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Home > Debates Last Updated: 21:12 10/29/2008
Commentary (October 29, 2008)

Introverted, Maybe, But Japan Can be Draw for Tourists

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor, Foreign Press Center Japan, and Lecturer, Waseda University)

Politician's gaffe highlights Japanese shyness, lack of confidence in facing outside world; nation must realize value of unique cultural properties

The gaffe cost a veteran politician his cabinet post and may even end his career as a lawmaker. Nariaki Nakayama's politically incorrect remark that Japan was an ethnically homogeneous society ignored the Ainu - Japan's indigenous people, who were officially acknowledged as such in a Diet resolution in June after a 20-year fight for such recognition. As a result, he incurred the wrath of the Ainu and supporters of their cause.

What was interesting was that Nakayama - who resigned as land, infrastructure, transport and tourism minister after only five days in office as part of the cabinet launched Sept. 25 under Prime Minister Taro Aso - made the controversial remark in connection with Japan's efforts to lure more foreign tourists. Tourism is under the jurisdiction of the land ministry, in which the Japan Tourism Agency was created on Oct. 1. Nakayama's remarks also included unnerving statements on other unrelated sensitive issues.

Nakayama essentially said that Japan's tourism industry directed at foreign visitors is underdeveloped because Japanese are introverted due to their ethnic homogeneity - unlike some presumably multiethnic countries that attract larger numbers of foreign tourists. What he likely meant to say was that Japanese tend to keep to themselves and are not very good at opening up to different kinds of people.

Weak magnet
Whether this is the true reason Japan has failed to attract as many foreign tourists as it should is debatable. And the issue of the Ainu, who have been marginalized and discriminated against ever since the modern Japanese government started to develop Hokkaido - their main area of habitation - in the mid-19th century, seems irrelevant to the question of tourism promotion.

Yet Nakayama's mindset and his perception of Japan do have something to do with the less than satisfactory state of the country's tourism industry, even though the government has been engaged in a campaign to attract more foreign visitors. In 2003, the Yokoso! Japan, Visit Japan Campaign was launched with the aim of increasing the number of foreign tourists to 10 million by 2010 and 20 million by 2020. The figure is up from 5.12 million in 2003 to an estimated 9.15 million in 2008.

Still, compared with other tourism destinations, Japan ranks low in terms of the number of visitors. France tops the list with 80 million a year followed by China and Italy. In Asia, China is by far the most popular, with Thailand coming in second. Japan is ranked 28th worldwide and seventh in Asia.

One reason cited for the disappointing number of foreign tourists is that Japan has simply neglected to make sufficient efforts to attract them. Tellingly, the Visit Japan Campaign was launched only five years ago, whereas France has a history of tourism promotion as a national priority that spans a century.

Hidden treasures
Whether Japan possesses sufficient resources for tourism - natural beauty, cultural heritage and so on - may be an issue as well. But these are things that can be discovered and developed purposefully. Actually, along with the Visit Japan Campaign, such efforts have indeed been made, and Japanese themselves have been somewhat surprised to discover their country's new or neglected attractive qualities.

In the past, an imbalance between outgoing and incoming resources has characterized Japan in many respects. Most notable is the imbalance between the export and import of goods, in favor of the former often to the chagrin of importer countries. Perceived as even more problematic recently is the extremely low level of inbound foreign direct investment, in contrast to the high level of outgoing FDI.

The same is true of tourism. The number of Japanese tourists going overseas has skyrocketed from some 8 million travelers 20 years ago to over 17 million in recent years. By contrast, the number of incoming tourists is about half the number of Japanese who go abroad.

Most foreign tourists likely find Japanese to be quite polite, kind and friendly. This can be an important resource of tourism. But the readiness of society as a whole to receive foreign tourists is quite insufficient.

The level of English proficiency (or other foreign languages for that matter) among professionals and commercial workers is one problem. Public information and notices in foreign languages are still inadequate even in the heart of Tokyo.

An interesting, or rather disturbing, result of a recent government survey of hotels and inns in Japan is that at least 30% of them confess their refusal to accept foreigners. Of these, 76% answered that they did not know how to treat foreigners because of their lack of foreign language skills, and 72% said their facilities were not designed to accommodate foreign guests. Another 63% cited concerns about handling any problems that could arise.

All this appears to be something more than just a matter of convenience. It represents a Japanese mindset in relation to people from other nations - a deeply rooted shyness or a lack of confidence about themselves when facing the outside world.

Plenty to offer
This leads me to recall what happened more than a century ago when Japan, embarking on modernization, sold off precious works of art - ukiyoe woodblock prints, for example - at dirt cheap prices. Important artworks were lost simply because Japan was not aware of the value of its treasure. They realized the value only after it was learned that these artworks were esteemed in Western countries.

Today we are witnessing a worldwide boom of Japanese foods - most notably sushi - and pop culture like manga and anime. There is also plenty of interest in sumo and onsen hot springs. Once again, Japanese have been slow in realizing that things Japanese enjoy such global acceptance. Humble or not, their sales pitch tends to be weak.

Money of course is a crucial factor in the campaign to attract more foreign tourists. With 8.5 million visitors, the foreign tourist industry is worth \1.6 trillion ($15.8 billion), about 0.3% of the nation's gross domestic product. If the numbers grow to 20 million, it is estimated to become a \4 trillion industy.

But it is more than that. It is something that touches the Japanese psyche and self-perception vis-a-vis the outside world. Nakayama's mistaken perception that Japanese are an ethnically homogeneous people is self-binding and will only serve to keep them introverted forever.

(Originally appeared in the October 27, 2008 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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