Tourism ‘czar’ aims high, targets Chinese

by Kazuaki Nagata

The newly appointed commissioner for the Japan Tourism Agency said he wants to raise the number of foreign visitors to more than 10 million annually during his two-year term, with special emphasis on the Chinese market.

“From Hokkaido to Okinawa, in light of its rich natural environment and various achievements in sports, the performing arts and ‘anime,’ Japan has so much potential. It is about how we can brand these things,” Hiroshi Mizohata said during his inaugural news conference at the transport ministry Monday.

About 7 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2009, a figure transport minister Seiji Maehara aims to increase to 20 million by 2016.

Mizohata, a 49-year-old Kyoto native and former president of Oita Football Co., which runs the J. League team Oita Trinita, said Japan may have failed to focus its marketing campaigns on key customers, adding that the Chinese market should be given top priority.

The government’s intention to strengthen tourism is reflected in the fiscal 2010 budget. The budget for the tourism agency is ¥12.7 billion, more than twice as much as 2009.

Maehara, who is pushing to promote inbound tourism, decided in December to fire former senior government bureaucrat Yoshiaki Hompo and appoint Mizohata to replace him as head of the tourism agency.

Mizohata has a mixed record in his career as business manager for the Oita soccer team. He has just stepped down as the president of Oita Football Co. to take responsibility for the firm’s worsening financial condition, which sent the team to the brink of bankruptcy.

“I was part of the team for 16 years. The team just dropped to the second division and was facing financial trouble, so I felt a strong reluctance” when Maehara offered him the position, the new commissioner said.

Mizohata was part of Oita Trinita’s management since its foundation in 1994 and oversaw the team’s promotion to the first division in 2003 by garnering grassroots popularity among local soccer fans.

Oita Trinita, which attracted only three spectators to its first match, now draws about 20,000 for home games. Mizohata said the team also has about 700 corporate sponsors.

As a Home Affairs Ministry bureaucrat on loan to the Oita Prefectural Government, Mizohata spearheaded campaigns to lure FIFA World Cup matches to Oita. The city managed to host some matches in 2002 when Japan cohosted the World Cup with South Korea.

Mizohata’s passion for the soccer team is based on his sense of mission to reinvigorate Japanese society by developing rural economies.

The government’s promotion of inbound tourism is also based on the same notion of reinvigorating Japan by strengthening rural areas, and his past experience has prepared him for his new job, Mizohata said.

“I was asked to promote tourism, which is part of the (government’s) economic growth plan, for Japan to make a great leap. . . . I think this is a really challenging and satisfying job,” Mizohata said.

During his presidency, the team won the Nabisco Cup in 2008 and finished the 2008 J. League season in fourth place.

However, more recently the debt-ridden team received rescue loans worth around ¥600 million from a special J. League fund and local banks in Oita to avoid bankruptcy.