Putting their heart into tourism

Japan started the Visit Japan program in 2003 to attract foreign tourists to Japan in an effort to help vitalize the Japanese economy through tourism. That year, 5.21 million foreign tourists visited Japan.

Although the government set the goal of attracting 10 million foreign tourists in 2010, only 8.61 million came. Although that figure was a record for Japan, it placed Japan at just No. 30 worldwide. In Asia, Japan stood at No. 8, attracting fewer foreign tourists than China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and South Korea. In 2012, 8.37 million foreign tourists visited Japan. About 65 percent of them were from East Asia — 2.04 million from South Korea, 1.47 million from Taiwan, 1.43 million from China and 480,000 from Hong Kong.

It is clear that both the public and private sectors must make Japan a more convenient and attractive place for foreign tourists to visit. But there are signs that the government isn’t serious about attracting visitors. For example, the Japan Tourism Agency used computer translations to create English text for its online campaign to attract foreign tourists to the Tohoku region in 2012. The translations were embarrassingly poor and had to be dropped. Japan still suffers from a shortage of English-language signage and bilingual workers in tourist-related industries. Even simple tasks such as buying train ticket or renting cars can be daunting experiences for foreign visitors.

Japan’s tourist resources include beautiful scenery with four seasons, a variety of cuisine, historical sites, pop culture and safe cities. But both the government and the tourist industry must make greater efforts to make these attractions easier to access and more interesting for foreigners. They must drop their do-nothing attitude.

Lessons can be learned from popular tourist spots such as Ishikawa Prefecture’s hot springs, which draw Taiwanese tourists; a hot spring in Nagano Prefecture famous for monkeys bathing in it during winter; and snow festivals and ice-floe watching in Hokkaido. These successes largely came as a result of efforts by local governments and tourist industries to promote their attractions overseas and provide better service to foreign tourists.

The government has now set a lofty new goal to attract more than 30 million foreign tourists in 2030. But it should first try to achieve its earlier goal of attracting 10 million foreign tourists a year. While continuing to broaden Japan’s appeal to Chinese and Koreans, Japan should also make an effort to attract tourists from Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The government plans to allow tourists from Thailand and Malaysia to visit Japan without tourist visas starting this summer. But this will not be enough. Japan’s tourist industry should try to reduce the costs of flights from Southeast Asia and better accommodate Muslims’ religious and dietary needs.

Japan is also falling behind China and South Korea in holding international conferences and exhibitions. The central government should collect relevant information from overseas and provide support for cities ready to host such events. It also should overcome the bureaucratic turf wars of various ministries and organizations in pushing the Visit Japan program.

  • Jason Pierre

    Very good points. To further increase or encourage more foreigners to visit Japan there needs to be a more tolerant attitude towards foreigners. One cannot expect more tourists to visit when they are not treated properly. Japan and the Japanese need to change their attitudes towards certain unfounded mis- and preconceptions. When foreigners visit Japan, they would like to experience the true Japanese experience, that can’t happen when they are barred from certain venues because of tattoos or piercings. Tolerance is a trait that is seriously lacking within Japanese society and is often a deterrent for those wishing to visit this beautiful country. It is highlighted by comments made by it politicians, Hashimoto, Ishihara, Inose, Abe, and Aso. Inose made some very negative comments about Turkey in its bid to host the Olympics, but he needs to look at what happens on the streets of Tokyo on a weekly basis, or the general attitude towards foreigners. During the early cleanup days of the Fukushima disaster, Japanese officials are on record stating that foreign experts were not fully utilized because they did not want them scaring the grandmothers in the towns and villages.

    If Japan is serious of expanding its tourism, it needs to first expand its thinking. As a country with very little resources and very dependent on exports, which can be quite unstable in today’s financial market, the need to grow the tourism market is a must and to accomplish that the attitudes of its citizens and politicians must change.

    • eiffe

      Japanese treat foreigners better than most other countries. You don’t like the Japanese attitude towards piercings and tattoos, fine. Instead of accepting the local customs, you try to impose your individual views on a whole country. Try imposing bikinis in Saudi-Arabia or same-sex marriage in Iran. Good luck!

    • Masa Chekov

      “When foreigners visit Japan, they would like to experience the true Japanese experience, that can’t happen when they are barred from certain venues because of tattoos or piercings.”

      Many onsen and….? What else? Not even all onsen. If you can’t be bothered to take your piercings out before going to the onsen then you probably aren’t going to be too concerned about cleaning properly before entering, either.

      I have plenty of friends who have visited onsen in Japan with tattoos and there have been few issues. I hardly think this is a barrier to getting the “true Japanese experience”.

    • Christopher-trier

      Groan. What I like about Japan is that it has standards and keeps to them, whereas in the West we’ve descended to the point that people with no tattoos and/or piercings who live a clean lifestyle have virtually become the counter-culture.

  • kyushuphil

    There’s big role for schools to play in upping tourism here — if schools wake up.

    One huge fact that people in Japanese schools don’t get — almost don’t get at all — is that millions of people outside Japan see Japanese culture as long rich and vibrant for the many great individuals in many fields. Foreigners have read many Japanese classics in translations, and want to see where Murasaki Shikibu learned her courtly subtleties, where Bashō traveled his narrow road to the far north, where Chikuden painted and put great verse on scrolls, where Natsume Sōseki wandered the mountains of “Kusamakura,” and where Yosano Akiko did her years of translations.

    Japanese students know little of this. So crushed are they by today’s meaningless cram and meaningless drill that most can scarcely imagine any heart in the great Japanese individuals who preceded them.. They can scarcely imagine as human, either, all those foreigners who know and love what current students here can scarcely see now.

    When schools return the human heart to the curriculum, many more Japanese will be able to see and welcome so much more than status quo schooling allows now.

  • Masa Chekov

    “It is clear that both the public and private sectors must make Japan a more convenient and attractive place for foreign tourists to visit. ”

    Why is this clear? Japanese tourist sites are already jam-packed with Japanese tourists. Do we really need more strain on lodging and transportation here?

    • eiffe

      exactly. This whole notion of growth, maximum profit and consumerism/mass tourism is really not that original anymore. “Vulture-”capitalism is so 80s!

  • robertwgordonesq

    Does the “Japanese economy” need “vitalizing”? Really? According to who?

    See: The Myth of Japan’s Lost Decades” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/opinion/sunday/the-true-story-of-japans-economic-success.html?pagewanted=all

    And why does Japan need to compare itself to China or South Korea? Is life merely about comparing one’s self to others? Can’t you be satisfied as you are and be respected for being who you are?

    Isn’t that “true tolerance”?

    I’m a foreigner who has been to Japan many times. My first time, I was lost and bewildered and that was exactly the magic of the entire experience.

    I don’t want Japan to change to accommodate me.

    It is quite accommodating as it is.

    To go to someone else’s home (e.g., Japan) and complain that the “wallpaper” isn’t to your liking is just plain rude.

    Japan does not need to “pimp” itself out to the highest bidder.

  • robertwgordonesq

    Does the “Japanese economy” need “vitalizing”? Really? According to who?

    See: The Myth of Japan’s Lost Decades” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/opinion/sunday/the-true-story-of-japans-economic-success.html?pagewanted=all

    And why does Japan need to compare itself to China or South Korea?
    Or to anyone for that matter? Is life merely about comparing one’s self to others?

    Can’t a country be satisfied as it is and be respected for being what it is?
    Isn’t that “true tolerance”?

    I’m a foreigner who has been to Japan many times. My first time, I was lost and bewildered and that was exactly the magic of the entire experience.

    I don’t want Japan to change to accommodate me.

    It is quite accommodating as it is.

    To go to someone else’s home (e.g., Japan) and complain that the “wallpaper” isn’t to your liking is just plain rude.

    Japan does not need to “pimp” itself out to the highest bidder.