The In-between Years
For the last two decades I have mostly experienced Japan as a frequent visitor- a tourist, an in-betweener. Not ascribing to a clear identity when in Japan has had its benefits. As a visitor you are treated as such. As a visitor you can fluff your lines now & then- ignore some of the more stuffy rules- and not offend (in most cases!).
Until recently my fellow travellers & I were even easy to count. I represented a minority in the early 90’s when I arrived in Japan. As a spritely 19-year old not only did I climb Mt. Fuji in runners – but more stand-out I was a visitor!
When my kind hosts probed as to why I was visiting Japan I never seemed to give them the answer they had hoped for. It seemed that if I wasn’t a mad fan of the tea ceremony or had a lifelong interest in creating Haiku poetry I somehow fell foul of any particular category. No wonder. At that time Japan ranked behind Bulgaria & Ukraine as a tourist location- the 34th visited location in the world- and was to remain there for the good part of a decade.
The Now of Japan
Today Japan is the 12th visited country in the world. An estimated 28 million people visited last year and the growth shows no signs of abating. The country is braced to receive 40 million visitors in 2020. China being on the doorstep has contributed to this growth. But so to has the ease of access- visas & flights- and information in the language of our choice. The quiet minority comprised of outsiders & in-betweeners are now functioning as emissaries of Japan sharing travel tips & insights to a hungry global audience. Not to mention the natural beauty of Japan and natural kindness of its people.
The next two years will however be telling. With the Rugby World Cup planned for 2019 and the Olympics planned for 2020 the stars have aligned for Japan to showcase itself to the world.
How will Japan respond?
The growth in tourism has been sudden. For a nation that deliberately isolated itself from the world as recently as 1853 and for whom overseas travel was only liberalised since 1964- there are challenges ahead. How to deal with non-Japanese in-betweeners in numbers never seen before in Japan’s long history. But there are precedents- albeit on a different scale.
1964 was a year of immense pride. A revitalised Japan welcomed the world to the Tokyo Olympics. Japan re-entered the world as a peaceful, economically confident nation. For anyone who has become jaded about the glorification of athletes or the commercialisation of sport you need only dip into the “Tokyo Olympiad” for instant relief. Kon Ichikawa’s documentary of the events of 1964 are a visual reminder of our shared humanity. Take a look and book your flight for 2020.
The Next Two Years- What to expect?
I was here in 2002. The lead-in to the FIFA World Cup held in Japan & Korea was as eventful as the games. Public lectures were given on the subject of hooliganism. Hooligan insurance was even offered to shop-owners. Beer vending machines were uprooted from their al fresco locations to safer indoor spots. Even the guy who oddly was able to sell psychedelic mushrooms from an outdoor stand in Shibuya was asked to move. The Irish bar I used to work at was surrounded by riot police – the only assault being to their ears as they endured days of Irish supporters songs. Japan largely got it wrong on the preparations but almost flawless on the welcome.
The black spot? The largely invisible but very real homeless of Japan were evicted from areas where supporters would gather. Already some of Japan’s homeless have been forcibly removed to clear the path for the International Olympic Committee’s inspection visit. Perhaps we need another documentary to remind us of our shared humanity.
But there is a building excitement for the Olympics. As far as I can see the Rugby World Cup has yet to muster the same level of interest- which might be a blessing for those who turn up.
After all the Olympics have so far brought the dearth of leadership in Japanese politics into stark relief. Bungled ideas after bungled ideas have been given life only to falter. Introducing “Daylight Saving Time” for several weeks was mooted (and soon dropped) as an answer to the searing heat in which athletes will be asked to run a marathon. The water in Tokyo Bay – venue for the triathlon- in tests last year had E.Coli as much as 20 times the accepted limit.
Not to mention the cost which is expected to exceed 20 billion dollars!
But this is Japan. Whole towns have got together to see how they can turn into a conglomerate of home-stays for foreign visitors. Orientations for over 100,000 Olympics volunteers are being planned. Official Japan might bungle but unofficial Japan is likely to enjoy its moment in the sun. And for us in-betweeners that’s all that matters. You’ve seen the documentary- be part of the next one.
See you in two years!