As Japanese hotels and tourist sites adapt to unprecedented numbers of foreign visitors, the tightly regulated profession of tour guide is following the flag and preparing to reform.

At the end of March, the government doubled its target for foreign tourists, aiming to lure 40 million visitors a year by 2020. It pledged a range of reforms, including “radically overhauling” the regulations governing the tourism sector.

Then in April, the Japan Tourism Agency decided to deregulate the tour guide industry, saying there could be a massive shortage of licensed guides in the face of growing demand.

Enacted in 1949, the tour guide law allows only holders of a national license to earn money while escorting foreigners around the sights. Violators face potential fines of up to ¥500,000, although there are some government-designated sites where the restriction does not apply.

Some say deregulation is not the answer. Veteran foreign-language tour guide Yoshie Matsumoto believes the fundamental issue is the quality of the guides, not their shortage.

“Interpreter guides have long contributed to the rise in foreign visitors making repeat visits. But the job is now threatened,” said Matsumoto, president of the foreign-language tour guide association Japan Federation of Certified Guides (JFG).

Matsumoto spent more than 30 years working as a licensed foreign-language guide. She says many license-holders have either left the industry or are earning very little money from it, and so the government should lure them back in before opening the sector to unlicensed individuals.

There were about 19,000 licensed foreign-language guides as of April 2015, and in February a record 2,119 people passed the national exam, which tests applicants’ foreign language skills and knowledge of Japanese history, geography and culture.

But the numbers are deceptive. A survey conducted by the Japan Tourism Agency between October and November 2013 found that 75.7 percent of 6,441 respondents who hold the license have never worked as tour guides or were not working at the time of the survey.

The survey found that many license-holders move on because of poor pay, with 46.2 percent of active tour guides saying they earned less than ¥1 million in 2013. This compares with the nation’s average annual income of ¥4.14 million the same year.

Moreover, the survey found that the main reason why people took the exam was to test their foreign-language skills. While the test is available in 10 languages, most people are accredited as English-language guides.

Matsumoto said young people are deterred from entering the profession because “no one wants a job that doesn’t pay you enough to make a living.”

She added: “Many people who are registered as new tour guides are retired seniors.”

Another problem, she said, is that newly registered guides often have a hard time landing work — either through referrals from tour companies or by making contact with tourists and agreeing to a deal with them.

If the situation continues, “real professional guides will not be nurtured in the long term,” and highly skilled tour guides will not be available in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Matsumoto said.

“If the job of tour guide becomes one that anyone can do without a license, no one would study to acquire one … and the overall quality will drop significantly,” she said.

Fellow license-holder Genichiro Ueyama, who used to run the nation’s largest school for tour guide hopefuls, blames the government and major tourism agencies for creating a miserable working environment.

Ueyama’s school closed in 2011. He said travel companies have long used Chinese native speakers, most of whom are unlicensed, because they are cheap to hire.

Some of these Chinese-speaking guides are known for taking customers to rip-off souvenir shops in exchange for commissions, Ueyama said.

Ueyama said the government has long turned a blind eye to this, noting that no one has ever been charged with violating the tour guide law since it was enacted over 60 years ago.

In March, news emerged that two Chinese nationals had been charged in Fukuoka earlier this year after earning commissions from duty-free shops while serving as unlicensed guides. However, they were charged with violating immigration laws, not violating tour guide laws.

Another licensed guide, who is Chinese and who started working in the industry before he acquired his certificate, agrees that the government is “crazy” to allow unskilled, illegal guides to take a role as important as that of ambassador.

The Chinese man, who declined to be named, said he arrived in 1982 and worked as an unlicensed tour guide while attending university in Japan. It earned him as much as ¥800,000 a month.

He said duty-free stores he would lead tourists to often held seminars teaching unlicensed guides how to talk up the tacky souvenirs on sale, including low-grade pearls and health foods with bogus healing properties.

“No tourism companies demanded that I show them my license. Many unlicensed guides are hired automatically if they get referral from someone close to the company,” he said.

He said he felt guilty working as an unlicensed guide, but he did it because he simply had no money when he first arrived in Japan.

He got licensed in 2006 and now works as a government-approved tour guide, adding that he is proud of his profession.

Meanwhile, a Canadian national who offers “walking lectures” for visitors to Kyoto defends his chosen profession.

Peter MacIntosh calls himself a “cultural liaison and interpreter” in his work explaining Japanese culture to visiting Westerners through the eyes of a nonnative resident.

He says not all unlicensed guides are unscrupulous or unethical, adding some happen to be experts in their field and that this is welcomed by foreign visitors.

MacIntosh has worked in the industry since 2002 and believes the licensing system fails to meet the needs of many foreign tourists.

“When I take people around, they ask me about life in Japan. And that’s something only I can answer. They want to know about a foreigner’s experience living in Japan,” he said. “That is not on the exam and a Japanese licensed guide can’t answer that.”

An expert on Kyoto’s geisha culture, he added: “It should be up to clients, not the government, to decide who and where they get their information from. That is what open market capitalism is.”

Moreover, MacIntosh criticizes the license exam for being “outdated, and almost racist.” He says it is aimed at native-level Japanese readers and focuses on general knowledge about Japanese history and culture, which is not necessarily what tourists want to hear about.

“There is not one licensed guide who has more knowledge in my field than I do. It is a job that I have invested lots of time and money in to gain the knowledge and experiences I have to be able to share with others, whether it be through articles, books I write, the documentaries I make and even the course I teach at a university,” he said.

“Just because someone can read Japanese better than me and memorize nonsense irrelevant to my field of expertise doesn’t mean they will be better at the job than I am.”

Matsumoto of JFG agrees. She said the government needs to revise the system to let people with particular abilities, whether Japanese or non-Japanese, serve foreign visitors — while cracking down on exploitative guides.

“The diversity of the professionals would be expanded if people who don’t speak Japanese can take the exam in their own language. I believe that’s a measure to consider.”

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