Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 12


The news, from this week’s webinar, that in the year when our speaker and Japan Society veteran Martin Barrow first visited Japan in 1964 the country received only 353,000 visitors was striking enough, especially given that that was the year when the Olympic Games were last held in Tokyo. Watching the Games’ official film, directed by Kon Ichikawa, it is hard to comprehend how few people travelled in those days, especially to a country as distant from Europe and America as Japan. But it was even more striking to be reminded by another speaker, David Atkinson, a British national who is a member of an extraordinary 23 Japanese government committees including one he had attended that very day on reviving international tourism, that a mere five years ago Japan had been receiving only 8 million foreign tourists annually. Last year it received 31.9 million and was fully expecting to hit its target of 40 million international tourists in this Olympic year, when the official film of the Games was to have been made by a female movie director, Naomi Kawase, whose production company is based in Nara.

Travel and tourism have been one of the biggest – taken as a whole, perhaps the biggest – commercial victims of the covid-19 pandemic. Despite all playing our part in it, few of us realise how big the economic impact of tourism is. Martin Barrow told us that last year it contributed, directly and indirectly, an extraordinary US$8.5 trillion to global GDP and 330 million jobs; that is equivalent to more than one-tenth of the world total both of jobs and GDP, or to roughly one-and-a-half Japan’s annual economic output or three times Britain’s. Our third speaker, Timothy Jenkins, public affairs and policy director of Visit Britain, said that foreign tourism is a big generator of foreign investment in the UK too, especially in hotels. So with this year having already seen a 59% decline in in-bound visitors to the UK and a 63% fall in total spending by those tourists, the blow is a hard one.

Nevertheless, David Atkinson reported that at the bi-monthly committee he had attended that day at the Kantei (the prime minister’s office), it had been decided to leave Japan’s long-term international tourism targets unchanged, despite this year’s pandemic-induced slump: the aim remains to reach 60 million annual visitors by 2030, with a revenue target of Y15 trillion. That sounds a lot, but should be eminently achievable since it would still leave Japan’s international tourism arrivals well below those of the world’s most popular destinations, which are France (90 million annually) and Spain (82 million). What he especially brought home for me was how recent is Japan’s decision really to promote foreign tourism and how much its tourism infrastructure – ie, hotels, restaurants, transport, museums and so on – has been geared in the past solely towards mass domestic tourism, which is now in relative decline thanks to demographics. Which is why, he said, the Indonesian island of Bali is home to 42 five-star hotels while there are only 38 such luxury hotels in the whole of Japan.

This doubtless depends on how you define a luxury hotel, but the point is clear: the country’s tourism has been shaped until now by a lower-spending domestic market, one that is also notably inefficient since Japanese tourism is so intensely focused on a few periods each year such as Golden Week. The opportunity to widen the market to higher-spending foreign visitors, and to do so by making it easier for them to pursue a wider range of interests than hitherto, including wildlife and landscapes as well as the well-beaten paths of Kyoto and Nara, is huge. But only once international travel can resume: this week Japan began to promote domestic tourism and travel once again, but controls remain on inbound visitors from 111 countries, including the UK. And the UK has, controversially, just imposed a 14-day quarantine requirement on visitors to these shores. It will take a while, but with the prediction made in our webinar a month ago by Dr Peter Piot coming true, namely that June and July will see announcements of new treatments to mitigate the risks of the virus, we can also become more optimistic that better control and autumn or winter announcements of vaccines will allow us all to plan our travels once again.

Meanwhile, it is nearly time for the Japan Society’s Annual General Meeting, which we hope that even more of you will be able to attend this year as it will be held on Zoom. The final details have still to be worked out, but we are expecting to hold it on July 28th, with the participation both of Ambassador Nagamine in London and of Ambassador Madden in Tokyo, so please save the date. And while you are marking your diaries, please come also to our next webinar, on June 25th, where we will welcome another two ambassadors, both formerly accredited to Washington, DC: Kenichiro Sasae, who was Japan’s ambassador to the United States from 2012-2018 and Kim Darroch, who was Britain’s ambassador there from 2016-2019. Our topic will be the future of US leadership in the world and of the US relationships with both of our countries, so there will be no shortage of things to discuss.