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By Simon Richmond

The Trouble with Yokoso

If Japan really wants to attract more visitors, it must smarten up

Simon Richmond is a travel writer and editor

Travel around Japan and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a country obsessed with tourism. Practically every city, town and village boasts some unique feature, be it an aged temple or shrine, a colorful festival or tasty local produce. Millions of Japanese are well acquainted with the pleasures of Hakata ramen, Kyoto’s Ginkakuji or Sapporo’s Snow Festival. And yet for the rest of the world, Japan remains a no-go zone, languishing 33rd in terms of international tourist arrivals. Even within Asia, Japan ranks only eighth.

Aware of the huge potential to boost international tourist arrivals, the Transport Ministry has launched the Yokoso Japan campaign with the aim of attracting 10 million visitors by 2010, compared to around 6 million for 2004.

As the author of the Rough Guide to Japan and Rough Guide to Tokyo, I fully applaud the aims of this campaign and much of what is being done to assist it. This includes a bill the government is drafting to require airline, railway and other public transport operators to post signs in foreign languages, and to allow licensing of regional-specialist guides for foreign tourists. I was also pleased to read about PDAs, loaded with sightseeing info and allowing the users to connect to the Internet and make free phone calls, being made available to overseas tourists coming into Narita. It’s only a trial run for now, but I could immediately see how handy such devices would be and how in tune they are with Japan’s image as a high-tech nation.

However, as a one-time resident and frequent traveler in Japan over the last 14 years, I’m not holding my breath on lasting benefits from the campaign. I know that Japan’s international tourism problem cannot be fully solved by extra foreign-language signs or snazzy electronic gizmos. Larger issues need to be tackled, among them communication and coordination of policy between various government and private bodies.
A recent news story gives an insight into the problem. “Hokkaido Airports Struggling to Cope with Tourist Influx,” ran the headline of a story about how the northern island’s success in attracting overseas visitors on charter flights had run into a snag. Neither of Hokkaido’s international airports—Sapporo’s New Chitose and Hakodate—have enough immigration staff to cope with the increased visitors. It was taking hours to process all the arrivals. Definitely not the best introduction to a country touting itself with the word Yokoso (Welcome)!

Another example is the Japan Rail Pass. This is a fantastic travel bargain that allows visitors access to Japan via its extensive train network. However, the pass—or passes, as there are now several different types—come hedged in by rules and regulations that partly rob them of their price and convenience advantages. Why, for example, is it possible for tourists to buy a West Japan rail pass when they’re inside Japan, but not the more useful all Japan Rail Pass? Also, why not allow pass holders to pay a supplementary fee so they can use the Nozomi trains, which have practically become the default mode of transport between the key tourist cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, instead of banning them from these trains altogether?

It was during one of the guided walking tours recently launched by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (another great initiative) that this issue really hit home. I was accompanied by a rather shy young woman who was—that rarest of creatures—a fully qualified tour guide. The national exam that allows guides like this woman to work legally is so difficult that the pass rate is less than ten percent (hence government efforts to allow less-rigorous licensing of regional tour guides). Having spent three years studying to pass her exam, this woman now worked as a guide fewer than ten times a year. It hardly constituted a career path.
Little wonder the guide was hesitant in her fractured English explanations. She was, however, a model of fluency compared to the Tokyo government official also along for the ride. Sadly, I was not surprised that such a tourism-department bureaucrat couldn’t communicate with a representative of the very market he was supposed to be courting.

Most illuminating was the fact that the two people on the tour most confident in their English ability were a retired salaryman, who was acting as a volunteer guide, and a young Japanese reporter covering the tour for the Asahi Shimbun. Both had spent much time abroad independently and were comfortable dealing with a quirky foreigner such as myself—they got my jokes and they could answer my questions. Both were ideal ambassadors for their country.

The way forward to me seemed clear. In addition to thinking of ways to tempt foreign visitors here, the Japanese government should be encouraging more of its own citizens to travel overseas, improve their language skills, and get used to interacting with foreigners. Only then will Japan be able to extend a sincere and meaningful Yokoso to overseas visitors.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.