Terrie's Take 871 (Tourism Edition) -- Coming Backlash of Intolerance to Tourists

Terrie's Take terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Mon Oct 31 07:59:53 JST 2016

* * * * * * * * TERRIE'S (TOURISM) TAKE - BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie 
Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, Oct 30, 2016, Issue No. 871

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+++ Coming Backlash of Intolerance to Tourists

I clearly remember one fall day back in 2014 walking through Shibuya and 
suddenly realizing just how many more foreign tourists were around. I 
was both happy, because it meant more people were discovering what a 
great place Japan is, and a little concerned because some of those 
tourists were really boisterous and loud - two things Japanese don't 
like in public. Since then, my concern has notched up a bit as the 
excitement of tourist income has worn off and is being balanced out with 
a trickle of negative news, such as: Chinese tourists damaging blooming 
cherry trees, Osaka airport train announcements apologizing to Japanese 
passengers for foreigners causing overcrowding, and sushi chains loading 
up foreigner's orders with excess wasabi to "terrorize" them.

None of these negative reports is a major event in itself, but they do 
indicate that the average Japanese, without saying so in public, is 
starting to become uncomfortable with the sheer number of foreign faces 
and voices in their midst. The Nankai train conductor making the 
apologetic announcement for seat shortage, for example, was simply 
trying to head off complaints from local passengers he'd obviously been 
receiving - meaning some Japanese at least were mouthing off about the 
situation. So when combined with yesterday's news that the Justice 
Ministry is going to start surveying resident foreigners about perceived 
discrimination, you have an emerging public awareness that the flood of 
inbound foreign travelers is causing competition for resources and 
forcing citizens out of their comfort zone.

Now, I'm guessing that most of the complaints on the Osaka train would 
have been from the nation's grumps. Like anywhere, we have our share of 
them, and they certainly don't demonstrate the silent stoicism that the 
Japanese are famous for. The are the exception, though, and instead most 
Japanese understand the huge financial and internationalization benefits 
that the presence of foreign tourists brings. Certainly tens of 
thousands of Airbnb hosts and experiences operators around the country 
are grateful for the steady infusion of new income.

But this ongoing social friction is starting to have some affect. As I 
travel around the country for business I'm seeing more of a weariness in 
some communities by locals less patient with the trash, the traffic, the 
incidental damage, the occasional shortages of fresh fruit and fish, and 
the price gouging, and they are starting to speak out about how there 
too many foreigners around. I speak Japanese so of course I can listen 
in to some of these conversations, while regular tourists remain 
blithely unaware. Until recently, I have seldom heard really negative or 
nasty comments and rather the conversations are an irritated or 
questioning tone where you can tell that the speaker's patience is 
wearing thin.

But last weekend, for the first time in a long time, I brushed up 
against blatant anti-foreigner sentiment. A middle-aged grumpy fellow 
passing us on the street suddenly complained (in Japanese) that 
foreigners should speak Japanese when they are in Japan. I was cycling 
along the road with my daughter and paid no heed, but my daughter, who 
is part Japanese, found his comments offensive and doubled back to 
complain about his utterance. I'm guessing he was just having a bad day, 
and he started whining about how hearing English was making his ears 
hurt and we should stop it. My blood temperature rose, and if I was a 
quicker thinker I would have told him he'd better move away from Shibuya 
then, but instead just ended up telling him he was a nasty guy.

Anyway, my daughter was really upset at his intolerance. In a free 
country, and especially one benefiting so much from foreign presence, 
why did he feel he had a right to complain that she and I were speaking 
in English? I assured her that his comments were nothing compared with 
some of the bigots back home, but it did start me thinking about other 
complaining conversations I've overheard between Japanese older people 
(but which I have never responded to) about the problems so many foreign 
visitors are causing, and realized that there is strong potential for a 
racial/cultural backlash. The Japanese have never been tolerant of other 
races and cultures, which is why they restrict immigration and refugee 
seekers so much, but their public training (politeness) keeps these 
feelings masked from most visitors and so most tourists wind up having a 
pretty good time here and indeed, around 55% of inbound tourists are now 

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But I do feel that the right conditions for a backlash are brewing, for 
a variety of reasons. Partly it's because the best services and products 
are being diverted to foreigners willing to pay more to enjoy them - 
that's got to make locals feel bad, and partly it's because Japanese 
really do think differently about public space and public demeanor - 
which is a sure point of conflict. For example, how they think about 
disposing trash.

But, in my business, the travel business, a better example is that of an 
operator or host supporting adventure travel experiences.

If you're a foreign adventure travel operator, you want your customers 
to have an exciting, slightly risky, and definitely memorable time, 
something that will give a burst of adrenaline and bring the customer 
back for more. Japanese operators on the other hand worry interminably 
about controlling risk and want to take randomness out of the equation. 
So they come up with a long list of rules that they expect the guests to 
follow. The trouble is that while Japanese guests may in fact read and 
obey those rules, the foreign guest will not pay the same attention 
unless there is a supplementary explanation of why the rules exist. The 
Japanese are not good at explaining their rules, often because they are 
not bedded in logic anyway.

There are so many examples (including before/after the adventure) of 
this, but to share just a couple:

1. Tattoos in an onsen - yes, I know this is a trite subject, but it 
really does encapsulate the clash of cultures. Tatts to older Japanese 
represent Yakuza, while for younger foreigners it represents an 
admiration for their favorite sports stars or entertainers. Certainly it 
is  ridiculous that onsen ban to their financial detriment guests who 
bear tattoos and yet who are certainly not connected to the Japanese 
underworld. Several years ago I suggested to some onsen operators that 
they provide foreign guests with body sleeves covering the offending 
images. While this was received well, an objection soon came up that 
customers would then complain about weird foreigners wearing clothing 
into the onsen waters... Sometimes you can't win, although the Japanese 
tourism authorities are doing their best to change the no-tatts attitude.

2. Climbing mount Fuji out of season. Everyone knows that Mt. Fuji's 
climbing season is July and August, and outside those dates the trails 
to the top are "closed". That's the Japanese mindset where commonsense 
leads them to pass a "rule". But to my knowledge there is no legal 
impediment to someone climbing the mountain at any time of year - just 
you'd better be prepared for bitterly cold temperatures, high winds, and 
possible snow slips. For a non-Japanese seeking an adventure, 
out-of-season climbing of Mt. Fuji could be a huge attraction, but I've 
yet to find a travel operator that wants to take the risk of offering 
such an option. Everyone somehow ignores that Mt. Everest is regularly 
climbed by Japanese amateurs and of course when such climbs are properly 
planned and equipped they can be an exhilarating value-added experience.

3. Renting bikes with kids. One of the best possible family activities 
is riding bikes together. If you own these bikes it's no problem and 
generally Japanese roads and drivers are some of the best around. BUT, 
try to rent a bike for your kids and you will quickly run up against 
rules relating either to minimum age or height. Disneyland has similar 
ride rules, but then there is always something else for the littlies to 
do and besides it's not the real world and the owner can make their own 
rules. But if you're a Dad with a 7-year old, and you want to cycle 
together, you'll be out of luck with the rental firms, helmets or no.

4. Shortage of Shinkansen seats - I hear this complaint at Shinkansen 
ticket vending machines frequently. "Why are there no seats on the 
Kodama?" The conversation invariably steers to how the foreigners are 
taking them up. Of course they are, but that's because JR only gives 
rail pass holders (who can only be foreign tourists) access to the 
slower Shinkansen trains, which means less availability for local people 
going to secondary stations. To fix the problem, JR needs to put on more 
trains or change their policy.

Yeah, so with examples, like these, it's easy to see the potential for 
misunderstanding and conflict over the next few years. The question is 
whether the government will start educating the general population to 
appreciate all the investment, regional revival, and international 
goodwill that can be earned from a continuing large influx of foreign 
tourists. Even if locals can't understand how foreigners think, at least 
they can try to preserve the golden goose. But for those people not 
benefiting from the travel sector, which is at least 92% of the 
population, the chance of increasing resentment and I see a backlash 
starting to loom. When that happens, and some of society's malcontents 
feel a sense of righteousness, start mouthing off more publicly, and 
uglier incidents of overt racism will start to occur. Japan's reputation 
as a safe and welcoming destination will suffer as a result.

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Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd at japaninc.com)

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