Take our user survey and make your voice heard.

Four areas in which Japan needs to improve if it wants to attract more overseas travelers

By Casey Baseel, RocketNews24

Japan’s National Tourist Organization recently released its statistics on the number of overseas travelers who visited in the country in 2014, and we’re proud to say that 13,413,467 of you came to visit. That number represents almost a 30% increase from the number of foreign tourists Japan received in 2013, and a whopping 60% jump compared to 2012.

Still, Japan only ranks 27th globally in its ability to draw travelers from abroad, making it eighth in Asia, behind world No. 22 Korea and No. 4 China.

So what’s holding Japan back from becoming an even more popular international travel destination? RocketNews24’s non-Japanese staff put our heads together, and after getting over the initial pain from our foreheads violently colliding, came up with the following list of areas Japan could do better in that foreign travelers would definitely appreciate.

1. That pesky language barrier

Japanese is fascinatingly unique, but that doesn’t mean everyone who might be interested in coming to Japan has the time or desire to become proficient in the language before they get on the plane for Narita International Airport. Of course, you could say that the same about a lot of countries, but your chances of being able to fall back on your native tongue are particularly low in Japan.

More Japanese people can speak English now than could in the past, but it’s still not enough to make it easy for overseas visitors. And there are even fewer people n Japan who can speak a foreign language other than English.

If you go to China or Korea, in tourist attractions or shopping areas where there are a lot of foreign travelers, the staff can communicate in a number of languages like English, Chinese, and Japanese. Their grammar and vocabulary might not be correct, but they take the initiative in communicating. I don’t know if people in Japan are embarrassed that they can’t speak fluently, or if they’re just prideful, but I don’t feel like they try to speak other languages. Even if someone is using a broken version of your native language, it’s a big help for travelers.

2. What is this “Japan” you speak of?

For certain travelers, Japan simply isn’t on their radar to begin with.

I think your average person from Europe or North America only has sort of a vague image of Japan. When my family comes to visit me in Japan, I ask them "What do you want to do while you’re here?" The only answer they give is, "No idea. What is there to do?”

Many of my friends say "I never really thought about taking a trip to Japan, because I don’t know anything about the country." I think the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are going to be good publicity, but Japan could also do with more television ads and promotions tailored to foreign markets right now.

3. I’ve got clothing in my suitcase, but what about food and shelter?

For the most part, Japanese hospitality is impeccable, and you’re unlikely to ever be on the receiving end of poor customer service. Some aspects of hotels and restaurants, though, can be a little different from what travelers might be used to in their own home countries.

Full-service hotels can be expensive. Also, a lot of them charge by the person instead of the room, and most ryokan (Japanese inns) work that way.

A lot of fast food and casual restaurants have pictures on their menus, and travelers who can’t read Japanese can use them to order, but some more upscale restaurants don’t have any photos or illustrations. Also, I think if Japan had more halal and vegetarian restaurants, it would make it easier for people with dietary restrictions or preferences to travel in the country.

4. Getting from Point A to Point B

Famous as it is for its well-engineered cars and high-speed trains, Japan isn’t always the easiest country to get around in.

It’s kind of difficult for people who don’t speak Japanese to navigate public transportation systems in Japan. You can avoid that problem by going on a guided group tour, but those kind of package deals aren’t very appealing to younger travelers.

Taxis are expensive to start with, and they add a surcharge for night-time fares. But on the other hand, a lot of the signage in train and subway stations is in Japanese, and for the maps showing all of the lines at the ticket machines, usually only the major stations have their names written in English/Roman alphabet letters. It’s even harder to find English signs or timetables for bus networks.

It’s hard for the elderly or disabled to get around in Japan. Even in big cities like Tokyo, a lot of facilities don’t have escalators or elevators.

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Lost in translation: When all else fails, throw in some gestures -- The top 10 words to describe Japanese people (according to foreigners) -- Our Japanese reporter shares three interesting revelations he had after studying Korean

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

****1. That pesky language barrier

I'll agree that its harder to find Japanese who are fluent in English. In Finland if you can't speak Finnish you're better off speaking English as the majority of the population can speak it. However all the major cities have English alongside the Japanese when it comes to public transportation and maps so its not as if you are faced with signs that are only in Japanese. Its also helpful to learn even just the most basic of Japanese phrases. Or is it too hard for people to say phrases like 'Arigatou Gozaimasu', 'Sumimasen', 'Konnichiwa'. Ohayou Gozaimasu', 'Konbanwa' etc etc.....

****2. What is this “Japan” you speak of?

Put some effort in and do some research into Japan. I find Japan Guide to be a fantastic website for people to information on Japan.

****4. Getting from Point A to Point B Ever heard of Hyperdia? Again, do some research into your trip. Hyperdia will give you the transportation/lines that you need and any transfers you need, as well as the fare. I never had a problem with using transportation in Japan and this included the trains, buses, subway, trams and even ferries!

Well all those points I made is what I did for my first ever trip to Japan. By myself I might add! And I hardly had any issues because I did research into places to visit, transportation and anything else that I tourist might need to know. I also learnt basic Japanese to help assist me along my way.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

There was an article I remember reading that a majority of tourist hotels did not want NJ, and during the World Cup, the media was warning J-women to beware of rape by 'foreigners,'' Just as Tokyo wants to set up an area for foreign investment well outside the major business centers, tourism too, will be limited by where dear Abe wants the 野蛮人 to visit.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Tattoos and bath/pool/gym. The everyday world traveller cannot exercise nor relax. Police "randomly" search foreignors in crowds of Japanese. Any infraction upon a Japanese national is the fault of the non japanese, whomever started the conflict.

Turning away people just because they are not Japanese.

This is Japan's country, not mine....

However, a few stories of this can circulate quite far. Hurting tourism

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Actually, I think the article nailed some aspects, but left off other important considerations. I haven't left NRT to be inside Japan since the 1990s so my experiences may be out of date.

I found Tokyo to be extremely expensive. Then on vacation, I don't intend to stay at a 4-star hotel for $250+/night or eat every meal out for $30/pp.

Japan is famous for raw fish and expensive steaks. Some people DO NOT LIKE IT, especially with their kids. A close relative took her family to Japan in 2010 and her kids all lost weight and were constantly complaining about the food. This is a blessing AND a curse. Japan has many other foods, but those aren't highlighted in the travel advertisements that I've seen. I would loose 7 lbs every week worked in Japan. Just couldn't find enough food that was edible to me in the allowed time. Since then, I've matured as a traveler and see the various foods as a major part of the travel experience, but for many people, they want the same foods from home, especially for b'fast. I remember being very happy to get maple syrup with waffles in Bangkok just last year. It was a nice surprise. Yes, it is stupid, but it made me happy at the time.

Trains and buses need to be just as easy to use for English speakers as for Japanese. Something like an "Octopus card" for all public transport is needed. No more cash. I recall having to carry lots of cash around with me - not just for trains, but to purchase food. I couldn't use the buses at all and taxis only worked if I had a business card for the destination.

The idea that some hotels are not open to foreigners is troubling. Is that still the situation?

Last time I was there, getting from NRT to the hotel was a minibus for almost 3 hrs and $75. Hopefully that has been fixed?

Cell phones - is it trivial to pick up a GSM SIM at the airport for 2 weeks of use for less than $20?

I believe Japan has a free English translation service available by phone. Make that on the front of all tourism advertising.

Earthquakes. For people who aren't from places with Earthquakes, this is a real fear. There was a tiny quake during 1 of my visits at 2am. Don't think any of the locals noticed it at all, but the room was on the 29th floor, I it freaked me out a bit.

There are many things unique to Japan that are different and wonderful. For some travelers, those unknowns will always scare people away. Japan was my first travel overseas and those experiences changed my life. For that, I shall always be grateful to the all the nice people I interacted and worked with for those few years.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The average Japanese person may want the Olympics here but it's just a national pride thing. They don't really want droves of foreigners coming here and the country as a whole seems half-hearted about studying and actually knowing how to speak understandable English. Public transportation is generally good but the services end way too early and even riding the trains can get expensive in a hurry. Taxis are gong to be too expensive for most travelers, I think. As far as the people, I can always tell a Korean, Chinese or non-Japanese Asian in the crowd because they generally don't avoid, stare or turn their back to me for no apparent reason. Regarding no. 3, I still get avoided by certain store clerks and regularly am not asked if I want separate bags, want my stuff heated, would like some chopsticks, etc because they are too busy in their thinking that you can't speak their "difficult" and "unique" language. Even after seeing me in the neighborhood with my wife, and, dressed fairly smartly, many women still wait for me to go out of the station first or cross the street when I am near. I could imagine the panic that would set in if 5 people who looked like me were walking around this backward backwater neighborhood I live in! Japan isn't REALLY changing anytime soon because they don't think they need changing.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Something like an "Octopus card" for all public transport is needed.

Japan has had suica cards since around 2005, and passmo cards since around 2007. You can use either of them on any train (except the bullet train) and bus, and the fares are automatically deducted from the card.

Last time I was there, getting from NRT to the hotel was a minibus for almost 3 hrs and $75.

The Narita express goes from the airport to downtown Tokyo in 1 hour, and costs around 3500 yen (or so). There are buses that go into the city for cheaper, and even the slow train, which takes 90 minutes, costs less than 2000 yen. It sounds like you got ripped off, I've never heard of anyone paying that much or taking that long.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Regarding no. 3, I still get avoided by certain store clerks and regularly am not asked if I want separate bags, want my stuff heated, would like some chopsticks, etc because they are too busy in their thinking that you can't speak their "difficult" and "unique" language.

I think you're over-analysing what is, I'd admit, annoying behaviour. I just don't think there are enough "foreign-looking" people in Japan who can speak Japanese well enough to make it worth the effort. In a touristy area in summer, I reckon it'd be less than one in fifty. Heck, half the native English-speaking foreigners actually resident here can barely manage the basics.

And look at the flip-side. It wouldn't be much to be stuck in a convenience store in, say, Estonia with the clerk demanding "eljneoveoun venedf?"* over and over again....

*not real Estonian!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

You are being unduly harsh on yourself Japan.

I''ve visited half-dozen times and have encountered few problems getting around, fed or housed. Certainly no better or worse than other non-English speaking countries and I know only a few greetings.

Visitors should always do some preparation to get the most out of their stay, as they should for a visit to any foreign country.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Japanese has no desire to interact with a foreigner. Also, the less white you are the less you are actually tolerated or interacted with in a friendly positive manner. If you think I'm wrong or exaggerating then speak with neighboring Asian person and ask about their experiences, especially long term residents. The Japanese government and domestic travel industry talk a big game about wanting foreign visitors to boost tourism and the economy, but the truth is they wish that they could thrive on a Japanese-only model where language and cultural difficulties are kept at a minimum, especially the old guard at the top making the decisions. It is all smoke and mirrors. For the most part the tourism industry providers love your money and would want you to have a pleasant stay, however, from their perspective wouldn't it be great if you could just speak and think like a Japanese then they wouldn't have to deal with all of your cultural differences. They want the foreign visitor to do all of the conforming to a pre-conceived Japanese version of good service, fun things to do, etc. If you are coming from a first world nation, especially western European, then Japan is probably not such a bad deal. If you are visiting from a third world country then Japan is probably outrageously expensive in comparison.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

These are not major points to be worried about as any traveler with a bit of commonsense and an attitude to enjoy a different culture will find it easy in Japan. The only true barrier is cost, however with the yen where it is, cost is no longer an issue. Those that don't like the rules and customs etc, then simply don't come but you will be the poor for not. The truth is Japan is an easy country to travel in, yes language can be a barrier in the country side but in the cities tourist will be ok. Food is inexpensive if you dine locally, transport can be a little expensive, however in return you get get service to most anywhere and its safe (so what's you price on that). Have tattoos and can't go in an onsen, well that's the custom so deal with it and find one that will allow you to relax. Those who have commented that Japanese don't like foreigners and there could be truth in that, however it also applies in other countries so is not unique to Japan, just an excuse by those not getting their way. Again, deal with it as good people will always engage with you.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Japanese people seem to obey this silent rule of the road as if by default. I would say that freer a thinker you are, the more stressful life gets in Japan. The more independent and individualistic you are, the more stressful life gets. If you are good at making inroads with most people, you will find it that much easier.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The topic isn't 'Preparations any traveller needs to make to enjoy themselves in Japan/any country that isn't home', the topic is how Japan can make itself more attractive to overseas visitors.

Advice to 'learn the language/prepare yourself/make more effort/look around for a place that will accept tattoos and/or serve the food you're used to', while probably helpful to the unwary visitor, is off-topic and doesn't help the hapless Japan National Tourist Organisation attract more visitors.

I suppose the article more or less has it: the language, definitely, is a barrier for most people. Mr. Average Suzuki isn't going to learn fluent English overnight, however much we might want him to. The short-term alternative, while language-teaching in the schools gets up to speed and starts churning out fluent linguists (if it ever does) is making sure that there are plenty of street signs, noticeboards, pamphlets, menus, etc., etc., in not only English but other useful languages, in particular Chinese and Korean. On a recent trip to Naha I noticed lots (most?) of the shops and restaurants on Kokusai Dori had fixed themselves up with multilingual shop signs and menus: if the individual small-scale entrepreneurs can do it, there's no reason the government and big businesses can't. For example, there is no excuse for the abysmal 'Cannot have access on the foot' notice (urging people to take a shuttle bus to another terminal instead of trying to walk) that greets visitors arriving at the LCC terminal. There are plenty of native speakers around, ask them to check before you print out your signs and noticeboards.

In other words, Make it Legible and Not Too Much of a Hassle, and They Will Come.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Customer service in Japan while usually good needs to learn to be more flexible than it is. My biggest gripe is hotels who refuse check-in to someone if its a few minutes to an hour early. Some hotels may charge for it but others wont even make that possible and just refuse and force people to wait even though it may be ready.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It’s hard for the elderly or disabled to get around in Japan. Even in big cities like Tokyo, a lot of facilities don’t have escalators or elevators.

If you are disabled, Japan is one of the easiest places to get around. There ARE plenty of elevators in Tokyo, even in surprising locations such as small restaurants. Most doors open automatically in commercial establishments. Taxis drivers are great about assisting with wheelchairs. If there IS a problem people quickly come to assistance.

So that throwaway last point really had zero basis in reality.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Also, the less white you are the less you are actually tolerated or interacted with in a friendly positive manner.

I don't know. Personally I've witnessed many acts of kindness towards tourists from other-Asian countries. Japanese may not especially like them very much, but they are good at keeping their feelings to themselves.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The allure of Japan as a tourist destination is that it is so different, not another generic destination.

The issues listed will be resolved by technology soon enough, though, so all JNTO need to shout from the rooftops is "We're affordable and open for business!"

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I've been to Japan a lot since 2006 and I've never encountered problems getting around. If I get lost I find a koban and ask. Trains normally have English announcements. I can read Hiragana and Katakana so stations aren't an issue 99% of the time.

This year I will be using a Japanese SIM in my iPhone so I can now fully utilise all of those apps I downloaded a couple of years ago.

If I had to ask for anything it would be this: please install western style toilets everywhere. That's my one fear - being caught short and having to use a hole in the floor - I can't squat with my knees!

Oh, and ban all smoking in cafes and restaurants... including izakaya.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

My wife and I, from Australia, have travelled to Japan twice in the past 2 years, and are starting to plan our next trip. We spend 4-5 weeks there each time and simply plan which order of cities we will stay for throughout the trip. We book on-line, organise train passes, and simply love it. The language barrier can be overwhelming at times, however we still walk through the back streets of the cities and have "quasi" conversations with the local residents. We don't do Tours as we want to see Japan at our own pace and not from a bus window. We find most train stations have sufficient English signs to get by, but if in doubt talk with the staff. Nagasaki was the most frustrating train station we went to, even for the Japanese themselves. It is no imposition to respect a country's traditions when visiting, and if you bother to look deeper, you may actually learn something. If you don't pre-plan every minute of your day, it is amazing what you find and learn by accidently getting on to the wrong train. Simply take it all in and grow from the experience. The trains are so efficient that you will never really get lost. I found Japan far easier to get around and get food and immaculate service than 18 months in China 13 years ago. A few more English signs and it would be a bit easier, but before complaining, think about your interactions with foreigners in your own country.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

People from Europe don't have Japan on their list of holiday destinations as it's so expensive to get there. I also think that if foreigners felt more welcome outside the bland tourist areas - not being stared at like a zoo exhibit, not being turned way from businesses, not viewed as potential criminals - then maybe Europeans would make an effort to visit. Not everyone wants to be herded around on a guided tour and many want more than just the tourist traps.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites