Japan woos visitors with free tours, fine dining

Just the 30th favorite nation to visit, Japan hopes to boost tourism – and the economy.

Takehiko Kambayashi
Say ‘Tokyo’!: Tourists in Japan’s capital pose with women dressed as characters from ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’ Some say the film helped attract more foreigners, especially Americans, to Japan.
Takehiko Kambayashi
A guide tells visitors from Hong Kong about the Imperial Palace.

Last November, the eminent Michelin Guide awarded 191 stars to 150 restaurants in Tokyo – far more than 65 stars that restaurants in Paris, the previous record-holder, had.

It was an unexpected selling point for Japan, which on Jan. 20 launched its fourth annual campaign to attract more tourists. The government hopes that a strengthened tourism industry will boost the economy, especially amid growing concerns about how badly US economic problems might affect Japan.

The six-week promotion period, called "Yokoso (Welcome) Japan Weeks," is part of a goal set in 2003 to double the number of foreign tourists to 10 million by 2010. "I would like people from overseas to visit Japan and to gain momentum for economic revitalization," said then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

About 8.3 million tourists visited Japan last year. Nine million people are expected this year. But Japan has a long way to go: New York City alone received 8.5 million foreign visitors in 2007.

At home, the government faces a longstanding ambivalence toward foreigners. A 2003 survey shows that, while 48 percent of those polled would like to see more foreign tourists, 32 percent don't. About 90 percent of them blame increased tourism for a "rise in crimes committed by foreigners."

To break down barriers and woo tourists, the Japanese government has been distributing pamphlets and coupons, participating in international exhibitions, and offering discount tours.

It also organizes free walking tours on the weekends. A tour guide takes a small group of tourists – as few as two to five people – and shows them around popular sites around a city, such as the Imperial Palace and Akihabara (known as "electric town") in Tokyo. Similar tours are offered in Kyoto and Nagoya.

On top of the government's outreach efforts, the divisions overseeing tourism within the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism will be upgraded to a bureau in October. Their collective budget is expected to increase from the current $60 million – about the cost of constructing just one mile of highway, according to Shiro Komatsu, research director at Mitsubishi Research Institute Inc.

Boosting foreign-language skills has been another goal, since the language barrier is one of the main difficulties tourists say they face in Japan. Osaka Prefecture, for example, has trained more than 1,000 volunteers over the past three years; its staff can now accommodate seven foreign languages.

Japan's recruiting drive comes at a time when the country is faced with several lingering diplomatic issues. Its whale hunting near Antarctica has drawn international criticism.

The United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and the European Union have adopted resolutions condemning Japan's World War II practice of "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery.

Diplomatic tensions exist closer to home, too. Many citizens of China and Korea, who make up almost three-quarters of Japan's tourists, hold lingering resentment because of Japanese aggression during the early 20th century.

Japan's relations with both of those countries suffered when Mr. Koizumi, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, made repeated, highly symbolic visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which memorializes millions of Japanese soldiers as well as several Class A war criminals from World War II, including Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.

Still, more than 5 million tourists from Asian countries visited in 2006. Many Japanese are working to win these and other foreigners over. "We would like [foreign travelers] to know Japanese people and then we would like to communicate with them," says Kenpei Sumida, a manager at Tokyo City Guide Club, a volunteer group that offers free walking tours as part of the campaign. "Even though it is a short period of time, it is always good to meet with guests from overseas. We would like them to go home with heartwarming memories."

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