For many years, Japan had been a country that foreign tourists overlooked. This might seem a bit funny at first, considering how influential Japanese cuisine, manga, anime, video games, and technology have been. It was not uncommon to see Western media talk about Japan and the wonders of The Land of the Rising Sun, from small lines in Back to the Future, to the Simpsons visiting Tokyo. Sophia Coppola forever immortalized Park Hyatt Tokyo in her indie film Lost in Translation, and Mr. Burns was warned about the Japanese economic boom during a time kids across the globe played The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros; and yet, foreign tourists were simply not visiting Japan. We could go into great length as we analyzed what had kept tourists away from this archipelago, but that is a story for another day. Today, we want to talk about the tourism industry that suddenly exploded, and the problems that came with it despite the many benefits it has brought.
Tourism, in general, is not a bad thing. When tourists visit a country, they pour billions of dollars into the economy, which is why Japan has been setting new goals as it tries to increase its number of foreign visitors. The problem, however, is that the number of tourists coming to Japan skyrocketed so quickly the infrastructure and residents were not entirely ready for it. To put it into perspective, in 2011 only 6.2 million tourists visited Japan. By 2018, that number had increased to 31.2 million. This influx of visitors has been great for boutiques and hotels, with famous names like Four Seasons and Bvlgari set to open hotels in newly built skyscrapers around Tokyo Station. However, many tourists have failed to follow the day-to-day norms expected in Japan, which has been causing many problems as of lately.
For example, in 2015, one could stroll down the streets of Omotesando and Harajuku admiring the many boutiques and cafes while noticing how clean everything was. While the district is still clean, by 2019 one could start to see more litter on the sidewalks. Sadly, many of the culprits tend to be tourists who are not familiar with Japan’s lack of trash bins. Therefore, instead of taking their trash home, they simply leave it behind. Of course, the blame does not fall entirely on tourists, but since the vast majority are responsible for this, it’s easy to understand why some locals have started to feel frustrated.
Spearheading the problems, we have the tourists that decided to immortalize their names in Kyoto’s famous bamboo forest (Arashiyama), and ruin the scenery of Tottori’s famous dunes. Both cases caused ire in Japan, particularly the graffiti in Arashiyama since the old bamboo is forever ruined when people carve their names on them. Altogether, around 100 bamboos were damaged. The biggest problem is that, since bamboos are connected by their roots, a sick bamboo could end up affecting many others. This could result in the chopping of several bamboos as a measure to preserve the forest.
— fmhmay (@fjthrkmay) May 17, 2018
In Tottori, tourists are writing their names and messages on the dunes, completely ignoring the site’s rules. The misbehavior could be attributed to ignorance, but some tourists simply ignore the signs and what people tell them.
Another issue has to do with train etiquette. In Japan, people line up to enter the train, leaving the space in front of the train’s doors open so people can disembark quickly before they enter. Of course, there is always that salaryman that thinks their time is more important and thus tries to cut the line. However, the problem that salaryman embodies has been amplified by tourists who don’t follow rules. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? Well, some foreign visitors seem to disagree.
Recently, some French tourists visiting Japan for the Rugby World Cup made a scene inside a train that created a Twitter storm after locals complained about the visitors’ terrible manners while also wondering what could happen during the Olympics.
— のん Marianne Renoir (@nontage) September 21, 2019
Additionally, in Japan the bottom of one’s foot is considered extremely dirty. Most people know that, when entering a Japanese home, one has to take off their shoes. However, many tourists put their feet on the seats of trains (shoes and all), even letting kids jump there. Fortunately, elderly Japanese women are notorious for chastising ill-mannered locals, and won’t hesitate to scold a group of tourists as well. However, this should not be the case, and foreign visitors have to follow each country’s social norms.
Temples and shrines are places of respect. Most people know this. It’s, quite simply, a no-brainer; and yet, judging from the number of tourists that misbehave when visiting these places, it would seem that common sense has somehow become a rarity.
Pretty much everyone has seen some people do things that merit more than raising an eyebrow. Just to put things into perspective, during a recent trip to Kyoto I decided to enter the overly-popular and overly-crowded Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), I saw tourists jumping over fences, littering, and do actions that would be considered disrespectful in any place of worship. A man who worked there to make sure people would stay in line when exiting the shrine told a group of tourists to stop doing singing loudly while violently ringing a large Suzu (a Japanese Shinto bell) as if they were the Hunchback of Notre Dame. After that first and only warning, the tourists laughed it off and continued doing the same thing so one of their friends could film them. I decided to confront them as well. Recognizing that they were from Spain, I asked them if they would do the same inside one of their country’s many churches, to which they mockingly replied that it was not the same, and that their actions were not disrespectful. It was a shame, truly; and I wish I could say that it was nothing more than an isolated event.
Some tourists have also been seen entering areas where people are not allowed in because they want to take great photos and selfies. Again, last fall I witnessed a woman entering a pond at Shinjuku Gyoen in order to take a selfie. Just meters behind her, there was a fence with a sign that mentioned that going beyond that point was prohibited.
Kyoto’s residents have been complaining for a long time because of the ways tourists treat geisha and maiko. The constant harassment prompted the city to teach tourists that poking geisha and maiko, and taking their photos without their consent was not okay. However, that was simply not enough.
Therefore, Kyoto’s famous Gion district is now banning photos in private roads.
— Arduino現在位置確認 (@Logis_deter) November 1, 2019
What is particularly infuriating about the way tourists harass geisha and maiko is that they do it because they see them as people wearing a costume. To many tourists, seeing maiko and geisha in Kyoto is the equivalent of seeing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck at Disneyland.
There are many articles and papers that have dissected the problem of Westerners seeing Japan as something so different that merits treating the country and its residents as completely alien, and the current problems in Gion, and in temples and shrines illustrate this issue.
Other problems Gion encountered and which led to the ban are that tourists had also been damaging private property.
Of course, this kind of horrible behavior does not happen exclusively in Japan. Instagramers have become a huge problem in many European cities as well, and news and reports about neighbors trying to ban people from taking photos where they live because of the disruptive nature of the sheer number of tourists and their behavior have started popping up in the news.
One of the worst things about people misbehaving like this is that it can also reinforce negative stereotypes and xenophobia; and foreigners living in Japan are pretty much aware of how these things affect daily life. Just ask any foreigner who has gone through the process of renting an apartment and encountered the infamous “Gaijin Filter” real estate agencies have. What this means, is that the number of properties available for rent plummets once it is mentioned that the tenant would be a foreigner.
Apparently, signs are simply not enough; and sadly, if things do not change, the Japanese government might want to try to enforce stricter rules and fines. If the people carving their names on Arashiyama’s bamboo had been fined 500,000 yen and sent to jail, you bet no one else would be doing the same.
It’s not clear what Japan will do in the future to try to solve the problems some tourists are causing, but what is clear is that the current measures are proving ineffective; and Japan can only be pushed so far before we see stricter rules and bans.