The Tower of the Sun is a Symbol that Human Progress lies in the Spiritual not in the Material

The work that Taro Okamoto created for Expo ’70 in Osaka is a reminder that the ancestral transcends any technological advance.
The Tower of the Sun (太陽 の 塔, Taiyō no Tou) stands in the Harmony Square of the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park in Suita, Osaka. Photo: Noa.

The Osaka Tower of the Sun is a giant sculptural building that looks like a creature from another world. It’s not necessary to know anything about the work to feel strangeness, awe, admiration or even love when being in its presence. This does not happen just because; the tower is inspired by ancient concepts of our culture and our spirituality, and is full of symbols that represent different faces of who we are as humans. 

Interior of the Tower of the Sun, with the Tree of Life in the center. Image: original brochure of the Tower of the Sun Museum.

His author, Taro Okamoto, gave the Tower of the Sun a much deeper meaning than those who commissioned the work could imagine. Concepts such as time, life, evolution, spirit and transcendence are represented in the tower. For this reason, despite being a work built only 51 years ago, there is an ancient force in it.

Rear face of the Tower of the Sun, with the Black Sun representing the past. Photo: Noa.

The Tower of the Sun was designed for the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970. It would be the first World’s Fair to be held in Asia, at a time when Japan was experiencing a period of optimism and economic prosperity. It would present technological advances as decisive as the first Japanese shinkansen or bullet trains, mobile phone prototypes or IMAX films. The Japanese Government commissioned Taro Okamoto to design this building that would literally welcome guests with open arms. It would be the symbol of an Expo whose motto was “Progress and harmony for humanity.”

The Tower of the Sun has had a great impact on Japanese pop culture. Drawing of Shintaro Sakamoto, vocalist, guitarist and leader of the band Yura Yura Teikoku, available in his book «Shintaro Sakamoto Artworks 1994-2006.»

However, the meanings of “progress” and “harmony” are very open. In a world marked by the Cold War, nuclear energy or the space race, Taro Okamoto perceived that around him, progress had been relegated to technological development, and harmony was based purely on economic development. The artist saw spiritual and emotional deficiencies that were leading humanity towards an empty and alienating materialism that made us mere servants of these supposed advances.

The same year that the Tower of the Sun was reopened to the public, director Kosai Sekine premiered the documentary “Tower of the Sun (2018)”, which explores the idea that Okamoto’s work is somehow the antithesis of what Expo ’70 of Osaka sought to represent.

Taro Okamoto (1911-1996) is sometimes referred to as “the Japanese Picasso”, in fact he began his works inspired by this artist. He was born in Kawasaki and trained at the Sorbonne in Paris where he was in contact among others with the father of surrealism, André Breton. Okamoto based his art on a concept he called “polarism” expressing that energy and beauty can only arise from the union of opposing forces. This dualism is very present in the Eastern spiritual tradition, and Okamoto expressed it by combining characteristics of abstract and avant-garde art.

Amoeba at the base of the Tree of Life, inside the Tower of the Sun. Photo: Noa.

In addition, there is one fact without which one could not understand the draft of the Tower of the Sun and many of his works; Okamoto’s interest in ethnology and cultural anthropology, and his fascination with prehistoric Japanese pottery from the Jōmon period. (12,000 BC-800 BC). Okamoto wanted to find the “essence” of “true Japan” and looked for it in his ancestors, for which he undertook a journey that took him to remote regions of the country, from Tohoku to Okinawa. The artist developed a large number of writings on the subject and used this background as one of his sources of inspiration.

Example of «dogū» or «figure of earth» from the Jōmon period. It’s not known what purpose these humanoid figures served, but both this type of art and pottery from this period made a deep impression on Taro Okamoto. Photo: Kakidai, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, the Tower of the Sun seems to rise like the Deity of an ancient civilization, welcoming and blessing humanity under its arms, seeing everything through its different faces. As in the presence of any divine being, standing at the foot of the tower is overwhelming, especially because of its magnitude; it’s 70 meters tall, 20 meters in diameter and each of its arms is 25 meters long.

In the context of a World’s Fair where what was sought at a conceptual and aesthetic level was to represent the future, especially in the technological aspect of the word, it is ironic that its greatest symbol seems primitive, ancient. In this, Okamoto’s intention to transgress from within and apply his polarism is clear, stating that progress cannot be based only on looking forward without taking into account the ancestral.

Image of the Tower of the Sun during the Expo ’70 in Osaka, standing inside the complex called Thematic Pavilion and covered by the Great Roof, now dismantled. Image: original brochure of the Tower of the Sun Museum.

The Tower of the Sun condenses a large number of elements that define us as humanity. One of them is the concept of time, expressed for example in the faces of the tower. The upper face or Golden Mask, with eyes that at night are two beams of powerful light, represents the future. The face below this, the most anthropomorphic, is the Face of the Sun and represents the present. At the back of the tower is the Black Sun, the face that represents the past. To these three exterior faces is added one that is inside the tower, probably the most fascinating of all.

The Tower of the Sun in 2021. At its peak, the Golden Mask that represents the future, and between its arms, the Face of the Sun that represents the present. Photo: Noa.

It’s the Sun of the Underworld. Unlike the other three, this face does not represent a temporary aspect, but rather symbolizes the inner spiritual world of human beings. This spiritual world transcends time, emerges from our essence deepest human. Perhaps that is why this face is found in the underground base of the tower, in a dark room, accompanied by masks and anthropomorphic figures of deities from different cultures. The most ironic thing about all this is that this face was lost after the Expo.

Image of the Sun of the Underworld in the underground floor of the Tower of the Sun, surrounded by figures of deities. It’s a replica, no one knows where the original is. Image: original brochure of the Tower of the Sun Museum.

We are talking about a face that measures 3 meters high by 11 meters wide, it does not seem exactly easy to take it or lose it. Currently a replica can be seen in the tower, since no one knows the whereabouts of that face that represented our spiritual baggage.

Ceramic vessel from the middle Jōmon period (3,000 – 2,000 BC). These everyday pieces fascinated Okamoto Taro, who considered the aesthetics of this period to be the essence of Japan. Photo: Morio, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the Expo, the concept of time was also expressed in the route that visitors made through a complex that surrounded the Tower, called the Thematic Pavilion. It was made up of different levels. The subway was dedicated to the past, and in it were located the aforementioned face of the Sun of the Underworld, but also replicas of hominids hunting or a piece dedicated to DNA.

The Tree of Life, inside the Tower of the Sun, is a 41-meter sculpture that represents the evolution of species. Photo: Noa.

The ground floor, dedicated to the present, was formed by the Harmony Square, where the Tower of the Sun is, and where there were also two other towers: the Tower of Youth and the Tower of the Mother. Starting from the underground floor of the past, visitors ascended inside the Tower of the Sun where the Tree of Life was located. This 41-meter-high piece, which can currently be visited, represents the evolution of species.

In the Tree of Life there are 183 suspended organisms, from amoebas to dinosaurs to humans, which were created by Tsuburaya Productions, the special effects studio responsible for Ultraman. The Tree of Life grows from the past and ascends into the future, symbolizing the energy of life that is constantly advancing and changing.

The underground floor of the Tower of the Sun during Expo ’70 brought together elements that represented the past and the origins of humanity. Image: original brochure of the Tower of the Sun Museum.

The plant dedicated to the future was suspended in the air inside the so-called Great Roof, a structure that surrounded the Tower of the Sun that was dismantled when the Expo ended. In this area, ideas were shown about what the city of the future would be like and the daily life of its inhabitants. Due to its position, this Great Roof where the future was represented also kept a symbolic message: the Tower of the Sun crossed it, rising above it. With this, Okamoto made clear his idea that human progress goes beyond technological advances, goes beyond them and transcends them pointing towards the sky because it is not limited to the material.

In short, both in the elements of the Tower of the Sun itself and in the entire complex that surrounded it during the Expo is reflected the constant connection of past, present and future in a single constant flow. This idea is inspired by the mandala, the oriental concept of the universe, in which everything that we perceive as independent is actually integrated into a single absolute union.

Polyps at the base of the Tree of Life. Photo: Noa.

The Tower of the Sun is a deity and at the same time a temple, totem and lighthouse. It is a place that leaves its mark on those who visit it because even without knowing its symbolic details through reason, we can feel them through intuition because they touch the atavistic and profound cultural identity of human civilization.

It’s a work that reminds us that progress has to spring from being always rooted in the ancestral and spiritual, and that technology must always continue to be a tool that helps to that end, without being the end itself. Of course, this is not a message that is no longer valid, and it does not appear that it will be discontinued in the near future. Luckily, the Tower of the Sun still stands, welcoming us with its open arms to remind us where we come from.

Sketch of the Tree of Life, in which species ranging from protozoa to hominids through dinosaurs are represented. Image: original brochure of the Tower of the Sun Museum.

You can read more about the Tower of the Sun and see current and old photos on its official website.

If you want to visit the Tower of the Sun, remember to book your ticket in advance.


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