Once a tourism underachiever, Japan is riding high like never before. Last year, the nation attracted a record 31 million foreign tourists, topping 30 million for the first time and pulling off nearly a fourfold jump from 2012.

But this is not to say the path to true tourism supremacy has been rosy — or complete. Concerns persist over the shortage of multilingual platforms, a glacial shift toward implementing a cashless payment system and the nation’s inherent proneness to natural disasters.

Hiroshi Tabata, who last July ascended to the helm of the Japan Tourism Agency, the public entity central to Japan’s tourism strategy, says the government is scrambling to take care of these long-held concerns.

“We realize there are many Western tourists worried that Japanese society is not quite ready for English-language communication,” Tabata said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “To this end, we will boost our effort to provide multilingual information and make full use of translation-related tools and apps.”

But the clock is ticking. In the next few years Japan is anticipating a further surge of foreign tourists as it hosts a string of high-profile international events, including this year’s Group of 20 summit and Rugby World Cup, next year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and the World Expo in Osaka in 2025.

Tabata casts these events in a positive light, arguing they provide Japan with a golden opportunity to perfect its status as a tourism-driven economic power.

“This is a huge chance for Japan,” he said. “We will take these opportunities to let the world know what Japan has to offer.”

Japan has witnessed a spike in incoming tourists since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2012. A weakened yen, coupled with the administration’s strategic relaxation of visas targeting Asian neighbors such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, helped drive an influx of foreign tourists by leaps and bounds.

Buoyed by the surge, Japan was ranked the 11th most popular tourist destination in the world as of last August — and No. 3 in Asia — although it still remained far behind top countries such as France and Spain, figures compiled by the JTA show.

In fact, the government has been emboldened so much that it now has an ambitious target of luring 40 million tourists by 2020 and 60 million by 2030, despite skepticism among some who say the boom could fizzle once the Olympics are over — a view Tabata dismisses.

“We have another 10 years after 2020 where we can lay the groundwork for an influx of 60 million travelers by amplifying the capacity of airline flights and increasing accommodations in regional areas. … I think Japan has the potential to achieve” the 60 million people goal, he said.

That said, the fact remains Japan still lags far behind other tourism powers in many ways.

For one, the availability of cashless payments remains doggedly low, at about 20 percent, compared with 90 percent in South Korea, 60 percent in China and 55 percent in Canada, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The JTA, Tabata said, is cooperating with other ministries to work toward the government’s goal of swiftly achieving the “100 percent” availability of payments via credit or electronic cards in major commercial facilities, hotels and tourist spots.

The language barrier also looms large.

A JTA poll in 2017 found that “difficulty communicating with staff in facilities” and the “dearth and poor quality of multilingual services” to be two of the most widespread complaints cited by travelers to Japan.

Hiroshi Tabata, head of the Japan Tourism Agency, is interviewed Jan. 31 in Tokyo.
Hiroshi Tabata, head of the Japan Tourism Agency, is interviewed Jan. 31 in Tokyo. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Tabata said an effort has been led by his agency to improve the situation, including promoting the installment of translation systems in public transportation and seeking to increase the number of government-certified multilingual information centers at popular tourist spots to 1,500 by 2020. Those centers numbered 984 as of December.

The magnitude 6.7 earthquake that struck southern Hokkaido last September exposed anew what the JTA has admitted is Japan’s “insufficiency of multilingual communication.” Complaints cited by a private research firm’s post-quake survey of foreign tourists included they “didn’t know where to go due to language failures” and they “couldn’t understand instructions regarding transportation and flights.”

The JTA said this prompted an upgrade of its disaster responses, which included making hotlines to the Japan National Tourism Organization — an agency under its jurisdiction — available 24 hours a day in English, Chinese and Korean.

“Now that there are so many people visiting our country, we share the understanding that multilingual announcements and explanations are of paramount importance,” Tabata said.

Another hurdle has to do with Japan’s current tourism model dependent heavily on demand from Asian neighbors.

By nationality, Chinese and South Korean tourists accounted for an overwhelming 26.9 percent and 24.2 percent, respectively, of all visitors in 2018.

Tabata said he doubts China’s economic slowdown as well as the chilly diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul will dampen tourist traffic from the two countries. Still, he pointed out Japan needs to carve out a stronger fan base among Western travelers to diversify its potential.

While Chinese and South Korean tourists mostly look forward to shopping in Japan, “people from Europe, the U.S. and Australia tend to stay longer and gravitate more toward hands-on cultural experiences, such as making a trek to the countryside to try out local foods or communicate with residents in inns and izakaya pubs,” he said. “They will drop money if they think the experience is worth it, so I believe that’s where we can go the extra mile.”

To maximize their satisfaction, Tabata wants to see a fundamental shift in the mentality of Japanese, many of whom are self-conscious about their fluency — or lack thereof — in English.

Having come from a generation whose English-language education in school skewed overwhelmingly toward book-learning instead of practical oral communication, Tabata said he himself is nowhere near being proficient in the language and is capable only of rudimentary-level conversations.

But that, he said, is no excuse for those engaging in inbound businesses, including shop clerks, to behave in a way that can be misconstrued as inhospitable, such as averting eye contact with foreign tourists.

“We’re not asking them to perform a complicated explanation about cultural heritage, but rather it’s just the matter of saying ‘can I help you?’ or answering simple inquiries such as whether the food is spicy or how much the bill is going to be,” he said.

“Using tools such as translation apps might wake them up to the fun of communicating with non-Japanese tourists. Once they realize how easy the process is, I’m sure they will quickly get used to it. They can do it.”

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