Roller coasters and merry-go-rounds at amusement parks offer people an opportunity to spice up their lives with a few thrills and spills.
But there is nothing thrilling about the harsh economic realities that have blighted these recreational facilities in recent years.
Falls in visitor numbers have forced many amusement and theme parks in the Tokyo area to close, while those that have survived have been forced to improvise in order to lure consumers away from other forms of entertainment.
Eight amusement and theme parks in the Kanto region closed between 1998 and 2003, according to Shiro Komatsu, deputy general manager of Mitsubishi Research Institute’s Research Center for Regional Policy and Planning.
“The stagnant economy has limited the amount of money people can spend on leisure,” Komatsu said. “The decline in visitors and the money they spend at the facilities worsened the financial situation of amusement parks, and this in turn made it difficult for them to invest in new events and undermined their attractiveness.”
The many other leisure and entertainment options available in contemporary society may be one factor behind the public’s growing ambivalence toward amusement parks.
“I don’t go to amusement parks anymore because I enjoy many other forms of entertainment, such as the Internet,” said one female office worker from Tokyo. “I also don’t have any children, so there is less of a reason for me to go.”
In accordance with this view, Mitsubishi Research’s Komatsu noted that Japan’s declining birthrate has probably led to a decline in visitor numbers.
But perhaps one of the greatest factors behind the large number of park failures was the harsh stance taken by their creditor banks, which actively collected loans extended to the parks while hesitating to lend them new money, he said.
Against this backdrop, the decline in profits generated by the parks’ operations pulled them under, he explained.
Amusement parks have thus been searching for ways to stem the decline in visitors and shore up their business.
Yomiuri Land, located in the western suburb of Inagi, has shifted its emphasis away from the introduction of new rides aimed at younger people and toward live shows aimed at families with small children.
Masahiro Imaizumi, sales chief of Yomiuri Land Co., explained that decades ago, when a new ride was installed, its popularity lasted several years, ensuring the initial cost could be paid off.
“But in recent years, even when we installed a new attraction, the period during which people came to ride it became shorter,” Imaizumi said. “I suspect that people got tired of (the rides) more quickly than before.”
The firm responded by increasing the number of shows featuring performers playing the roles of animated film characters.
This strategy appears to be paying off. Visitor numbers have gradually started to recover, with 680,000 coming to Yomiuri Land in fiscal 2002.
The figure marks a 13.3 percent increase from the previous year, Imaizumi said.
He admitted that Yomiuri Land’s popularity has been dented by the presence of Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, in 1983.
But he added that his company is trying not to be too conscious of the influence of the large-scale theme park.
“I feel customers expect us to offer different attractions than those at Tokyo Disneyland,” he said.
Family-oriented shows are not the only novel attraction parks are trying.
Several amusement parks and other leisure facilities in the Tokyo area have introduced public baths and spas; both Tokyo Dome City Attractions in Bunkyo Ward and Toshimaen Amusement Park in Nerima Ward opened spas last year.
Yomiuri Land is set to follow suit, opening a large public bath on March 26, according to the company. The facility will offer 19 kinds of baths for a fee of 600 yen on weekdays and 700 yen on weekends, according to Hirotomo Abe, who heads the project’s preparatory team.
The company hopes the baths will bring not just young parents and children, but also grandparents.
“Grandfathers can relax in the baths while waiting for their grandchildren to finish having fun at the park,” Abe said, adding that his company also expects local residents to use the baths.
Tamatech, located in the western suburb of Hino, built a spa facility in 1997 and has been rewarded by an 86 percent rise in visitors between fiscal 1996 and 2002.
But the park says its mainstay remains its wide variety of go-carts, many of which are tailor-made for children.
Most of the go-carts and other rides in the park were developed by Suzuka Circuit Land Co., which operates Tamatech and is a professional motor sports organizer, according to Yoshiaki Yamamoto of the amusement park’s sales section.
Yet some parks are drawing on another source of support in their bid for survival — die-hard fans.
One such amusement park is Asakusa Hanayashiki in Taito Ward, whose operator, Togo Corp., was recently pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.
Togo, a manufacturer of amusement park rides, has racked up some 8.2 billion yen in debts due to the business it has lost through park closures, according to Masaru Nishimura, the firm’s lawyer and acting trustee.
In mid-January, Togo’s major creditor, Resolution and Collection Corp., filed for application of the Corporate Rehabilitation Law at the Tokyo District Court.
A court-appointed trustee is now looking for a sponsor to whom the firm can hand over management of the amusement park, Nishimura said.
After hearing of Togo’s plight, many local people have said they want to support Hanayashiki, which originally opened in 1853 as a flower garden, he said.
“Many people come back several times,” he added. “They enjoyed the park in their childhood and return with their children when they grow up.”
With the number of visitors during the last few years having been sufficient to make Hanayashiki profitable, Nishimura said he hopes the sponsor who acquires the park will maintain the ambience of the good old days of Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s older and historic districts.
Referring to Hanayashiki and nearby sightseeing spots such as Sensoji Temple, Mitsubishi Research Institute’s Komatsu said that cooperation between amusement parks and neighboring tourist sites can benefit from a multiplier that could secure their mutual survival.
While a visitor can spend an average of 10,000 yen at Tokyo Disneyland, Komatsu argued that there is still a need for amusement parks that are inexpensive and accessible. “Operators should run amusement parks where people can have fun after paying an admission fee of around 2,000 yen.”