One year ago, the Kasumigaseki Watch column in the monthly business magazine Keizaikai (August 2017) noted that while the government has set an annual target of 40 million foreign visitors by 2020, the tourism ministry was unable to formulate an effective strategy due to “insufficient” staistical data.
Keizaikai cited a survey by the Tourism Agency in which hotel statistics suggested a decline in the number of foreign visitors — which contradicted port-of-entry data that showed record-breaking arrivals.
The inconsistency, it was supposed, could be attributed to the increase in stays at “residences offering lodgings” — commonly referred to in Japanese as minpaku — of which as many as 40,000 may have existed up to last month.
The report was careful not to blame minpaku entirely for the discrepancy, as visitors might also spend their nights sleeping aboard cruise ships, overnighting on long-distance buses, in internet cafes and other places excluded from the tally.
More to the point, a government ministry was openly expressing displeasure with the status quo. And when that happens, some sort of crackdown usually follows. That’s what occurred on June 15 of this year, when a new law went into effect that will require minpaku to maintain a registry of guests, a certain level of hygiene and respond promptly to any complaints from neighbors. It also restricted the offering of accommodations in private homes to a maximum of 180 days a year, with violators subject to fines of up to ¥1 million.
Nikkei Business (June 18) reported the reaction to the new law with the headline “Bureaucratic clumsiness invokes chaos.”
The law’s good intentions aside, the magazine lambasted what was happening on the front lines of the business as resembling a “slapstick comedy.”
In condominiums and other large buildings, when used for nonresidential purposes, the law makes it obligatory for owners to install a sprinkler system, but few minpaku operators have bothered to do so, mainly because the costs were prohibitive. With the new law, however, local fire inspectors must visit and issue their stamp of approval. Previously they’d been willing to overlook the ordinances if a site was equipped with other safety features, such as flame-retardant walls.
Waste disposal also figures in the equation. In the past, guests would just discard their waste in the same manner as other residents. But now minpaku operators are being pressured to pay for their rubbish pickup, which requires them to deal with a private contractor. But few such contractors are set up to deal with minpaku clients.
While the operators were attempting to negotiate the new obstacle course erected by the bureaucracy, online booking service Airbnb cancelled some 30,000 minpaku reservations during June. “Airbee,” as it’s popularly called in Japanese, is said to have incurred considerable losses.
On its morning program on June 15, NHK Radio chimed in with its own justification for the crackdown on minpaku. Citing the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks by ISIS terrorists in Paris in which 130 people were killed and another 413 injured, the broadcast implied that minpaku might serve as a base for terrorists — despite there being no evidence that the attackers in France had availed themselves of online booking services.
Nevertheless, at the urging of the Metropolitan Police Department ahead of the 2020 Olympics, minpaku hosts will be encouraged to report any “suspicious behavior” on the part of guests, including refusing to allow their passport to be photocopied, referring to a memo or other separate document when transcribing their own name or address, or when the actual number of staying guests turns out to vary from what was initially reserved.
“It’s possible terrorists will choose to stay at minpaku, where identification checks are vague,” explained Isao Itabashi, head of the Research Center at the Council for Public Policy, during the broadcast, adding, “So it’s important that along with sharing data on suspicious guests, the minpaku operators liaise closely with the police.”
Meanwhile, Shukan Shincho (June 21) reported that — of all places — a five-story sumo stable in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward has become involved in the current minpaku kerfuffle.
A member of the Takasago Ichimon group, the Nishikido stable occupies the building’s basement and first two floors. To supplement its revenues, 10 rooms on the three upper floors, named Mitoizumi using the stablemaster’s former name, were intended from the get-go to be rented out. The rooms were advertised on an unnamed booking service’s website with the description: “Super rare! Famous sumo stablemaster on ground floor! Just three minutes from JR Ryogoku Station. Relatively new; auto-lock.”
Some displeased residents of the neighborhood were heard to remark, “Recently lots of foreign guests with rucksacks and luggage have been coming and going … so we supposed the place was being operated as a minpaku.”
The stablemaster’s excuse was that he had entrusted two realtors to rent out the rooms, and one, unbeknown to him, had hooked up with the minpaku booking service. For a charge of just ¥5,539 per night, sojourners could stay in a conveniently located room furnished with a microwave oven and refrigerator. Stablemaster Nishikido insisted he only became aware of the situation after receiving complaints about noise late at night. “I feel like I’ve been swindled,” he told the magazine.
Nacio Cronin, the Imperial Hotel’s director of international public relations, says: “Aside from obvious safety concerns such as fires, injuries and property damages resulting from usage of unsupervised, unfamiliar facilities, the mere idea of unmonitored foreign guests on holiday evidently raises concerns among some less internationally oriented natives.”
As such, he says, minpaku may be “incompatible with the Japanese national character.”
Asked if he thought the new restrictions might lead to a pinch on hotel rooms, Cronin echoed predictions already voiced by numerous others that in July and August of 2020, many visitors not acclimated to the intense heat and oppressive tropical humidity of Tokyo “will likely seek out more than just a small air-conditioned cubicle.”
“Two summers from now, Tokyo may be facing a severe shortage of accommodation options,” he warned.