The Shifting Image of Japan In International Eyes
Updated: Feb 15
How the pandemic and economics have affected everyone from shop owners to students
Article By Anne K.D. Fletcher '25 July 12, 2022
Something has been nagging at me since arriving in Kyoto for my summer internship: how quiet everything is. Having visited Kyoto every other year since 2014, year after year witnessing the swell/influx of tourists into the city. My observations are not unfounded. According to the JTB Tourism Research and Consulting Company, foreign tourists in Japan increased from approx. 13,000,000 overseas visitors to approx 32,000,000 overseas visitors from 2014 to 2019. This number plummeted in 2020 down to just four million with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, it was even smaller, just a quarter of a million visits. This change is palpable to the everyday resident of Kyoto. Even when walking around Gion Shijo with a friend, we were able to walk without navigating around crowds and were able to find places to sit at almost all of the little cafes we frequented. The small number of foreign visitors also walking with us were likely comprised of the small group of exceptions to the ban on foreigners entering the country, such as those with business and study visas. Entries under these visas, which can be difficult to obtain, have been further limited to 20,000 people a day.
From my conversations with people in industries strongly dependent on tourism such taxi drivers and bartenders and those not directly affected it has become clear that they share a positive attitude towards this change of pace. Not having hordes of tourists clog streets and cultural sites has allowed people to take a step back and enjoy the city that they call home.
Of course, this drastic change has also had negative effects on the economy. According to Tosh Horie, the owner of the Scottish pub An Tigh Seinnse in Kyoto, bars have suffered measurably worse than restaurants and pubs, as after dinner drinking became more taboo due to fears of the virus. Even though locations like his that serve food are less affected, he says “I have felt the bitter effects of the decrease in customers. I believe that this is not just an issue of Covid, but an issue of the Japanese economic shrinking as a whole.” Stores and shops that almost solely rely on both foreign and domestic tourists have also suffered. As a result, Horie stipulates that “There is a need for a certain amount of foreign tourists, but at the same time the health and wellbeing of residents here should also be taken into account.”
This seems to be a commonly held attitude, and it is easy to understand why. As a country, Japan relies significantly on tourism to bring in cash. Domestic tourism does take up a large part of this sector, with the overall money spent on tourism in Japan only dropping by half between 2019 and 2021, as opposed to the 99.3% decrease in foreign tourism during that same time period. The trillions of yen spent by both foreign and domestic tourists supports the entire economy, from governmental spending to wages for jobs, and everything in between. In short, this money is essential to the prosperity of everyone from waiters and shop owners to larger companies. Recently, the Japanese government announced plans to bolster funding for its GoToTravel program starting this summer to increase the number of domestic tourists. The program, which subsidizes travel and lodging for tourists, was put on pause in 2020 due to a rise in covid cases across the country. Though this program will likely increase domestic tourism, it is unlikely that it will fill the gap left by the lack of tens of millions of foreign tourists.
The consequences of this situation have become more and more apparent with the steep weakening of the yen. Not surprisingly, as an attempt to boost the economy, the Japanese government has begun to allow a certain number of foreign tourists to enter the country starting June 10th, albeit in a specific collection of tour groups. This system allows for the blame for increased covid cases to fall onto the backs of tour companies, not the Japanese government or tourists who might be perceived as not knowing any better. The reason for this structure is understandable. With the increase in COVID cases in Okinawa as a result of American military personnel not following protocol, the image that foreigners cannot be trusted to follow the systematic rules was ingrained forever. Certainly, this is the safe way to approach new tourism as it does not promise too much, as a full opening would. If a new variant emerges and Japan decides to shut its border again, then it is not so much of a shock anymore as hopes were not raised in the first place.
However, one aspect of allowing tourists that is not often addressed is how this affects other prospective visitors to Japan, some of whom intend to study at programs that are separate from Universities. Participating in such programs allows them to be categorized as cultural exchange students as opposed to students on student visas. For example, Ana Mundaca, a recent graduate of Harvard College, is still waiting to hear if she will be able to enter Japan in August for her ten-month-long language learning program at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. These kinds of programs are crucial to strengthening the ties between not just Japan and America but also Japan and the world. Though in Japan there is a strong push to get Japanese students to speak English, there is no such push from the American or global education system. It is because of this that the students who do choose to study and dedicate themselves to the monumental task of becoming professionally fluent in Japanese should be supported on all sides, as it is ultimately them who will be the ones creating international connections in places of government, education, or in business.
Of course, people such as these may not be of interest to the average Japanese voter, which is why perhaps the government has taken such a conservative stance on such issues. In short, this situation poses a great challenge for the Japanese government. Either way a sacrifice must be made to ensure the prosperity of Japan's economy, and thus its citizens. However, it is clear that this current mode of operation is not only unsustainable for the Japanese economy but also for the strength of its stance within the international community, and that further steps need to be taken to ensure the continued cultural and economic dialogue between Japan and the world.