Thinking about Foreign Tourism in Japan

Forty million visitors in 2020 will not necessarily make Japan a gold medallist in tourism. Japan needs a strategy to entice visitors for longer or multiple stays.

Thinking on the Hill is an independent think tank attached to Workers University Tokyo. We are indebted to guest speaker Ashley Harvey, a tourism advisor for Visit Britain, Walk Japan, and assorted government agencies, who lent his expertise to this seminar.


The recent tourism boom is only the beginning

Nearly 20 million people visited Japan on a tourist visa in 2015, three times the figure of 6.7 million in 2005. That’s simply massive growth. Much of it has occurred in just the last three years — and in the aftermath of a terrifying natural disaster — leading to bullish predictions of 40 million visitors a year by 2020.

Japan will very likely reach that target by, or even before, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. But that will not necessarily make Japan a gold medallist in tourism, nor create a self-sustaining economic windfall for Japan as a whole. Let’s look at some possible reasons why.

All nations take pride in their culture, but Japan is especially prone to introspection and uncritical thinking. Double-digit growth in foreign tourism allied to positive media spin at home can easily create a consensus that Japan is now a top global destination, that the only problem left to be solved is how to accommodate the anticipated legions of future foreign guests.

However, this historic boom in tourism comes with a few caveats. First, the majority of tourists are short-term visitors from neighbouring East Asia, in particular China, South Korea, and Taiwan. Many of these are shopping trips tied to the purchasing power of those currencies against the Yen and vulnerable to shifts in the currency markets. For the time being, these are visits of convenience.

Numbers have soared, but mainly from Asia

Second, most foreign tourists stay in the Kanto and Kansai regions. The economic benefits are strongly felt in these two metropolitan capitals, which are also the least in need of economic stimulus. The Japan Tourism Agency, which features Tokyo and Kyoto prominently in its global marketing, appears in no hurry to change this.

Third, by limiting its tourism offer to a few essential components — a shopping spree in Tokyo, temples in Kyoto, and a glimpse of Mount Fuji along the way — Japan becomes typecast as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience that can be seen in around ten days. In order to mature as a destination, it needs a strategy to entice visitors for longer or multiple stays.

Fortunately, Japan has a diverse geography and climate, top-class resorts and hotels, fascinating local cultures, and fast, efficient transportation: all the ingredients needed to entice people to stay longer or make repeat visits. Let’s look at some of the ways that can be achieved.

Foreign visitors want a personalised experience, not a standardised one

Take a look at these Google image search results for “Japan Tourism” and “Amazing Japan”.

Image search results for “Japan Tourism”
Image search results for “Amazing Japan”

The first set of results show Japan’s tourism offer as built around a few core signifiers: Mount Fuji, cherry blossom, and temples, preferably the pagoda kind. The standard Visit Japan poster comes easily to mind.

What real people actually find amazing about Japan turns out to be more diverse. Nature and temples still feature, but not necessarily the famous sights and places. There’s a sense of being alone in a magical landscape at dusk, enveloped in safety, touching Zen. Something special is happening here.

Designated holiday periods in Japan last only a few days, and people on a short break from the office will naturally want to see the most famous sights. But foreign tourists have invested significant time and money in travelling to Japan. They each want to go deeper than the postcard and enjoy that special ‘me in Japan’ moment.

In which case, standardised experiences won’t do. Coach parties and crowded hanami scenes spoil the enjoyment. The average bucket list for a Japanese tourist in Japan, consisting of ‘must-sees’, ‘must-eats’, and ‘top threes’, doesn’t mean much to the foreign visitor, for whom the simplest torii gate or most humble neighbourhood shrine can inspire similar emotions.

So the first challenge of marketing Japan as a destination is to celebrate diversity and promote discovery. Market the singular experience of being in Japan, not just the things to see and do.

Japan needs a marketing toolbox to diversify its tourism offer

Ashley Harvey talked us through his experience of managing campaigns for Visit Britain in the Japanese market. After identifying seniors and ‘joshikai’ (female friends travelling together) as the optimum groups to target, VB in Japan then selected four or five messages from the GREAT campaign that correspond closely to the interests of those segments.

The GREAT campaign allows tourism marketers to assemble a bespoke campaign for a particular market or demographic.

We’ve already seen how Japan destination marketing is constructed around a few unimaginative symbols like Mount Fuji and cherry blossom. That got us thinking what a complete marketing toolbox for Japan might look like. Being a diverse group of people, would there be any kind of consensus?

Not surprisingly, everyone agreed that FOOD IS SUGOI. Food in Japan is simply embedded in national culture. And the quality and exquisite detail don’t stop at Japanese food but extend to almost every global cuisine that Japan adopts, hence the impressively high number of Michelin-starred French, Italian, and Chinese restaurants in Tokyo. So more than about Japanese food, the conversation should be about Japanese culinary culture as something worthy of global attention.

A number of groups identified this as part of a broader artisanal tendency and proposed that CRAFTSMANSHIP IS SUGOI. There is tremendous storytelling potential in the religious devotion that Japanese artisans — from pastry chefs to tatami-makers — bring to their craft. Those stories should be central to what makes Japan great.

Most agreed that NATURE IS SUGOI, even though this aspect of Japan is poorly understood worldwide. Japan has breathtaking mountain ranges and is one of the world’s most tree-licious countries, with 67% of its land covered in forest, more than Brazil or Sweden. Promoting awareness of Japan’s natural riches is critical to leading visitors out of the Kanto-Kansai tourist corridor.

Not everyone agreed that ONSEN ARE SUGOI, a reflection of differing cultural attitudes towards communal bathing and nudity. But that’s the beauty of a marketing toolbox: not every component needs to suit everyone’s taste. It practically insists on diversity.

Few people put forward anime, j-pop, or other aspects of Japanese pop culture as worthy of SUGOI status. That could be just a reflection of the group, or a sign that appealing to this specialised segment isn’t the best way for the Japan Tourism Agency to extract value from its marketing spend. Otaku culture definitely has a place in the toolbox, but it’s not safe to assume that foreign tourists will care that a certain character came — fictionally or otherwise — from a certain place.

The Tokyo Olympics will NOT bring a massive influx of tourists in 2020

One of the real lessons to come out of this seminar was that mega-events such as the Rugby World Cup and Olympic Games do not guarantee a surge in foreign visitors. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Reliable sources of foreign visitors such as group tours can abandon a market when it is perceived to be too expensive or difficult to book, which is likely to be the case in 2019 and 2020.

Ashley Harvey was at pains to stress that what WILL deliver a tourism boost is positive worldwide media coverage during these events. And that can only be achieved if the global media presence is well vetted and well managed. If Tokyo can execute a public relations masterclass and keep thousands of international media representatives onside and inspired, it can expect to reap a post-Games tourism windfall.

If, on the other hand, unvetted foreign media are faced with under-resourced organisers, they will quickly veer off-script, allowing the story to spin out of Tokyo’s control. Expert leveraging of global media on such a large scale presents a new kind of challenge for Japan with its generally compliant domestic media.

In theory, Tokyo, as a supremely well-organised mega-city, should have few problems hosting a mega-event like the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The challenge is to leverage the opportunity to showcase a diverse nation and not just the sakura and neon cliches. The Rugby World Cup offers an even better opportunity. Events like these should be seen as the ultimate test of Japan’s ability to become a gold-standard tourist destination, not the final lap of honour.

About the series

Thinking on the Hill is an independent think tank attached to Workers University Tokyo. The name comes from our location in the Dogenzaka area of Shibuya. Our occasional, brief reports are well-stocked with interesting perspectives on Japan.

Seminars at Workers University Tokyo are open to the public and attract people from a wide range of professions. For details of future events, visit the website.