the size of four tennis courts. Talking robots, singing robots, walking robots, robots that play Bach on the organ. A floating train. An exhibit on Soviet nuclear fusion technology. The world's largest Ferris wheel. From the sublime to the prosaic, the planners at Japan's Expo '85 have stuffed enough exhibits into the 250-acre fairgrounds to keep visitors busy for days. It has been running since March 16 and is expected to keep up a 20,000-visitor-a-day pace until its Sept. 21 closing. So an admonition to those planning to be counted among the 20 million or so expected to make the trek to Tsukuba, where the fair is being held: Bring something to keep you busy while you stand in line.

The festival is supposed to highlight the wondrous contributions science and technology will bring to 21st-century society. Unfortunately, Expo organizers overlooked what a little scientific planning can do for some of the mundane troubles of the present -- like traffic management and crowd control. Those willing to overlook these shortcomings should be ready to put up with the three- or four-hour wait patrons have experienced at some of the most popular pavilions.

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Is it worth the wait? No doubt, Expo provides the best glimpse of future technology this side of the 21st century. It may also be the best showcase of 20th-century corporate advertising to be found anywhere. There is a Mitsubishi Pavilion, a TDK Pavilion, a Fujitsu Pavilion, an NEC Pavilion, to name but a few of the 58 corporate logos gracing the fairgrounds. All offer plenty of multimedia razzle-dazzle to entertain visitors. Yet there is a sameness, even triviality, to it all. The pavilions boast plenty of high-quality family entertainment: 3-D movies, friendly robots, and science-museum-type exhibits. But audiences have been shielded from the real meat of scientific achievements.

Perhaps the planners of those pavilions had the right idea. The International Business Machines pavilion may be the best of the lot: It presents a thoughtfully laid out exhibition on artificial intelligence. But most visitors seem to whiz right by these exhibit cases in favor of a riveting -- and utterly uninformative -- 8-minute epic cartoon depicting the origin and destiny of the planet, presented inside the pavilion's giant dome.

Fifty foreign countries have pavilions as well, but somehow their presence is not felt so immediately. Too bad, because a number of them, particularly those of the Soviets, the Americans, and, above all, the Japanese government, are very good. The Soviets feature a remarkable exhibit on their latest medical technology, as well as a truly understandable glimpse at their work in nuclear fusion. The US has put its latest telecommunications technology as well as artificial intelligence know-how on display. The pavilion of the Japanese government is magnificent: It includes a primer on Japanese history and culture as well as some of the most notable achievements in Japanese science and technology.

Unfortunately, if you can't read Japanese, you're out of luck at nearly all these pavilions. Most of the exhibit explanations are written in Japanese, for which only the sparest English translation is provided.

For some visitors, that may not be such a concern. A glimpse around the fairgrounds makes it obvious that the planners of Expo decided that the watchword of this event would be amusement, and Expo '85 may not remind one so much of one's vision of the future as one's last trip to Disneyland. Children -- and Japanese ones at that -- seem to have been the audience uppermost in exhibit planners' minds. So there are lots of joy rides that, to the incessant accompaniment of flashing lights and far-out synthesized music, are supposed to preview the wonders that technology has in store for us.

At the Mitsubishi Pavilion, visitors wedge themselves into little roller-coaster cars -- apparently spruced up for the allegedly high-tech surroundings with the name ``motion controlled car Mitsubishi 21'' -- that whiz them along in a 10-minute journey through ``time and space.'' You get to see a lot of posters depicting undersea and space colonies of the future, which are supposed to support the pavilion's contention that the 21st century will bring ``wonderful world, beautiful people.''

Official information suggests a one-hour trip from Tokyo to the fairgrounds. Better allow yourself at least two, from the time you catch a Joban line train at Tokyo's Ueno Station to the time you arrive at the fair gates. Finding lodging near Expo '85 could be a problem; virtually all of the Western-style accommodations in the neighborhood have been booked up for the duration of the fair.

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So is it worth the trip? That depends on where you're coming from. A recent poll of Tokyo urbanites showed at least 60 percent had no intention of visiting Tsukuba. For those of you who would have a longer trip, Japan is a marvelous place to visit, though Tokyo is muggy in the summertime. If, however, your motivation is solely to see Expo '85, save your money. Go to Disneyland. -- 30 --

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