With Japan set to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and increase the tourist flow to up to 25 million a year by then, the government is avidly pushing forward various projects to make the country more inviting and hospitable for inbound travelers. But many things are yet to be done, argues Yoshiaki Nakamura, the CEO of Japan Inbound Solutions (JIS), a spinoff of the discount chain Don Quijote, launched in 2013 to promote inbound tourism to Japan and educate local businesses on the know-how of inbound marketing.
With an impressive background of expanding Don Quijote’s inbound revenue sales by over 40 times during his eight years at the company, Nakamura now stands at the frontline of Japan’s inbound marketing by reaching out to municipalities and private enterprises in a bid to make Japan a more “tourist-friendly nation.”
Nakamura takes time to meet Japan Today to discuss where Japan’s inbound market stands and what is yet to be done.
While inbound marketing was just a department within Don Quijote, now it’s a company on its own. What led to the establishment of JIS?
At present, Don Quijote has approximately 310 stores in Japan, with most of them centered in Tokyo and Osaka. While most tourists are likely to visit those two cities, they won’t visit stores in the countryside unless we strategically invite them to. In order for this to be achieved, we found it necessary to establish an independent platform for long-term cooperation with smaller cities and promote them and our services internationally. This wasn’t an easy task for Don Quijote alone, because it involves increased research on various tourism-related information –– hotels, restaurants, sightseeing venues, for example. That’s why we created a spinoff company that would focus only on tackling that.
What exactly does JIS focus on?
We do everything related to expanding the Japanese inbound market, from education seminars targeting Japanese companies, local businesses and tourism associations, to overseas promotions, developing multilingual customer services, including launching 365-day, 24-hour video call centers for all Don Quijote stores, and everything in between. Atpresent, we have alliances with over 700 travel agencies around the world, mainly in Asia and the ASEAN region, through which we promote various tourism services to Japan.
How would you evaluate the current Japanese inbound market?
There’s a long way ahead. In my opinion, Japan is still just on the starting line. Maybe not even there. The country is still in the preparation phase. There are too many places in the Japanese countryside that shy away from foreigners. Outside the big cities, Japan remains a rather closed society. There’s a general sense among locals of not wanting foreigners to come, because they fear that the community may be damaged as a result of increased tourism. Despite the reality that many small cities in the countryside are practically dying, it’s difficult for many people to accept foreign tourism. We need to tackle that mentality problem first before moving ahead.
What does Japan need to do in order to increase tourism?
As I mentioned, first it’s necessary to change people’s mentality. At present, many Japanese people refrain from welcoming foreigners into their communities for the simple reason that they don’t know much about foreigners. They still carry that impression that there’s a language gap, that there are cultural differences and so on. In order to provide a real platform for welcoming more foreigners and give them a true tourist experience, we need to change that way of thinking. I believe that this will be achieved by the time we host the Olympics.
Regarding more practical issues, there’s the necessity to promote the use of credit cards everywhere in Japan, even in small cities; put English on all public signs throughout the country, including buses, city boards and streets. We can tackle all these issues through continuous training, symposiums and workshops as we do at JIS. We do that across Japan and we’re reaching up to 40,000 people a year.
What do you teach at your workshops?
That businesses shouldn’t divide tourists into “Japanese” and “Foreigners.” That all customers are equal. Japan is a very manual-based society. Japanese people love working in a triangle –– product, service, operation. We’re very good at polishing up every product until it’s perfect. However, there’s a more important concept to this triangle –– true hospitality –– that requires flexibility and that’s where Japanese people are not good at. True hospitality means providing what the other party wants and that requires observation and communication. Japanese people are not good at making eye contact or initiating small talk, for example –– it’s not listed on any manuals. These kind of things are what we discuss in our seminars and workshops, and so far it has been going well. People are surprised to hear that these small things make a huge difference.
If you were Japan’s prime minister, what would you do to change the current inbound market?
I would first instruct the education minister to change the English education system in Japan. We need to promote oral English education, not focus on grammar. Japanese kids are taught to think that there’s only one answer. We need to get kids involved with inbound tourists more, so that they can experience spoken English. The next thing I would do is make it easy for foreigners to come to work in Japan in their field of expertise. We shouldn’t employ foreigners just because they speak different languages. We need to use their skills.
What do you think of increasing foreign employment? Does Japan need it?
Absolutely. Half of our staff here at JIS are foreigners. We have staff from France, Malaysia, China, Korea and other countries. If we don’t have global insight in the actual workforce, Japan can’t easily change its mentality. It has to come from the inside.
What is a decisive issue for you when hiring foreigners at JIS?
I always focus on their personality and motivation the most.
Which of the countries you have visited so far has had the biggest impact on you and why?
I’m traveling abroad every month to various countries. But one of the countries that really impresses me is France. The French people have great pride in their culture and they don’t sell it cheaply. The French cuisine and wine are one of the best in the world, but it’s not cheap –– yet, no one complains about that. Many Japanese think that making things cheap is important for increasing customers and winning over rivals, but that’s not necessarily the case. A good comparison is the gyudon (beef bowl) market. It gets cheaper and cheaper until the point that salaries shrink altogether. That’s bad for the economy overall.
Japan has been pushing for 24 hour-services in various sectors and Don Quijote’s stores are not an exception. How do you approach work-life balance at JIS?
Everyone is free to enjoy their lives. We encourage employees to go out, travel, explore. If they don’t do that, they can’t understand tourists’ needs. I enjoy my life everyday. Work is also my hobby, so I’m not really sure where to draw the line between private life and work, because I’m constantly meeting people who are related to my job. We go out together, dine together and I enjoy their company. We also do intercultural exchange activities and monthly or bimonthly meetings with our staff here. We buy beer at Don Quijote, have catering services and enjoy exchanging information over good food and drinks.
What are your dreams for the next 10 years?
I’d like to build an academy where I can train and educate young people to become more internationalized and global thinkers. I’m working on this already.
What country would you like Japan to become after the Olympics?
I would like to see the inbound tourism become a leading industry and a regular concept of the Japanese economy and daily life. We shouldn’t end just at the Olympics. The Games should be a start that should lead to a continuous goal of making Japan a truly international society.
Let us take you back to Don Quijote for a bit. What do you think attracts foreigners to the Don Quijote stores?
One of the main things about it is the time it operates. For many foreigners, especially those from Asia, the fun starts after dinner. They may go to watch a movie after dinner or go shopping. Don Quijote is the only chain that provides entertaining night shopping at low cost, apart from convenience stores, and I think that is what appeals to travelers.
We’ve always wondered how did you come up with the Don Quijote mascot? Why is it a penguin?
The official name of our mascot is “Moon Donpen.” Donpen always sits on a moon, which is a references to our working hours –– the stores are open even at night. After we decided on having the moon as part of our mascot, we thought that the best color to fit the moon is midnight blue. When we started deliberating about what animal could fit into that image, we agreed on a penguin, because it’s aquatic. At this time of the year, I get this question a lot, but what Donpen is wearing isn’t a Christmas hat, it’s a night cap that happens to be red. So, before Donpen became our mascot, he was sleeping in his bed with his night cap on when he heard of this store that is open late at night. He went to check it out and had so much fun there, so he decided to stick with us and become our mascot.© Japan Today