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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (July 14, 2003)

Japan Tourism and "National Charm"

Daniel P. Dolan (Principal, Communication Japan)

Question: What are Japan's "charm points"? The Japan Tourism Advisory Council wants to know so that it can attempt to balance the number of visitors to the country with the number of Japanese who travel abroad each year. Although 16.5 million Japanese embarked from Japan in 2002, incoming visits totaled only 5.2 million. The goal set by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is to double visitors to Japan to 10 million by 2010.

But meeting this challenge will require more than a government panel report. Although the Council proposes an ambitious "tourism revolution" to reverse the trend, a 2003 study by the World Travel and Tourism Council forecasts only 2% growth in travel and tourism to Japan by 2013. Far short of the Ministry's goal.

Is Japan "Charming"?

The English translation of the Japan Tourism Advisory Council report argues that countries in the 21st century are "competing for the stakes of charm". The concept of "charm" is not defined in the report, but six "charm points" of Japan are listed as:
1. Coexistence with nature and the pursuit of beauty
2. Coexistence of tradition and modern
3. Coexistence of industrial vitality and cultural beauty
4. Harmony with Japanese and Western styles
5. Enveloped in bountiful nature
6. Stable society safety and order

According to the report, Japan needs to rediscover its existing national charms and transmit these charms to the world through strategic branding efforts. One difficulty with this approach is that the attractive qualities of Japan as laid out in the report are quite general, and even debatable.

Take the first point for example, "Coexistence with nature and the pursuit of beauty". This description as perceived by most westerners might fit certain areas of Japan, but not Tokyo, most beaches or even Mount Fuji. To many outside Japan the "pursuit of beauty" does not include blasting announcements from loudspeakers on city streets, trash-strewn sand and hiking trails, concrete-lined riverbanks and jumbled architectural styles obscured by huge flashing billboards.

Or consider point number 5, "Enveloped in bountiful nature". The 2003 Competitiveness Monitor published by the World Travel and Tourism Council ranks Japan number 99 of 206 countries in the "Environment" category. Although the degree to which this Environment ranking is related to Japan's natural scenery is not clear, it does raise questions about outside perceptions of Japan.

The Problems

So why are tourists not coming to Japan? One reason is cost. In the 2003 Competitiveness Monitor Japan ranks 125 out of 206 countries in the category of Price Competitiveness. Not surprisingly, a 2002 government white paper reveals that 22% of foreign visitors complained in surveys of high accommodation prices. Japan's customary per-person hotel room pricing practice is unusual among large industrialized cities, squeezing families that in other countries would pay per room.

There also is the critical issue of image. Most tourists probably associate New York city with restaurants, art galleries and Broadway shows. London means parks, bridges, art galleries and theater. Paris has its cafes, parks and museums. And Japan's capital? What do tourists think of when they think of Tokyo? Efficient trains are great and electronic discount stores are fun, but neither will bring many tourists to the country. The root of the problem is that Tokyo seems to be more about business than about people. This is reflected partly in Japan's unfortunate status as number two among OECD nations in suicide rates in 1999 (behind Hungary) and number one in Asia. The highest rate by age group is among males between 40 and 50, which corresponds with the age bracket most likely to lose their jobs during corporate restructuring. Certainly there are museums, cafes and parks in Tokyo, but the city seems efficient rather than warm. Kyoto is packed with gardens and temples and tourists flock there, but apparently there is not enough to keep visitors interested.

A Few Suggestions

Perhaps Japan should begin its campaign to increase tourism with a close look at other major cities around the world. What makes them great? At the same time Japan should begin long-term efforts to clean up its natural environment and to make its big cities more people-friendly. A few suggestions for Tokyo:

  • Increase the number of streets dedicated entirely to pedestrians, particularly on weekends.
  • Introduce and enforce laws restricting or banning the use of loudspeakers in public places (with exceptions made for legitimate use of emergency vehicles).
  • Restrict billboards and other means of commercial advertising in public.
  • Price hotel rooms by the room and not per person, and make prices competitive with other big cities around the world.

Finally, take the long wooden poles away from police standing in front of their police boxes. The current practice does not appear very tourist-friendly.

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