The Importance of Tourist Dollars Not Lost in Translation

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2005

Japan has proven part of a trend in which movies lure international tourists to the locations where they were filmed.

by Emily Kubo

Postwar Japan presents several images to the outside world. There is the beautiful scenery, such as the awe-inspiring Mt.Fuji, the coy geishas, and the ephemeral cherry blossoms. During the 1980s mayhem, Japan Inc. seemed truly formidable as they gobbled up assets across the globe while bookshelves sagged with texts dissecting the secret of Japanese corporate success.

Then there are images of the unsung heroes behind the glory -- "salarymen," who wore the same dark suits and commuted an average of 60-90 minutes one way to Tokyo offices most days of their lives. In the morning, commuters were stuffed into trains by professional "pushers," whose sole job was to push you onto the already-crowded train. The few who were fortunate enough to obtain a seat often had their heads tilted either forward or back as they dozed in deep slumber, a testament to their perpetually sleep-deprived lives. In the midst of their routine, predictable lives, however, existed some serious anti-social behavior. Legend has it that somewhere lurking in Shibuya, Tokyo, are old men who buy used underwear of underage schoolgirls, from, imagine this, vending machines. Their lives, one might imagine, are what Henry David Thoreau had in mind when he observed, in Walden, that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Indeed, such a city of contradiction might be a playground for anthropologists, but has been, up until now, not too appealing to the everyday traveler shopping for their next vacation.

Japan has never been a popular holiday destination. It receives relatively small numbers of foreign visitors, especially in relation to how many Japanese travel abroad. For example, in 2002 the outflow of Japanese traveling overseas was the 4th highest worldwide (2003 tourism was affected both inbound and outbound by terrorist attacks and the Iraq War, and 2004 full figures are not yet available). It has ranked 33rd and 34th, respectively, in 2002 and 2003 in the world for receiving numbers of visitors, behind much less developed neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Tourism is important not only for cultural exchange, but it also has economic implications: Japan is visited by only about 4.8 million overseas visitors each year and rakes in a mere $3.4 billion in international income. These are especially abysmal numbers when compared with popular destinations like France, which welcomes about 76 million visitors annually and derives more than $29.9 billion in international income from them.

This is strange, as Japan is the second largest economy in the world, and Asia's only fully developed nation. It also boasts one of the safest metropolises with some of the best food (of any kind) in the world. At the same time, it is rich in tradition: there are numerous worthwhile temples and gardens, and one can witness an array of unique cultural experiences such as performances by geishas, Kabuki theater, and sumo wrestling. Cherry blossoms in the spring are known to transform curbsides into art and poetry (it has inspired both). For people who are not interested in the traditional, major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have around-the-clock entertainment with clubs and bars catered to a variety of tastes. The country also boats some of the latest technology in popular consumer electronics -- Japanese cell phones are years ahead of their North American and European counterparts and movielike video games can entice even the most hardened geeks.

So why have tourists, especially Western ones, been so slow to discover it? Cost and language barrier are two major reasons. "Japan has the image of being expensive," says Mark Crosby, Product Manager for Far East of the Cox and King travel agency based in the U.K. "While many realize that Japan is the same price as England and other parts of Europe, Japan is competing against much cheaper countries like Thailand, China, etc." The other reason often given is that Japan is unlike Europe, where one can easily get by with English, a backpack, and a copy of Lonely Planet: "Most ground handlers in Japan offer services for groups only with not much aimed at the individual," observes Crosby. English speakers are hard to come by, and even important signs and train station announcements are often in Japanese only.

"Another reason why Japan is not traditionally popular with western tourists is that it is located quite far away," says Yasutake Tsukamoto, Director of Administration Department with the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO). For most Americans, Tsukamoto says, "five hours' flight destination is the norm. And then there is also the language barrier." Marian Goldberg, JNTO's North American Public Relations Manager, agrees. "It can be scary because you can't read the words. You get out of the train and there are 20 exits," she says, recounting her own experience on her first trip to Japan. "Like, what is this button on the wall? Is this going to electrocute me? People have no idea what to expect."

But even language barriers do not prevent adventurous travelers from heading for other remote areas of the world, such as Croatia, Tunisa, and Egypt (all outrank Japan in annual number of visitors). Perhaps what Japan lacks is a coherent image as an attractive tourist destination.

For a long time, people didn't know what to think of Japan. So they didn't -- at least when it came to their vacations.

Image is a deciding factor in choosing a vacation destination. One way to promote a country is formal advertising. Malaysia has successfully marketed itself with the "Malaysia is truly Asia" campaign, while Thailand offers exotic fun, with a good mix of chaotic city and tranquil beaches (although the tsunami disaster did much damage to that image). Image appeals to emotion, and many vacationers go somewhere because they want to experience, on some level, the visual they have in their mind. In the past, that image for Japan was anything but clear. In fact, there was hardly any advertising or promotion to speak of -- almost as if Japan didn't want foreign tourists.

Japan's attitude towards tourism has changed substantially in recent years. The government is slowly realizing that tourism will bring much needed money and jobs to its stagnant economy. In 2003, Prime Minister Koizumi called for Japan to become a "tourist nation," and launched the "Visit Japan YOKOSO" campaign, with the goal of doubling the number of tourists to 10 million by 2010. Its achievement could provide a boost to the Japanese economy. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, doubling the number of foreign tourists would add 4.3 trillion yen, or $36 billion, to the national economy and create 252,000 jobs.

Also in 2003, major movies such as The Last Samurai, Kill Bill (1&2), and Lost in Translation have brought a fresh perspective along with renewed interest to Japan, and as a bonus, a boost to Japan tourism. The government's campaign recognizes the power of American pop culture and capitalizes on the success of major Hollywood films by working with tourist agencies and hotels to market theme packages built around movie scenes and storylines. "Before the formal campaign, there was a very limited budget, so we couldn't really attend so many international exhibitions," Tsukamoto says. "The YOKOSO campaign allowed us to do many things, and coordinate with travel agencies, airlines, and local governments to promote Japan tourism." In 2003/2004, six US-based travel agencies launched their own "Lost in Translation" packages along with four "Last Samurai"-related tours. This is only part of a broader trend -- in recent years there has been a surge of interest in vacation destinations related to popular books and movies. Prominent examples are Paris (Da Vinci Code), New Zealand (Lord of the Rings) and, more recently, Argentina (The Motorcycle Diaries).

Since the release of the critically acclaimed Lost in Translation, by Sofia Coppola;Tom Cruise; and cultish films Kill Bill 1&2, by Quentin Tarantino, there are indications of expanding interest in Japan. This has proven to be good for business. Expectedly, those that are lucky enough to be featured in American pop culture get an extra boost. Capitalizing on their publicity, two Tokyo hotels launched packages inspired by Lost in Translation. The Park Hyatt Tokyo, where much of the film takes place, offers a luxurious five-night "Lost in Translation Package" inviting guests to "Experience the energy, romance, and humor of a visit abroad with this special offer," mirroring the adventures of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johnson. It also provides a shorter version called "Tokyo Escape." Although together these packages generated a mere 52 bookings in 2004, it is unclear whether the film connection had otherwise contributed to business: "It's hard to gauge how many people have ended up choosing this hotel because of the film," says Karina Shima, its International PR manager, but definitely, it has created a huge awareness of the hotel. We suppose that many people, when faced with the question of where to stay in Tokyo, might now consider Park Hyatt Tokyo." Its New York Bar, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johnson spend much of their time in the film, also got a boost: "We definitely saw a distinct increase in the number of patrons in The New York Bar, especially Westerners, last year, about six months after the film was first released," Shima adds. "And we received requests including pictures of the guest sitting in the stool that Bill Murray was sitting at in The New York Bar, or rooms with the same view as Charlotte's room in the film." In other words, "The film has added to the cachet of the hotel," she says.

Movies are essentially tools of perception. A well-made film has the ability to create fantasies, reinforce/crush stereotypes, and entice viewers to take an otherwise unimaginable journey. Although both Last Samurai and Kill Bill 1&2 achieved considerable success at the box office, it was ultimately Sofia Coppola's film which incited most interest in Japan. "Lost in Translation had the most effect on tourism because it was about modern Japan and filmed in Tokyo," says Crosby. "It was also more popular." The film won an Oscar for best original screenplay, and was to many a window to an alien nation and culture. Some have said the film reinforces stereotypes of Japanese. But its partisans argue that the movie was not about Japan, but the way Westerners view Japan, or any foreign culture, at first glance. They give the film high marks for its depiction of blissful disorientation in an unfamiliar environment. The film's happy alienation was what made it the talk of the town. It turned Tokyo into a Mecca of fashion -- made it the place to visit.

It all seems very strange, but the contradicting images have made Japan, well, hip. It might still not be a place for relaxing family vacations or romantic getaways, but it may appeal to more adventurous souls who are less intimidated by the idea of being lost in translation, and who revel in the kind of anonymity and strangeness the experience can provide. Goldberg calls this phenomenon the "Lost in Translation Syndrome": "Everyone that had been to Japan gets it. The movie shows that you can have a great time in Japan even if you feel kind of disconnected. That is why it was so popular. It's a foreignumber of US visitors has increased for every month. Particularly, the number of "sightseers" has shown a double-digit increase for eight consecutive months. This is remarkable, since traditionally North American and European tourists have had little interest in Japan.

Furthermore, according to Cox & King, amongst its clients Japan is proving to be the fastest growing destination in the Far East. " Japanese culture is becoming more apparent in the UK these days, ignitng interes in Japan. For example, there are more Japanese restaurants in London and many magazine articles featuring Japan," Crosby says. Japanese cuisine has become such a hit, in fact, that one restaurant critic has hailed sushi as "the pizza of our generation."

"You can buy it at the supermarket and eat it on the run, on the train. In fact, my daughter is nine and she has been eating sushi since she was three years old!" adds Goldberg.

Being a public relations manager for JNTO in New York, Goldberg is especially attuned to all the love Japan has been receiving from American media. "Then you have more movies coming! There is The Grudge with Michelle Gellar, and Memoires of a Geisha is due to come out next year." Such love extends to more than just food and movies, however. "There are many images of Japan being very beautiful nowadays," Goldberg adds. "The cherry blossom festival in Brooklyn attracted more than 50,000 people last year. We are just getting so much publicity from so many angles. There are lots of reasons why I think Japan is getting more popular."

When asked why Western visitors should now place Japan at the top of their destination wish list, Tsukamoto is audibly excited. "Do you know the meaning of YOKOSO?" he asks. "It means 'welcome' and refers to the typical Japanese hospitality. Most foreign visitors are surprised that the Japanese people are so kind. For example, if you get lost, sometimes they will escort you to your destination -- even if they can't speak English at all." Not willing to give people the idea that visiting Japan will inevitably turn out to be an alienating experience as depicted by Bill Murray, he adds, 'YOKOSO JAPAN' essentially means 'Welcome to Japan' -- we welcome you to touch the soul of Japanese people, experience both the modern culture and the Japanese traditions."

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