Japan’s Tourism ‘Fails’ Make it a Perfect Travel Destination

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Photo by Imabari District Sightseeing Association
October 6, 2017

It’s a mantra repeated by every traveler — no matter the destination: “I want to avoid the touristy spots.” 

If that’s the case, then Japan is your dreamland. And yes, even Tokyo has plenty of spots to discover that tourists rarely set foot in — shout out to my current stomping grounds of Nerima. Yet how can that be when tourism is quite literally booming in Japan with over 24 million visitors in 2016?

Japan has seen a spike in foreign travelers (especially to its cities) since about 2013, but this vast country, for the most part, is anything but touristy. Undisputedly, the country offers a lot to attract tourists, but I would argue it wholeheartedly fails at producing “touristy” places (besides the obvious formulas of theme parks like Disney) because it hasn’t exactly figured out how to cater to foreign tourists — both a blessing and a curse.

That’s simultaneously thanks and no thanks to the Japanese government, which — as an aside — continues to pass laws that seem like fake news but are 100 percent legit. A prime example? The fining of tattoo artists, who, according to a 2001 law, have to be qualified medical professionals. Want a traditional Japanese irezumi (tattoo)? See a doctor. Wait… what?

This type of “logic” also comes through in the government’s so-very misguided tourism efforts that often edge on parody.

Don’t get me wrong — there are recent bright spots. Even the spectacular Ehime Prefecture photo accompanying this article is from a website, Find 47, by the  Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) with free, usable and utterly awesome photos. Another cool effort was this 2016 tourism video from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) linked to a website targeting European tourists:

But, the Japanese Tourism Agency (another tourism task force) and METI don’t often consult foreigners actually living in Japan, thus making it hard to understand Western tourists’ motivations. Nor do they create measurable campaigns to assess if these strategies are really worth the yen. This has been demonstrated in a few not-so-minor examples:

  • Japan’s near-comical attempt to garner more foreign attention with its Cool Japan campaign. I mean, every 13-year-old learns that if you want to make something cool, you never, ever actually use that word. It’s time to start the R.I.P Cool Japan crusade. As a matter of fact, we just did: #ripcooljapan.
  • In 2014, a Japan Times article reported that the Japanese government’s tourism agency is so abysmal at attracting foreigners that despite funding nearly 250 projects in the fiscal years 2010 to 2012, over 30 of them failed to attract “even one tourist.” Not even one tourist! The effectiveness of nearly 120 other projects had no data assessment. But, let’s cut them some slack, right? I mean, that was more than five years ago.
  • Yet, in more recent news this summer, that same agency’s star idea was to introduce the policy of taxing tourists in order to pay for promoting tourist sites. Yup, you read that right.

Other Asian countries’ marketing strategies seem more fruitful.

Take this captivating video for Singapore, a country that had more than 16 million tourists in 2016.

It’s worth mentioning that Singapore, who (sorry) just can’t match Japan’s economic and cultural significance worldwide, put up some pretty stunning tourist stats last year. Of course, Japan’s were higher but proportionally, it should have been a lot more.

As a tourist here, you will get frustrated and confused and lost at times. But you’re also going to fall in love.

Japan’s inverse relationship with being cool

Despite all this, in some stroke of black magic, the more Japan fails at promoting Japan, the more popular it gets. What does this inverse relationship prove? Japan’s allure resides in the country’s lasting uniqueness. Nestled deep within its inexplicably complicated culture — mainstream or otherwise — is a befuddling inability to relate to the outside world.

Because Japan has a hard time realizing what tourists want, it’s the perfect place to visit. Even when it tries to cater to foreign needs, it more often than not fails in the most delightful ways — while still succeeding in amazing infrastructure, natural scenery, politeness and general security. It’s akin to that awkward friend who tries to be less so, only magnifying it and making them more endearing.

As a tourist here, you will get frustrated and confused and lost at times. But you’re also going to fall in love. And, yes, that’s tough to wrap one’s head around because what that will look like and how that will happen is going to be an adventure of your own choosing. All the while, though, what Japan ironically excels at is it can’t seem to get it “right.” When it comes to tourists, however, the most astounding point is that it doesn’t even need to. And while that might not exactly be magic — it’s certainly mystical.

Next week

Stay tuned. Next week we’ll examine the best and worst parts of traveling in Japan for first-timers, plus provide you with some under-the-radar locations you definitely need to check out!

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A Tokyo-based journalist incessantly asking, "Why?"

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