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Putting alpine rivals to the Expo test

Machiko Koide (left) and Yuki Nakaniwa pose in front of the Swiss mountain

Switzerland and Austria are alpine neighbours, but how successful have they been in selling themselves at the World Expo in Japan?

swissinfo accompanied two Japanese visitors to the exhibition and asked them to put the Swiss and Austrian pavilions to the test.

Austria and Switzerland – long-time rivals on the World Cup ski circuit – sit side-by-side in one corner of the Expo site reserved for European countries.

First stop for Machiko Koide, a university lecturer, and 22-year-old student Yuki Nakaniwa, is the Swiss pavilion.

As they wait in line, Machiko and Yuki discuss what Switzerland means to them.

“For me, it’s the most peaceful and beautiful country in the world, with breathtaking scenery and snow-capped mountains,” she says.

“I agree with all that. But I also think of Switzerland as a neutral country which does a lot of humanitarian work,” adds Yuki.

“And I associate it with Heidi, who is very famous in Japan.”

Heidi is familiar to generations of Japanese thanks to an old but still popular cartoon series, but she plays virtually no part in Switzerland’s presentation at the Expo.

Aside from the giant mountain, inside which the Swiss exhibition is housed, the country has banished all clichés the Japanese usually associate with Switzerland (see related story).

In their place are a series of exhibits about Swiss scientists, explorers and sports stars, as well as artefacts relating to Switzerland’s struggle against the natural elements.

Going in

An unofficial guide book to the Expo recommends that visitors spend “up to 15 minutes” inside the Swiss pavilion.

As if following the suggestion to the letter, Yuki and Machiko emerge from the exhibition exactly 13 minutes after entering it.

“I was quite impressed. But I think young people will probably want to see a bit more in the way of sound, images and interactivity,” says Yuki.

Machiko also picks up on the low-key approach to the presentation.

“I had assumed the whole thing would be on a very grand scale, but actually it was quite simple. It was a bit like a school exhibition,” she concludes.

“But I think it was very well done. They showed how a country can live in harmony with nature, and this was good.”

One of the highlights for Yuki was the section devoted to technology and innovation.

“It was interesting to see the robot designed to help paralysed people walk again. I didn’t know that Switzerland was so involved in medical and scientific research and I’ve definitely broadened my opinion of the country.”

Next stop: Austria

After a quick break at the Swiss-run restaurant – which both Yuki and Machiko declare to be “overpriced” – they make their way next door to the Austrian pavilion.

If the Swiss have swept national clichés firmly under the carpet, the Austrians have taken pride in dusting them off and putting them on display.

There is little here in the way of introspective assessment of national identity. A Viennese waltz plays loudly in the entrance hall, while pavilion staff parade around in traditional costume.

The main attraction is a man-made hill down which visitors are invited to participate in one of Austria’s most popular pastimes: winter sledging.

As Machiko and Yuki explore the exhibition, Michael Schmidt – the unashamedly lederhosen-clad deputy director of the Austrian pavilion – explains the concept.

“Our aim isn’t to educate people. We want them to have fun by going sledging down the hill we’ve constructed out of genuine Austrian wood.

“We’ve taken a very different approach to the Swiss. We are playing on the Austrian stereotypes because they are well-known and positively received here in Japan. Most of all we want to present Austria as a warm and welcoming country.”

Compare and contrast

The Austrian pavilion gets the thumbs-up from Machiko and Yuki, who queues up twice for a chance to go sledging.

“It feels more modern than the Swiss pavilion and more familiar to the Japanese,” says Yuki. “I really enjoyed the sledging and I think this will go down well with young people.”

“But on the other hand, there was very little in the way of information. Why, for example, are they offering sledging rides?”

According to Machiko, the pavilion accurately reflects the character of the Austrian people.

“You get the feeling that Austrians are happy, friendly and enjoy life. By contrast, the Swiss exhibition was more serious, informative and you get lots of history.

“At the Austrian pavilion the whole thing feels a bit more spontaneous.”

Scoring points

At the end of their tour neither Machiko nor Yuki seem willing to convert first impressions into marks out of ten.

But after a little gentle persuasion, they huddle together and make notes on a scrap of paper before revealing their joint final score: the Swiss pavilion is awarded 7.5, but the Austrians sneak ahead with eight.

“It’s a very close thing. Young people will like the Austrian pavilion, but others will prefer the serious approach taken by Switzerland,” says Yuki.

It may be a narrow win on paper for the Austrians. But as she leaves the Expo site, Machiko awards Switzerland a last-minute moral victory.

“I’ve taken away a very favourable impression of the country. Like the Swiss themselves, their pavilion comes across as modest, warm and humble.”

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh in Aichi, Japan

Swiss pavilion:

Number of staff: 70
Budget: SFr15 million
Budget for 2000 World Expo in Hanover: SFr23.5 million

Austrian pavilion:

Number of staff: 80
Budget: €6.5 million
Budget for 2000 World Expo in Hanover: €22 million

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