You would think that a country like Japan, rich as it is in both traditional culture and technical innovation, as well as plenty of weird and wacky things you’ll never see elsewhere, would be a huge hit with tourists. But as it turns out, Japan is actually not such a popular destination for people traveling abroad. Join us after the jump to find out why.
Tourism from abroad brings in around 900 billion yen per year for Japan. To put it in perspective, France makes around 5 trillion, the UK 3 trillion, Germany 3.7 trillion, and America 11 trillion yen from tourism. It might look like just a matter of zeroes on paper, but that’s a significant difference.
▼Two Asian countries feature in this top 10 ranking of the most popular tourist destinations, and neither of them is Japan.
▼Even compared to other Asian countries it doesn’t measure up well. Japan attracts fewer foreign tourists than Malaysia, South Korea, and Singapore.
So just why is this beautiful country which has so much to offer such an unpopular holiday destination?
Firstly, Japan needs more and better quality advertising. With the world now connected by the internet you can easily communicate with people half-way around the globe as though they’re right there with you in your room, and people are becoming more interested in other cultures. Japan needs to be able to self-promote, and articulate to the wider world exactly why people should come and visit.
China has size on its side, Thailand has its resorts and backpacker culture, Cambodia has its historical ruins; people visiting Asia for the first time have so much choice on where to go, so proper promotion is extremely important for a country hoping to stand out on a platter already crowded with delicacies. And right now, Japan just isn’t getting itself out there enough.
But what about cool Japan, the government drive to get more foreigners interested in Japan?
There have been attempts to come up with advertising campaigns, certainly, but they’ve fallen woefully short. Celebrities have huge star attraction here, but the PR gurus don’t seem to have caught on that using Japanese stars to advertise Japan just doesn’t work, since people outside of the country often have no clue who they are unless they already interested in Japan, hence these ads are essentially preaching to the choir. Japanese boy band Arashi’s tourism advert, a part of the government’s official Visit Japan campaign, seems more like a music video aimed at teenage girls; not exactly the demographic with the money to spend on flights, hotels and sightseeing.
▼NYA! This video shows off a little of Japan and a lot of squeaky-clean Japanese boys frolicking in meadows and seas and doing strange cat poses. (Seriously, Japan, what is this?)
Are Japan’s woeful tourism figures all the fault of the Japan Tourism Agency? Not quite.
The top reasons people from Europe and the USA don’t come to Japan is that it’s both too far and too expensive. Since the island is pretty much tethered where it is there’s not much that can be done about the former, but surely there could be some workarounds regarding the latter. Accommodation and transport are very expensive and on top of that are the costs of food, souvenirs and so on, so with a high-valued yen people are bound to look to cheaper options such as Asia, where even the poorest of student travelers can survive.
Lost in translation
Then there’s the fact that it’s not very easy to go on holiday here without knowing the language, because of the comparatively low level of English of most native Japanese folks. Even in the midst of Tokyo you can find yourself stuck due to language issues, and once you get out of the city there are still many supposed sightseeing spots that don’t have any English signs. Japanese also isn’t like languages which use the Roman alphabet, so travellers can’t simply type a written word into their dictionary or translation app (though hopefully one day soon they’ll be able to scan them), so the average not-overly-adventurous traveler is severely limited when they find they can’t even read restaurant menus or the names written on signs at train stations. Japanese people also tend to be quite shy and reserved, even if they do have a smattering of English, unlike other countries where people will go out of their way to try to communicate with you even if they don’t speak a word of your language.
Japan is often said to be an incredibly convenient place, epitomized by the ubiquitous conbini, and this is true if you are actually living there. Unfortunately, it can still be very inconvenient for travelers and people staying short-term.
Firstly, actually getting into the city can be a bit of a pain since its busiest international airport, Narita, is located quite far out of central Tokyo. Then, when you want to pay for your train or bus ticket you might find yourself in a bit of a bind since Japan is still a mostly cash society and there are many places that do not accept credit cards. On top of that, ATMs that accept foreign cards are few and far between and are often closed outside of regular business hours; something we’ve noted before as a particular irk of living in Japan. And forget hopping online to check your route or research places to visit as, despite Japan’s reputation as a technologically advanced country, there are still very few places with wi-fi, free or otherwise. You also can’t buy cheap mobile phones with disposable SIM cards, making keeping in touch with other members of your group difficult.
All in all these factors all contribute to the reality that people aren’t going to be inclined to come and visit unless they already have an interest in Japan.
▼”I’ve been waiting for visitors for so long my legs have fallen asleep.”
But all is not lost!
The number of foreign visitors to Japan has been increasing recently, and during the New Year period department stores reportedly saw three times more foreigners coming to their start-of-year sales than the previous year. More places including shrines are stepping up their game and starting to provide wi-fi access, and Tokyo Metro has launched a free wi-fi service aimed at tourists across 143 of their stations. Furthermore, a bank on the road leading to the Grand Shrine at Ise has begun offering a foreign currency exchange service since many people were saying that it was inconvenient not to have any exchange services nearby. These are all signs that Japanese companies are starting to think more about catering to people visiting from overseas. The growth in tourists can also be attributed to the recent weakening of the yen brought about by Abenomics, making things cheaper for Americans and Europeans, and department stores are publicizing the fact that duty-free shopping is available for foreign visitors.
And of course with Tokyo hosting the Olympics in 2020, the country is going to experience a definite surge in foreign visitors. The questions now are whether or not Japan will be ready for them, and if the Games will have a lasting effect on the tourism industry in the future.