TT-871 (Tourism Edition) -- Coming Backlash of Intolerance to Tourists

Japan Travel
* * * * * * * * 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.
(http://www.terrielloyd.com)

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. They 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 are
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
repeaters.

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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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