Yoshito Hori, president of GLOBIS University, managing partner of GLOBIS Capital Partners, shares his views from an entrepreneur's perspective.
In 2015, lifestyle magazine Monocle selected Tokyo as the world’s most livable city, praising its “quality of life for visitors and people who live there, and its combination of culture, security, food and courtesy.”
Readers of travel magazine Travel + Leisure also voted Kyoto the world’s best city for tourists for the second year running.
Tourists love Japan and they are coming here in ever-greater numbers. That’s a simple matter of fact.
The Japanese government should pass its target of “20 million inbound tourists by 2020” this year—four years ahead of schedule—after getting more than 19 million tourists in 2015.
And Japan should remain in the limelight for several years to come. We are hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
In fact, the whole northeast Asia region is getting in on the act. The Winter Olympics will be held in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018, and in Beijing, China, in 2022.
With the exception of the soccer World Cup, Asia will be hosting every major global sporting event between 2018 and 2022. The region is becoming a hub for sports, leisure and culture.
Sports can have a geopolitical impact. Think of the 2002 soccer World Cup. The tournament represented a tipping point for the Korea-Japan relationship. After Japan was knocked out in the second round, many Japanese switched to support the Korean team, their traditional enemy, as fellow Asians. The Koreans—to everyone’s amazement—got as far as the semi-finals before finally losing to Germany.
If sports can have a positive impact on the diplomatic front, then tourism can have a positive impact on the economic front.
I’m not talking here simply about the money that tourists spend. I’m talking about how tourists’ desires and demands can help to rejuvenate rigid and over-regulated markets in the countries they visit.
For instance, did you know that the service provided by accommodation-rental site Airbnb is technically illegal in Japan? Unlicensed private homeowners are not allowed to accept paying visitors. The same is true with taxi apps like Uber: unlicensed drivers are not allowed to offer rides for money.
Nonetheless, many of the foreign tourists who come to Japan are finding their accommodation through Airbnb (Japan is actually Airbnb’s fastest-growing market) and getting around in Uber taxis. These markets are functioning despite existing in a legal gray area.
The government recognizes this, and it wants to use tourist demand as a lever with which to get rid of out-of-date regulations and business practices.
Step one was to bring in more tourists. The government’s decision to abolish or relax visa requirements for many Asian countries led directly to a surge in visitor numbers starting in 2013.
Step two was to respond to those tourists’ desires for accommodation, transport, wi-fi and so on in a pragmatic fashion. The existence of special economic zones—of which Tokyo is one—makes this easier because they allow rigid national laws to be sidestepped and new models to be experimented with.
Here are some examples.
・ Ota ward, the district closest to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, has legalized Airbnb. (Shibuya ward, again in Tokyo, has legalized LGBT marriage, though I don’t think this is yet having an impact on tourist numbers!)
・ Kyoto has established a citywide network of wi-fi hotspots so tourists can stay connected without having to pay costly data roaming charges. Like several other Japanese cities, it also has a system of 4-language signage (Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English).
・ Fukuoka—which is situated closer to Seoul than to Tokyo—is consciously trying to build itself up as an Asian Gateway, making it easier for overseas professionals to come in and establish their own businesses with a special start-up visa.
However, the thing that really seems to impress tourists to Japan is nothing to do with efforts of national or local government. What most impresses tourists is the level of honesty, courtesy and consideration exhibited by ordinary Japanese people.
China Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, is awash with so-called “incredible stories” about Japan—heartwarming tales about people getting back iPhones they forgot in taxis and on trains; stories about people getting mislaid wallets returned to them with all the money still inside.
Tourists seem to love watching Japanese orderliness on display, whether at the frantic early-morning fish auctions at Tsukiji market or at the world-famous scramble crossing at Shibuya (as seen in “Lost in Translation.”)
Ironically, then, while the Japanese government spent a ton of money promoting a “Cool Japan” of anime, manga and music, what really appealed to foreign tourists was something more traditional: Japanese values of honesty, attention to detail, diligence and professionalism.
So foreign tourists are clearly getting something out of their visits to Japan.
But it’s a symbiotic relationship. We, the Japanese, are getting something out of tourists coming here too. Their needs, desires and demands are helping to bring in new products and services; to reshape Japan as a genuinely cosmopolitan country; even to improve our relationships with countries like China and Korea.
So come on over to Japan for your next holiday. Take part in this process of positive transformation. My country needs YOU!