Japan’s Tourism Policy Succeeds, With Industry Becoming Economic Pillar

News Analysis 

Japan’s tourism policy has borne fruit, with nominal spending by visitors to Japan from January to March amounting to 7.2 trillion yen annually (about $449 billion), marking a five-fold increase over the past decade.

The “Tourism Vision to Support Japan’s Future,” introduced in March 2016 with strong support from the private sector, has yielded positive results, with the tourism industry establishing it itself as a critical pillar of the Japanese economy.

Foreign visitors in 2023 contributed 7.2 trillion yen ($44.5 billion) to the Japanese economy, according to news outlet Nikkei. Although this is less than half of that generated by Japan’s top-ranked automotive industry, which contributed 17.3 trillion yen (about $110 billion), it exceeds that of the previously second-ranked semiconductor and electronic components industry, which stood at 5.5 trillion yen (about $34.3 billion). The steel industry came next at 4.5 trillion yen (about $28 billion).

Visitor spending from January to March in 2024 increased by more than 60 percent compared to the same period in 2019. In the same period, exports of automobiles and steel increased by approximately 45 percent, while semiconductor and electronic components grew by nearly 40 percent, according to Nikkei.

While direct comparisons are challenging, the growth in visitor spending has outpaced that of Japan’s major export categories.

Japan’s Revitalization Plan

After the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s, traditional manufacturing industries largely shifted overseas, leading to a hollowing out of domestic industries. The country since the Koizumi government in 2003 was left in search of new growth industries.

After four years of planning, a tourism industry development plan was unveiled by the Abe-Shinzo Cabinet in June 2007, known as the “Tourism Nation Revitalization Plan.” The Japan Tourism Agency was established in October 2008, and invested much effort in welcoming more foreign visitors to Japan.

A key target of the plan was the Chinese market, with the first independent visitor visas for Chinese nationals being issued in July 2009. Before that, only visas for group tours with tour guides were available for Chinese citizens.

In 2016, the number of foreign visitors to Japan exceeded 20 million for the first time, with mainland Chinese leading the way. They surpassed 5 million visitor, accounting for a quarter of the total.

Besides experiencing Japanese culture and scenery, the surge of Chinese tourists also made substantial purchases of Japanese beauty and cosmetic products, home appliances, and medical health products, leaving behind legends of “explosive buying.”

Among early Chinese visitors to Japan, Japanese-made rice cookers were particularly popular, reportedly due to a high-end rice cooker gifted by Mr. Abe to Zhang Peili, the wife of then-Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a state visit.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao walks on stage before addressing world leaders during the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 23, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao walks on stage before addressing world leaders during the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 23, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Amid reports of the Chinese premier’s wife’s preference for Japanese rice, high-end Japanese rice became highly popular in China, and was often purchased as a premium gift. In time, Japan began exporting high-end rice varieties like Koshihikari to China, and Japanese rice cookers also gained popularity in the Chinese market.

China’s Anti-Japanese Sentiment

Due to historical reasons, including the Second Sino-Japanese War and Japan’s post-war actions, anti-Japanese sentiment still persists in modern China to some extent. This sentiment, combined with nationalist emotions, is still used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to instill anti-Japanese views in the Chinese population.

One example is that in July 2023, the Japanese delegation at World University Games hosted by China were met with an embarrassing silence.

“The so-called history [taught to young people] is embellished, and it is only a very one-sided view,” a Chinese YouTube commentator known as Mr. Shen, said of the incident.

But the increased cross-cultural exchange driven by tourism has been challenging that anti-Japanese view promoted by the CCP.

Chinese tourists to Japan, besides tasting Japanese cuisine and enjoying Japanese goods, are usually impressed by the safety and peace they find in the country, as well as the courteous and humble demeanor of people across Japanese society, which are completely different from what they learned under the CCP’s education.

In the summer of 2015, a female tour leader from China’s Qingdao Province visiting Japan for the first time with her group, expressed her surprise to The Epoch Times in Ginza, Tokyo.

On crowded streets, there was no one making obnoxious noises; Japanese people were friendly, polite, and provided attentive service, which was eye-opening, she said. The 40-plus Chinese tourists in her group all felt the same way, discovering that Japanese people were not as portrayed by the Chinese Communist Party in domestic propaganda.

Many members of the group were surprised to see Japanese people casually putting their wallets and mobile phones in the back pocket of their trousers, not fearing thieves. When learning that there are almost no thieves in Japan, they all found it inconceivable.

“China was once known as the ‘Land of Etiquette,’ but we experienced such etiquette in Japan,” the tour leader said. “I think this is the citizen image that Chinese people should have,” she said, adding that many members of the group said they would like to bring their families back to Japan to visit more places in the future.

Future of Japanese Tourism

Post-pandemic, the continued depreciation of the Japanese currency has driven a significant increase in visitors to Japan. Data released by the Japan National Tourism Organization on June 19 showed that the number of visitors to Japan exceeded 3.04 million in May, an increase of 60.1 percent year-on-year, breaking the 3 million mark for three consecutive months.

Among 23 global tourism markets, 19 of them saw record-high numbers of residents visiting Japan in May this year: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Australia, the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Nordic region, and the Middle East.

Tourists dressed in traditional Japanese outfits pose for photographs in front of the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Japan, on Sept. 7, 2015. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Tourists dressed in traditional Japanese outfits pose for photographs in front of the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Japan, on Sept. 7, 2015. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Facing a continually growing tourism industry, on March 31, 2023, the Japanese government formulated new growth strategies for the next six years, with “sustainable tourism,” “expanding consumption,” and “increasing local visitors” named as key elements in the plan.

One of the goals is to achieve 5 trillion yen (about $31 billion) in spending by foreign tourists and 20 trillion yen (about $12.4 billion) in spending by domestic Japanese tourists. Visitor spending from January to March amounted to 7.2 trillion yen (about $44.5 billion).


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