Why can’t Japan attract foreign visitors?
In 2010, even before the devastating earthquake and tsunami, the number of foreign visitors to Japan was just 9.4 million. In the world, Japan ranks 30th in terms of foreign visitors. In Asia, Japan is only the eighth most visited country.
Whenever I return to Narita, Japan’s gateway airport, I see that many foreign passengers are heading straight for transit, bypassing Japan altogether. This trend has been continuing persistently for the past 10 years, since people are increasingly attracted by China and the new Asian powers. After the tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, this trend has become even more visible.
Last week, I took an Austrian Airlines plane from Vienna to Narita. There were hardly any foreign passengers onboard. Almost everyone was Japanese, traveling as part of a package tour.
How can Japan recover its attractiveness? How can Japan get foreign visitors to choose Japan over other destinations?
In the 1980’s I was living in New York. At that time, countless businesspersons in New York were on the waiting list for Japanese language lessons at the Japan Society. And I know countless westerners who came to Japan to work with Japanese companies. However, unfortunately, many of them found the thick barrier of Japan’s so-called exclusive business culture frustrating.
So once Japan began its economic decline, people’s enthusiasm toward Japan easily shifted to China – even though China has a business culture that is even tougher for westerners to accept.
The general consensus is that Japan needs to open up its business culture, or adopt a more global one. In order to do this, Japanese people need to learn not only English but also communication skills for a global environment.
Then how can Japanese people improve their English skills?
To answer this question, we need to see how Japan treats foreign visitors. In other words, we need to examine the degree of consideration that Japan shows these foreign visitors.
Japan is a relatively safe country and a convenient place to get around, thanks to its sophisticated infrastructure. However, the average Japanese person is still quite a poor communicator in English and sometimes this reflects upon the quality of service for foreign visitors.
For example, the shinkansen is a really advanced train – as long as it runs on time. However, once something unusual happens, no English announcement is available, as the conductors don’t speak English. Surprisingly, this problem can even be seen on commercial airplanes.
Japan shows its weakness whenever something unexpected happens, and especially in an emergency. This is particularly troubling for foreigners who don’t understand Japanese. What’s even more problematic is that many Japanese — including government officials — are insensitive to this issue.
This problem can be stretched to include the poor international public relations following the melt down of the Fukushima nuclear plant. Even when the officials in charge spoke English, they employed a style of rhetoric that was still very much Japanese. Because this style is so different from the western one, it was difficult for the foreign media to get the information that they needed and to interpret the opinions being expressed.
It is not just a question of language skills. It is a problem of communication skills . It seems that the Japanese need to recognize this fault and come up with practical solutions to improve their English communication skills.
What really needs to happen is that Japanese people need to change their attitude towards English study. Instead of prioritizing high scores on entrance exams and tests like TOEIC, Japanese students of English should aim to achieve a level where they can communicate effectively with English speakers around the globe. To do this, they need to put less emphasis on textbook rules and more emphasis on understanding the spirit of the language.
Although it is a long path, I think it is still a short cut for creating an environment that prepares Japanese to work effectively on an international stage. And it is the best remedy for turning Japan into a country that can provide practical support and assistance to foreign visitors.