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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2001


Shaking preconceptions in the land of tourists

A few weeks ago, a friend visited from Europe. It was her first time in Japan and she wanted to see as much of the country as she could. She had purchased the discount JR rail pass that only foreigners can buy in their home countries, but besides that, all she came with was the Lonely Planet guide to Japan.

It seemed a good idea for her to acquire some English language materials -- maps of Tokyo, train schedules, that sort of thing -- but I didn't know where to acquire them. Neither the telephone book nor directory assistance could help without a specific name of an organization. Eventually, we called a hotel and asked them whom they would contact for such information.

They told us about a tourist information center at the Tokyo International Forum, which turned out to be difficult to find, and even when we did find it, it didn't have all the materials she needed.

At the time, I wasn't surprised. Despite the international image of the Japanese as a race of tourists, Japan itself has the image of being impenetrable to any but the hardiest travelers. The entire domestic tourist industry is geared overwhelmingly toward Japanese, since they can't imagine that foreigners would feel comfortable in Japanese accommodations, eating Japanese food and dealing with Japanese people who can't speak anything but Japanese.

But my friend had a wonderful time. In one week, she visited Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagano, Niigata, Karuizawa and Nikko. She stayed at both hotels and ryokan, tried food she never would have eaten anywhere else, met interesting people and did a lot of walking. She did it all without knowing a word of the language and with only a limited budget, but most importantly she did it without any preparation except for a few hastily made hotel reservations.

Of course, it helps that she is a seasoned solo traveler, but the success of her journey shook up my own preconceptions, as well. I once read an interview with a freelance American writer living in Japan who, when asked what he does to relax, said, "Japan is a place for work, not relaxation."

This prejudice is inadvertently reinforced by all those travel shows on television, which make sightseeing look like a job: the obligatory huge meal of local delicacies followed by a soak in a hot spring. The next day, you go somewhere else and do the exact same thing.

While Japanese travel shows, whether they stay in Japan or go abroad, do take in local color, they invariably focus on consumption and, by necessity, have a planned look about them. They are thus antipathetic to the spirit of spontaneous discovery that informed my friend's travels in Japan. Whether this is a result of the package tour mentality so central to Japanese tourism or the cause of it is difficult to say, but in any case, the ideas put forth on these shows pre-empt many possibilities for enjoyment.

About 18 million Japanese people traveled abroad last year. A fourth as many foreigners visited here, but the majority of them were on business. This imbalance is predicated on a myth: Japan is too expensive. Yes, Tokyo prices are perennially found to be exorbitant for the businessman, but my friend traveled everywhere on her JR pass for only 25,000 yen (less than the cost of a round-trip Shinkansen ticket between Tokyo and Osaka) and, at the current exchange rate, found Japanese accommodations to be cheaper than those in Europe.

The government's halfhearted efforts at tourist promotion reflect the belief that Japan is too difficult and strange. Two years ago, they announced they would air TV commercials in California aimed specifically at retirees with extra time and money who might be interested in package tours to Japan, as if that were the only demographic they could possibly attract. The Japan Tourism Promotion Association, which is under the umbrella of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, only has two service offices, one in Tokyo and one in Kyoto. The foreigner tourist information centers set up in train stations are usually manned by volunteers or temps, not full-time employees. JR does not publish a train schedule in English.

The lack of a concerted, realistic strategy to attract foreigners is doubly confusing when one considers how much the domestic tourism industry is suffering as a result of the ongoing recession. Since the terrorist attacks in the United States, the industry has received a boost because Japanese travelers have canceled overseas trips and switched to local destinations, but no one believes the situation will last forever. Japan is an island, and people with the means occasionally want to get off it.

Another reason the government is not promoting tourism as fully as it might is that, as an industry, it lacks the kind of progressive image worthy of the second largest economy in the world. Tourism is traditionally promoted on a local level, which is why officials from Hawaii and Guam made special trips to Japan in the past month to assure Japanese travelers that it is perfectly safe to visit those islands. On a national level, however, only developing countries promote tourism as a growth industry.

One of the tenets of modern economic theory says that as the manufacturing base of a developed country moves overseas, it is replaced, at least in part, by a service economy. Right now, the government thinks IT and kaigo (nursing care) are the ways to go, but the tourist industry is already in place and extremely well-developed. With a little imagination, it could be reconfigured to make Japan one of the premier travel destinations on the planet. Hell, even I'll go, and I live here.

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