Japan is an extremely successful brand. It’s also a tightly controlled one. The government wants lots of foreigners to visit its 2020 Tokyo Olympics, buy its Abenomics, experience the unmatched beauty of its four unique seasons and overlook its urban blight while searching for the few heritage sites that remain unblemished.

Contents Tourism in Japan, by Philip Seaton, Takayoshi Yamamura, Akiko Sugawa-Shimada and Kyungjae Jang.
326 pages
CAMBRIA PRESS, Nonfiction.

Now, according to a new book by academics from the universities of Hokkaido and Yokohama, Japan fans can add virtual reality encounters with anime characters to their officially sanctioned itineraries.

“Contents Tourism in Japan” examines the phenomenon of otaku tourism, whereby fans travel to visit anime film locations. It’s similar to the tourism inspired by, say, “The Lord of the Rings” movies, but “contents,” or kontentsu, in Japan refers specifically to “derivative works, parodies, and multiuse of the same contents in a media mix enriched by the highly popular formats of anime and manga.”

In short, entertainment companies exploit fan addiction by flogging spin-offs of a popular franchise: the “contents.” The concept, say the book’s authors, Philip Seaton, Takayoshi Yamamura, Akiko Sugawa-Shimada and Kyungjae Jang, is perfectly illustrated by the 11th-century proto-novel “The Tale of Genji,” whose multiple iterations (kabuki, parody, film, anime, manga, even puppet theater) “sustain a tourism industry a millennium after its publication.”

Travel inspired by contents is described by fans as seichi junrei, or pilgrimages to holy sites, and the book argues that the phenomenon is rooted in ancient religious practices. Fans display “devotional behavior,” such as leaving ema votive plaques at Shinto shrines inscribed with images of their anime idols, and asking for their help in exams.

JTB, Japan’s largest travel agency, recently launched a campaign to encourage foreign anime fans to nominate “sacred sites” for a new anime pilgrimage route.

The government now promotes contents tourism as part of its “Cool Japan” PR strategy, which is linked to the official targets of 40 million inbound visitors by 2020, and 60 million by 2030. Officials were alerted to the potential in 2004 by Japanese fans of “Winter Sonata,” a Korean TV drama, who travelled to South Korea en masse to tour locations featured in the show.

A classic recent case is that of the small city of Hida, Gifu Prefecture, featured in the hit 2016 anime film “Your Name.” Fans now crowd the streets trying to track down and recreate exact scenes from the film.

Contents tourism is not confined to Japan; the authors cite Jane Austen fans as a prime overseas example. At Austen-linked locations, devotees of her writing merge with fans of the TV and film adaptations of her work to visit both scenes from the novels and locations used in shooting, and don’t necessarily discriminate between the two.

This disregard for objective authenticity is a critical question in the book and one that disturbs some Western visitors to Japan, who tend to regard reconstructed “historic-style” buildings as worthless pastiche. But in Japan, cultural acceptance of rebuilding means that Osaka Castle is still considered one of the country’s most important historic sites, even though it was built of ferro-concrete in 1931, complete with elevator.

The book provides a succinct history of Japanese tourism, which went mass market comparatively early, in the 17th century, by which time more than 1 million people travelled the Tokaido road between Tokyo and Kyoto annually. Trips to the Imperial colonies of Korea and Manchuria became popular in the early 20th century, and in the early days of World War II, tours ran “to sites of recent fighting such as Nanjing.” After the war, foreign leisure travel was only permitted after 1964, chiefly as a way of “promot(ing) things Japanese.”

The book also skillfully illustrates the painful history of bubble-era tourism excess. The roads to nowhere and museums to nothing that litter the countryside are a sad reminder of the perils of top-down tourism initiatives. Japan’s preparations for the 2020 Olympics, with obligatory omotenashi, whereby all foreign visitors are expected to show correct appreciation for Japanese hospitality, cuisine, tea whisks etc., indicate that this lesson has yet to be fully digested.

One pithy passage reads, “In the 1980s municipalities were encouraged to build resorts; in the 2000s they were encouraged to build narratives.” Indeed, local areas are now scrambling to secure promotional deals with anime producers. Prefectures are developing augmented reality smartphone apps that fans can only access when visiting a local “sacred site.” Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture has used Ingress, a gaming app that is “unlocked” using GPS data, while Nanto in Toyama Prefecture has an app that lets fans take photos of themselves next to an anime character when standing in a “real” location featured in the story.

In the debate over authenticity, it will be interesting to see if aggressive prefectural product placement begins to alienate fans, in the way that Cabinet Office tourism directives risk deterring independent visitors. Japan itself is, of course, the ultimate “sacred site” to which the government wishes to entice overseas fans. In the words of Cool Japan CEO Nobuyuki Ota, the aim is to “communicate to the world just how wonderful Japan is.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.