New tours with military theme score direct hit for Hato Bus

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

Travel agents are always looking for new ways to entice the fickle Japanese customer, and Hato Bus Co. has landed a direct hit with a set of new military-themed tours.

“We heard about this tour from a friend. It’s nice because we love military things,” said government employee Tsuyoshi Nagano, 29, who went on the tour earlier this month with his wife, Hinase. “I love Self-Defense Forces things and my wife, U.S. Navy things. We collect a lot of military goods and wear uniforms at home.”

Tokyo-based Hato Bus, a major tour operator, ran the military tours on a trial basis during Golden Week in May, but when it sold out in a flash the company offered it again during the summer holiday season, according to company spokeswoman Miyoko Yamato.

“It’s currently our most unique and most popular tour,” Yamato said.

Hato Bus has two military tours.

The first, a seven-hour trip taking participants to the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Asaka Camp and its public information center in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, costs 8,500 yen for an adult and 6,500 yen for kids.

Due to SDF security restrictions, foreigners are not allowed. But the Asaka public information center is open to everyone free of charge 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Mondays, the fourth Tuesday of each month and Dec. 28 to Jan. 4.

The other tour takes visitors aboard the battleship Mikasa, which has been refurbished and now sits on dry land in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. The ship contributed to Japan’s victory in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

The package includes a cruise around the naval port on a sightseeing boat. The entire tour lasts 10 hours and goes for 9,900 yen per adult and 7,900 yen per child. Non-Japanese are welcome on this tour. Both include a three-minute commercial chopper flight and lunch.

Yamato said Hato Bus created the tours to cash in on the current “military boom.”

“Recently, war movies such as ‘Otokotachi no Yamato’ (‘Men’s Yamato’) and ‘Boukoku no Aegis’ (‘Aegis of the Lost Nation’) were box-office hits, and war-related books, comics and clothing are also selling well,” she said.

“Even so, demand for this tour was so much higher than expected we had to make large upward adjustments in our projections.”

Hato Bus expected about 30 passengers, or 68 percent occupancy, for its 44-seat buses. As it turned out, the tours are so popular there was a waiting list on weekends, Yamato said.

Projections for the SDF tour, initially set at 450 passengers for 15 tours this summer, were readjusted Aug. 17 to 803, she said, while that of the battleship tour was revised to 361 passengers instead of the initial 270 for nine tours.

Sales from all 24 tours are expected to surpass 10 million yen, she said. The last summer tour was Wednesday, but they are planning to offer it again next Golden Week and summer, and Hato is still thinking about this winter.

Even though it has a hit on its hands, Hato Bus cannot increase the tours, she said, due to SDF security restrictions and limited capacity on the helicopters.

It is for this reason that the tours are currently run only on limited days during holiday seasons, she said.

“Considering the popularity, perhaps we should try to (add) more,” Yamato said.

The current military craze has many wondering if there is a “rightward tilt” among the public.

According to a Cabinet Office survey, people who have either a “good” or “not bad” impression of the SDF jumped to a record 84.9 percent in February from the 80.3 percent in the previous poll in January 2003.

The percentage of people who are interested in SDF and defense issues also marked a record 67.4 percent, compared with 59.4 percent in 2003.

The survey found that more people, at 51.8 percent, would be in favor of a close acquaintance joining the SDF than those who would be against it, at 36.9 percent. The respondents in favor said serving in the SDF is “honorable,” as it keeps the peace and defends Japan’s independence.

“I think that my boys should join the SDF. They must take a job that protects the nation,” said Hiroshi Shinozaki, a 45-year-old pharmaceutical company employee who went on the Hato Bus tour with his wife and two teenage boys.

He believes Japan should have a draft and that the education system needs a more solid, rightwing ideology.

But in the background, one of his sons was yelping, “No, no! I want to be a TV star!”

Military critic Tadasu Kumagai said that the 2004 dispatch of GSDF troops to Iraq and the media coverage improved the public’s opinion of the SDF and military affairs in general, which had not been so positive.

“With that as background, issues such as North Korea’s recent missile launches and debate over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine may have encouraged a rightward tilt among youth,” he said, adding some young people see Koizumi’s stubborn attitude toward the rest of Asia as being “cool.”

But Takayuki Yamada, who works at a military surplus shop in Kyoto, has a completely different view.

He is certain that the recent military trend is really only about fashion.

“It started when (English soccer star) Beckham wore U.S. military M65 field pants in a Meiji (Seika Kaisha) chocolate commercial after the 2002 World Cup,” he said.

“Are you trying to find out if this means a tilt to the right?” he asked. “I don’t believe Japanese youth are interested or studying about society to that extent, unfortunately.”