Our local bar is a small Irish pub, a two-floor place converted from a traditional soba noodle restaurant that generally attracts only those living in the vicinity. It lets us bring our dog in, so we often end up there for quiet drinks. One recent night, we headed upstairs and there, sat in the corner, were four new people, two Japanese women and two British men, one heavily tattooed. The guy with ink looked like a dubstep producer or some other sort of young creative, new in town and here for a limited time, getting shown around by assistants that would later take him to his gig. The Japanese women were behaving like assistants.
When we sat, our dog, Baz, kept wandering over to be fussed, and it became clear they were not creatives in town for a gig, or whatever, but tourists, plain and simple. The women had met them in a bar in Shibuya, presumably a Hub, and invited them to go for a drink in an area off the general tourist circuit. Here they were, in what I assume the women thought tourists would consider the Real Japan … a suburban place for foreigners to drink in an Irish or British sort of atmosphere.
Me and my wife kept to ourselves as the evening continued. The other guy, the one who didn’t look like a dubstep producer, became increasingly vocal, in an accent that can only be described as student — definitely British, but of an indefinite place, with elements of northern, southern and public school, likely the result of the diversity of kids from all over the country who get together at the same time at the impressionable age of 18 or so.
His voice grew in proportion to the number of pints he had drank. He began describing his favorite comedy to the two women, complete with quotes of parts of the script he had memorized. We had a warning against this in the late 90s, when the Fast Show’s I’m an Alien Guy made everyone aware of the dangers of quoting their favorite TV shows. Tragically, by 2016, the Fast Show’s message has been lost. These are the dark times we live in.
Tourists such as those I endured in my local have brought to me revelation: I have given in to the sort of Not In My Back Yard thoughts that I once associated with only Daily Mail reading Brits and the whitest of white America. Those conversations I once sneered at, about saving the British sausage and serving only the freedom fry, I am now having. The tourists have arrived in Japan, and they brought me out in a rash of nimbyism.
We left the bar, commented on how annoying the tourist was and wondered what motivated the women in bringing the two guys there. Would a Japanese place not be better? Whatever. We were moaning about tourists coming into our area and disturbing the peace and quiet. We are not alone. Japan is finally on the tourist map, not somewhere that simply talks about attracting visitors without ever bringing them in, and all residents face the consequences.
About 20 million or so visitors are coming through Japan’s airports annually, and that is the beginning. The government aims to attract 40 million tourists a year by 2020. This is having effects that with hindsight should have been predictable.
Ginza, once a shopping district for the well-healed, today throngs with Chinese seeking out bargains; coaches for shipping the tourists in and out line the bottom of its main drag. Other areas face a similar fate. Golden Gai, which has been a “secret” place to go for a drink since at least 2002 when I arrived (do people think because the bars are small they are secret?), increasingly is talked about by long-term expats lamenting the decline of the area. Business hotels, once the refuge of stinky middle-aged businessmen in town for short stints, are now tourist spots as beds at higher-end places are snapped up early.
Dragging out the old cliche that Tokyo is changing really isn’t enough to explain what is happening this time. Tourists are revolutionizing the city. This is touted as one of the few policy successes for the current government. That’s fine, but if the rise to 40 million is to happen, there are a number of areas where improvements in policy will be needed.
In tandem with the growth in tourist numbers, Airbnb and other minpaku (unlicensed short stay accommodations) have emerged. They operate in a legal not-so-gray area. Any residence in Japan accepting people to stay for fewer than 30 days needs to get a license by law. Most landlords are ignoring this rule, which has led to a problem of enforcement: How do you shut down so many places, or choose which ones to put out of business? Do you want to be the person that does that? Where will all the people staying in these places sleep instead? Osaka recently prohibited one apartment from accepting tourists. Weather balloons fielded to the Japanese press have suggested that Airbnb residences will be able to operate legally for 180 days per year.
Other issues include the use of credit cards. When and where can they be used and when is cash necessary? Most of us long-term Japan residents know to carry a couple of ten thousand yen notes if going out for a big night, but tourists do not. They are used to living in places where cash long ago lost out to plastic on Friday night drinking sessions. One moaning person on the Internet was berated by most of Japan’s foreign social media community when he complained about a bar in Kyoto not accepting credit cards nor his foreign currency. Of course, the guy comes across as a stupid tourist, trying to hand over dollars to pay for a bill in Geisha Central, but his problem is real. How many times have I come unstuck over the years because of the weird rule that bans ATM transactions on Sunday nights? And the reality is, the increasing number of tourists in no way means that small and medium size businesses will be moving over to plastic payments any time soon. They will still be run by the same older people. And tourists will still feel uncomfortable wandering around with hundreds of dollars in yen stuffed in their wallets. Old habits die hard.
Tourists also face issues with communication and accessibility. Shibuya Station was in the last couple of years refurbished and now is as difficult to navigate as a complicated level of Donkey Kong or an MC Escher painting. Locals find it difficult to get around the station, and despite apps offered, tourists also struggle. Taxi drivers often do not know their way around the city as well as their London counterparts, strictly tested on The Knowledge, do. This is all on top of the language barrier that is impossible to overcome during a year or two in the country, never mind a short stay. I wrote about recent efforts to improve accessibility and the potential for going further here and here. Still, the city is not there yet though. It can, and will, do more to open up to tourists, but as it does, the intangible contours of Tokyo will change and residents will feel the effects.
Back to the bar and my nimbyism. I was a douche. Anyone should be able to drink where they want. But we all feel it when our places are visited by outsiders. Is it the start of a coming invasion? And like me, we all know we need to calm down when we start fretting about these things.
Tokyo though, is made up of tens of millions of people who manage to get by in spite of the complicated nature of the urban space they reside or work in. I love the city in part because the way it manages to function defies the odds. But tourists are slowly eroding Tokyo’s smooth operation and leading many areas of the country to show an uglier side. Handbooks teaching foreigners what not to do are among the worst manifestations so far of the increasingly difficult relationship between locals and visitors (it is noteworthy the plenty of Japanese people violate the national etiquette and always have, just as people do anywhere in the world). Complaints about bakugai — the act of buying up everything in sight — come a close second. Improve your logistics and leave the tourists alone.
Japan’s bureaucrats have an answer: omotenashi. This catch-all term describes the way Japanese are supposed to act around tourists. Roughly, it translates as a combination of politeness and hospitality. A celebrity called Christel Takigawa used the term to describe why Tokyo should host the Olympics, media spread the word and bureaucrats decided it was a solution.
What is omotenashi in real life? The mind boggles. Officials have tried to explain it to me, in both English and Japanese, and ended up confused themselves. But as one admitted, Tokyo does not have the cash to become the sort of accessible city that the Olympic Games and tourist boom require without all chipping in and helping others in need. Public transport facilities outside the center of Tokyo cannot all be upgraded, for example. So omotenashi it is.
The omotenatshi solution has a problem. At root, it relies on the majority of Japanese accepting a request from officials and following it blindly for as long as the tourists keep coming. It needs people to buy in to the idea of a visitor-heavy Japan and accept that this comes with duties. It also requires people to look at what their government has done by attracting the tourists in droves, and view it is good for them and good for the country. Even in their own back yards.
Japan is by no means Afghanistan, tourists here face no Taliban. The police are not going to start asking backpackers for bribes. And the pickpockets of Europe are unlikely to emerge. But as visitors grow in number, so will the nimbyism. More and more will tire of being welcoming to tourists as they effect their everyday lives.