National / Media | Japan Pulse

There’s nothing new about Japan’s online backlash against tourists

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

The internet loves a clapback, so when writer Melissa Martin shared a few snappy responses from a monk named Daniel Kimura to less-than-positive reviews of a temple doubling as lodging on Mount Koya, Twitter embraced it. The tweet garnered more than 17,000 retweets and 38,000 likes, with many digitally swooning over the religious devotee’s comebacks at tourists complaining about impersonal staff and bland food (“yeah, it’s Japanese monastic cuisine, you uneducated f—”).

It wasn’t just journalists and rapper Talib Kweli applauding the monk. Plenty of foreign residents in Japan also shared it. Anecdotally, nearly a dozen Tokyo-based people I follow retweeted it the morning it emerged. I imagine far more did, too, mostly because few topics excite this demographic more than complaining about tourists.

This year has been a big one for “tourism pollution” in Japan as the number of folks coming to the nation keeps rising. Mount Koya’s influx of foreign visitors already had monks salty before one took to Booking.com. Tourists have vandalized bamboo in Kyoto and taken pictures of people without their consent. The start of 2018 saw a double whammy of perceived bad behavior, first with Logan Paul’s YouTube misadventures (he still hasn’t quite learned from them) and that was followed by a fuss over a GoPro that was placed on a sushi conveyor belt.

The way Japanese netizens and online publications approach the tourist boom, however, looks different than how Japan’s foreign residents and English-language media presents it. The discussion is more nuanced, with complaints balanced by concerns about how the country can better accommodate. This isn’t to say negativity is left out of the picture, it just gets doled out differently.

Take the monk story. Despite going viral abroad, it drew scant attention among Japanese users online. Newsweek Japan wrote about it and several places aggregated the story (and at least one TV channel covered it), but it didn’t go that far, with most prominent online outlets ignoring it. Even commentary on social media seemed slight, with those weighing in arguing that even if he had a point, the monk probably approached it the wrong way. Another monk noted he doesn’t represent the whole mountain (while still respecting his opinion).

Foreign residents of Japan originally hailing from Western countries tend to view tourists in an especially negative light, with only weeaboos serving as a larger target for unified disdain (when the monk’s identity and the fact he grew up in the United States became clear, the story felt much more familiar). Japanese netizens have reacted negatively to stories that irk their non-Japanese counterparts — the Kyoto vandalism story earlier this year got plenty talking — but their relationship to inbound visitors is more complicated. Tourism, after all, is booming and bringing in money … and it doesn’t look like it will be stopping anytime soon.

A lot of daily discussion online focuses on how to improve the Japan experience for tourists. A takoyaki (octopus dumpling) stand in Osaka Park has attracted huge sales because of foreign visitors, but after it was found out they evaded paying taxes, some online said that charging ¥600 for eight balls was a rip-off aimed at tourists. Another recent Newsweek piece focused on declining satisfaction with the country. The Olympics rest heavy on many netizens’ minds, with some wondering what happens when a country averse to tattoos sees many sporting them come in. Others simply celebrate translation services, or just wonder why certain spaces such as Oasis 21 in Nagoya attract so many overseas visitors.

When those online do complain, it comes in subtler ways. When the China-based idol group SNH48 (not affiliated with AKB48 — long story) put up ads in Akihabara, one Twitter user quipped “I thought this was already a city of foreigners?” Others complain about how the emphasis on “inbound” tourism ignores domestic travelers.

Some of the criticism also takes a look at the bigger picture. Kankō kōgai (“tourism pollution”) has appeared a lot online this year, mostly in reference to Kyoto. A larger story that attracted attention came in spring, when Gendai published a piece about the city of Niseko turning into a place that didn’t resemble Japan.

Still, when netizens talk — and moan — about tourism, they are still mostly talking about Chinese visitors to the country (which soon tips over into right-wing online spaces). However, this in and of itself isn’t new, nor is it limited to Japan — it’s just the perceived image of a tourist here.

Take a viral clip of several non-Japanese dancing on a train, for example. Tourism isn’t really part of the discussion here. Instead, social media users are just questioning why people who don’t appear to be from around here are acting in a way they aren’t familiar with — something that has been happening for much longer than monks snapping back at backpackers.