Building juggernaut hijacks tourist plan

Travel drive may have downside, believes Barry Brophy

by Barry Brophy

Japan’s new tourism drive, designed to double the number of foreign visitors to the country by 2007, should send a shiver down the spine of conservationists and environmentalists.

Why a badly-needed tourism campaign should be a cause for concern reflects both Japan’s prior neglect of the industry, and the effects of that neglect on the country’s cultural landscape.

By 2000, tourism accounted for nearly 8 percent of the world’s total export earnings, ahead of automobiles, computers, oil and gas. The World Tourism Industry estimated that in 1999 some 657 million tourists spent over $530 billion. Japan got precious little.

Tourism figures for Japan are paltry among industrialized nations. Japan currently ranks 33rd in the world in terms of visitors, behind many of its Asian neighbors.

According to 2001 figures, 17 million Japanese traveled abroad in 2000, while just 4 million foreign visitors came to Japan. Tokyo hosts roughly 2.7 million foreign tourists a year, Paris 10 million.

Japan has traditionally treated tourism as a minor economic concern. In the postwar years, business and government leaders considered cultural projects irrelevant alongside the national goals of industry, construction and modernization.

But Japan’s basic goals remain unchanged — so boosting tourism, irrespective of economic importance, must operate within Japan’s industrial framework.

Thus, the Transport Ministry will not only aggressively promote Japan abroad but draw up guidelines to construct a series of new “user-friendly” tourist attractions.

Crucially, this industry model fits in perfectly with what author Alex Kerr has dubbed “the construction state.” In his book “Dogs and Demons,” Kerr describes Japan’s pave-and-build mentality — an industrial and economic system put in place in the 1960s to modernize Japan that has changed little to reflect the world around it.

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Foreign Executive Women (FEW) organization in Tokyo, Kerr argued that Japan is addicted to pouring concrete.

One impressive statistic bearing out Kerr’s point is that concrete production in Japan totaled 91 million tons in 1994, compared with 78 million tons in the U.S. Given that Japan is one-twentieth the size of America, it’s clear that it has an unhealthy interest in pouring the stuff.

The Japanese public has very little power over what the various ministries that run the country do with the exorbitant budgets doled out to them every year. Mindless construction is an easy option, but ultimately a vicious economic circle.

While public works projects provide employment in rural areas, the population becomes increasingly dependent on the industry that plundered their livelihoods (for example, fishing and farming) in the first place.

It’s a “Dam or Die” philosophy, writes Kerr. Construction continues at any cost.

Meanwhile, Japan’s secretive bureaucrats are not predisposed to listen to dissenting voices.

Of 33 public works projects undertaken by the government between 1995 and 1998 and contested by locals, 25 were pushed through without even a referendum.

There is another reason why Japan must build new attractions, as opposed to emphasizing pre-existent ones, which is inextricably linked to the construction state.

When Japanese officials finally began to look at the issue of tourism in the 1990s, they discovered that urban development in traditional tourism centers like Kyoto and Nara had destroyed much of touristic value. They had to create new attractions because they had wiped out most of the old ones.

Thus, Japanese tourism is based on resorts like Seagaia in Kyushu, an indoor beach complex located less than a kilometer from the ocean; and Wild Blue Yokohama, situated not far from some of the best surfing spots in eastern Japan.

Western tourists need not feel too homesick. Visitors can enjoy a Wild West show and a mini version of Mount Rushmore in Tochigi Prefecture, the Huis den Bosch Dutch theme park in Kyushu and Shima Spain in Mie.

Of all Japan’s cultural assets and tourist draws, the city of Kyoto stands as a perfect example of the implications of the construction-state mentality for that industry and Japan’s cultural heritage.

In the final days of WWII, the U.S. air command removed Kyoto from its target list because the U.S. State Department argued that the city was of such cultural value that it should be spared.

Now it appears that it would have made little difference if the city had remained listed.

The first sight to greet visitors to Kyoto when they exit the city’s station, a towering, 16-story gray structure, is a gigantic, concrete post office labeled “Stalin’s headquarters” by one foreign visitor.

The cityscape is dominated by Kyoto Tower, whose only point resides at the top of its 131 meters, and which was built ahead of the 1964 Olympics to demonstrate the city’s modernity to the world.

The “improvement” continues apace. The International Society to Save Kyoto estimates that some 40,000 old buildings were torn down in the city in the 1990s alone.

Those that remain cower under a grid of power cables, are bathed in a sea of neon, and rub shoulders with a hideous array of prefabricated homes and soulless office blocks.

So pervasive has been the development of the city that tourism officials now have to tout Kyoto’s proximity to the USJ movie theme park in Osaka in a bid to lure visitors.

And so pervasive has been the influence of industry, says Kerr, that some Japanese towns are even offering package tours of their dams and concrete fortifications.

New tourism initiatives, in the context of the construction state, and a need to create new attractions rather than develop what’s already there, can only have further negative consequences.

A recent example is that of Tokyo’s Taito Ward, where residents and business owners have proposed building the world’s tallest television aerial in Ueno Park.

If built, Ueno Park’s 600-meter tower and technology center will be in the front line of future tourism campaigns.

In the process, one of the best places of respite from Tokyo’s concrete sprawl will itself be sacrificed.

With the Transport Ministry’s budget for 2003 up 900%, and a state dedicated to new building projects, we can expect that pattern of mindless modernization to be repeated many times before 2007.