Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I gave a presentation about Japan last year at the Trilateral Commission which ended up in the Wall Streeet Journal and also did a presentation with Oki Matsumoto for the GLT Annual Meeting which are both a bit more fact based than the current essay I have written...



I'm going to take this comment opportunity to say something about two things that have bothered me ever since Japan began its "lost" decade.

First, tourism. I wrote an article some years ago for Shukan Kinyobi that was picked up by Shunkan Shincho. In it, I wondered why the government didn't mount an all-out campaign to entice more tourists to come to Japan. I pointed out that while foreign tourists don't spend as lavishly as Japanese tourists do, they still bring in money that was not here before they came. Every yen spent effectively bringing in more tourists, adds money to Japan's supply (don't any of you economist s jump on me now). On the other hand, every yen spend building concrete banks for rivers and setting out tetrapods in the ocean, is merely taking money from Japan's right-hand pants pocket and putting it into the left.

Recently, I read that the only Asian countries with FEWER visitors from overseas were Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. It does not make sense.

Take Spain, for example (the word insular was coined to describe the Spanish, who are loath to change). I have figures for 1987, when the country saw 50.5 million foreign visitors that earned it US$14.7 billion, enough to more than offset its merchandise import deficit. How many visitors does Japan get? Maybe 5 million a year.

A cursory search on the Internet concerning the economic impact of tourism shows traditionally high tourism areas like Egypt and Turkey suffering because of the Middle East conflict. Another plus in Japan's arsenal of weapons - this is a very safe country, compared to most others in the world.

Japan has delightful sights and experiences to offer the foreign tourist. The food is wonderful, even in the tiny minshuku of the hinterland. Cultural treats abound - Natadera in Ishikawa, thousands of kilns that keep pottery and porcelain traditions alive, yuzen kimono artists like Yoko Mizuno of Kanazawa, amazing experiences in high-class ryokan like Horai in Atami, mud baths in Beppu, fresh-picked tea in Shizuoka, the Great Buddah of Kamakura (along with Zeniarai Jinja) . . . the list is endless. And I firmly believe this could be turned into a tourism bonanza with enough money for promotion and a seasoned ad agency with a track record in effective tourism campaigns (Oglivy Mather, for example).

Second, the arts.

Last night, driving home, I listened to NPR's Morning Report. One piece concerned Argentina, whose currency has lost 70% of its value in recent times.

So what are the Argentines doing?

Going out to dance the tango. Attending art exhibitions held in parks or even on blocked-off public streets. Going to movies. And the reporter said the only part of the national budget that did not get the ax was the money earmarked for promotion of the arts.

Unfortunately, the average person (and the elite) has little interest in the arts in Japan. Who attends gala premiers for Japanese movies? Where are artists--musicians, painters, etc.--allowed to perform on the streets?

Argentines turn to dancing, art, and movies (made in Argentina) to boost their spirits in hard economic times.

Here in Japan, we mope.

Just wanted to get that off my chest.


Both interesting points Charles. I agree with both of them. I heard a theory that Japan should become China's Hawaii. When the Chinese become rich, maybe they can come to Japan and be tourists. Maybe that will help the land prices. ;-)


Why wait for China?

A personal friend of mine who runs a small resort in Mexico began promoting his place to Europe about five years ago. OK, his major sell is scuba diving, but still . . . two years ago, when I stayed at his hotel, there were two Europeans there. Last year, there were 34. Fernando says their average stay in La Paz is 14-21 days. There's not much difference in flying time, Brussels to Tokyo and Brussels to La Paz (which must go through Mexico City or Los Angeles).

The tourists are out there. We just need to convince them to vacation here instead of Mexico or wherever.

Here's what Stephan Stuecklin, a Swiss, said about his stay in Japan. "Returning to Switzerland was bittersweet; my heart had taken root in Japan. The question is not if, but when, I'll return."