Japan’s neglect of its tourism potential could be called a sidelight of its overall self-image. On the international stage, Japan sees itself as culturally impenetrable and overpriced. Moreover, the xenophobia that many people accuse it of fostering has become accepted by the citizens as a national trait, even by those people who object to xenophobia on principle.

In terms of tourism, these qualities can be expressed statistically. According to financial writer Main Koda in the Asahi Shimbun, in 1964, the year that Japan first allowed its citizens to travel abroad, 128,000 Japanese went overseas while 353,000 foreigners visited here. By 1972, the year of the Osaka Expo, these numbers had been reversed, and the gap has increased ever since. In 2003, more than 13 million Japanese traveled abroad, while only about 5 million people visited Japan. This imbalance is translated as a 3.5 trillion yen trade deficit in the area of tourism.

Since Japan prides itself on being one of the most powerful economies in the world, it tends to look upon tourism as a secondary industry, or at least not as important as IT, kaigo (nursing care), or other vanguard industries that have received government stimulation. In terms of tourist volume, Japan is 35th in the world (France is No. 1) and ninth in Asia. However, the government not only neglects international tourism, in some sectors it seems to be purposely discouraging it, despite the 3.2 billion yen it has spent on the “Visit Japan” campaign.

The sector that’s been most neglected is China. Since 1994, the average annual growth rate in the number of Chinese people traveling abroad has been 14 percent, culminating in 20 million overseas Chinese travelers in 2002 alone. The World Tourism Organization predicts that 100 million Chinese will be going abroad in 2020. Given China’s population and economic development, this shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising is that Japan, one of its closest neighbors both geographically and culturally, isn’t taking advantage of this.

And the main reason is good old-fashioned institutionalized xenophobia. Most industrialized countries in the world require visas for Chinese tourists, but Japan limits those visas to residents of certain “economic zones.” In 2000, the Justice Ministry specified these zones as Beijing, Shanghai and Canton Province. This year, they’ve added four provinces and one city.

Apparently, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, which deals with tourism, wanted to add even more zones, but the Justice Ministry and the National Police Agency opposed the plan, saying that there is still a danger of Chinese jumping their group tours and staying in Japan illegally. According to their figures, of the 95,000 tourists who have come to Japan from China since 2000, 362 didn’t go back.

Last month, NHK’s evening news magazine, “Tokuho Shutoken,” looked at Chinese tourism. The show pointed out that Chinese can only obtain tourist visas as members of package tours and that they must produce five documents and a 500,000 yen security deposit when they apply.

However, the restrictions that really matter are those that may take place during the tour itself. The program looked at one tour group of Chinese bankers who were visiting Osaka. The Chinese guide, who lives in Japan, was constantly taking head counts and imploring her charges not to wander. The group was limited to only one store for shopping, and when the members checked into their hotel they had to trade their passports for room keys. There was also a 10 p.m. curfew.

It sounded more like a trip to North Korea, but one should keep in mind that these are the practices of that particular travel agency, not rules laid down by the Japanese government. By focusing on only one tour, NHK was being misleading — anyone who walks through Ginza these days will certainly run into unsupervised Chinese tourists. The point is that travel agencies who deal with Chinese tourists bear responsibility for anyone who stays behind. According to the program, an agency can have its license suspended or even revoked if tour groups return to China lighter than they were when they left. The government’s paranoia may be the source of an agency’s Draconian measures, but it’s obvious the tour company singled out by NHK doesn’t trust Chinese, even when they have money and no logical reason to stay behind.

One Chinese tourist interviewed on the program said she was disappointed because there was no chance to “come into direct contact” with real Japanese culture and people. Mo Bangfu, a Chinese journalist who has lived in Japan since the mid-’80s, told the host of “Tokuho Shutoken” that many well-to-do Chinese want to come to Japan, but information passed by word-of-mouth about the restrictions has prompted them to go to Europe instead, and Europe is only too happy to have them. Chinese travelers to Europe must also obtain tourist visas beforehand, but they are not limited to residents of specific economic zones. Fifteen EU countries, in fact, now allow Chinese tourists to travel freely from one to another.

But Europe has prided itself on being a tourist destination for centuries. The Japanese government and perhaps even the majority of Japanese citizens see their country as a place for work, not a place for leisure. They somehow feel that anyone who comes here, especially from Asia, is a potential job-seeker. You’d have to be crazy to come here for sightseeing.