Before we dive into the topic, a little bit of context:
In the year 2010, the Japan Tourism Agency set a new goal: they wanted 30 million of visitors from the year 2014 onwards. In that year “only” 8.6 million people visited Japan. 2012 rolled in and flights started to get cheaper. Almost suddenly, coming to Japan ceased being a luxury and became more of an approachable idea. I remember my first trip to Japan. It was September of 2014, the flights were fairly expensive (and they lost our luggage on the way back). Despite that, our visit to Japan was absolutely incredible and settled our goal of coming to live here. #NailedIt!
2017 and 2018 came very close to the 30 million of visitors the Japan Tourism Agency wanted. 2018 also brought even more change: the government passed a controversial bill allowing more overseas workers in Japan. This was met with a bit of fear by the locals but also, apparently, by the foreign visitors. More of that later.
The most obvious case that sparks reluctance is Kyoto. Once known as THE destination to have “an authentic experience”, is now crowded with tourists. Not only that, they are sometimes bothersome and even borderline criminal. Kyoto is suffering the litter, the public transport congestion, overpopulation and the overbooking of accommodations. And some of the locals are not so convinced that the money the visitors leave is enough to compensate for all the inconveniences. Me neither, to be honest.
In early 2019 the Government decided to charge each visitor with a 1000￥ tax, in order to help repair and strengthen infrastructures, and make tourism more bearable. It’s probably not enough but definitely a step on the right direction. This measure of course rubbed some people the wrong way, because ugh paying, like, real moneyyyy. But I digress.
Long story short, Japan went from 8M visitors in 2010 to probably, 30M visitors and 345,000 new foreign workers in 2019. Plus, let’s not forget the 2020 Olympic Games and the people coming along with them. It’s a lot. I see why some locals are bracing for impact.
Japan went from 8M visitors in 2010 to probably, 30M visitors and 345,000 new foreign workers in 2019.
Japan is an island country that has been isolated from good part of the rest of the world. It has a polite society sitting on a comfortable middle class, in which you can leave your jacket on an unsupervised chair without fear of it being stolen in 10 seconds (true story, it happened to me in Barcelona. Damn I LOVED that jacket). The disruption of the status quo creates some really big waves here.
So, from a place of understanding as much as I can, I support the locals. Despite being a foreign Tokyo citizen, I do live and pay my taxes here so I also endure some tourist discomfort. I also not so secretly fret the 2020, knowing that commuting is probably going to be hell on Earth.
But –and it’s a big but– let’s be clear: Japan WANTED the Olympic Games. Japan WANTED the 30 million visitors. Japan NEEDS the foreigner working force. None of these circumstances where sought after by evil foreigner forces in a conspiracy to kill virgin Japan. Now the locals will have to deal with the product of their rightfully elected government and say with their voice and vote if they agree or not. That’s how I, personally, understand it. You know, politics.
This is what I don’t get. Enter the foreigners affected by what I call “Edo Playground Syndrome” (EPS). The symptoms include saying things like:
- Ugh Japan is not the same anymore, when I came here in 1786…
- If you go to Japan you MUST go to Kyoto to have an authentic experience.
- You can’t walk around X Yokocho anymore… SO MANY non-Japanese. Ew.
- I found my inner zen at Arashiyama bamboo forest…
You get the drill. Often, when I interact with people affected by EPS they magically forget that I am, myself, a non-Japanese living in Japan and complain about how non-Japanese are all bringing doom and despair on their defenseless Edo Playground. How the sight of foreigner faces worsen their virgin Japan experience, how the country must not embrace any kind of change at any cost, not even human rights in some cases! Hint: gender gap.
Let’s be clear, Japan WANTED the Olympic Games. Japan WANTED the 30 million visitors. Japan NEEDS the foreigner working force.
These people usually don’t live in Japan for extended periods. They travel to Japan and come to Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara, for 10 days, preferably in peak sakura bloom period. And when they come, they want a pristine virgin Japan experience. But Japan is not able to provide the Edo Playground package anymore, and they are disappointed. As if Japan was not a living, functioning, changing society, like the rest of the world. How dare Japan try to embrace other ethnicities, how dare they consider western improvements! This is not what they signed up for on their two week holiday trip, and it must be stopped. By the way, all the other tourists coming in peak sakura season should also spontaneously implode and disappear in a cloud of cherry blossom petals. Not them though, they are the true avengers of Japan that know better than anyone else.
Enter Spain (because I’m Spanish): I’ve seen the foreign winds of change coming strong and shaking the Spanish society in irreversible ways. LGBTQ rights? Immensely benefited from foreigner influence. Entering the EU? Win-win situation. Study abroad programs? Incredibly popular and valuable for college graduates. Is Spain less Spain because you share a bar with German visitors in Sevilla? Is Barcelona less Barcelona because Korean people come to see La Sagrada Familia?
You know what? At the end of the day, our answers don’t matter. The fact is, this is the new normal and there’s not much we can do about it. Globalization is as real as Global Warming and the only way we can modify it is by making the best out of it.
And how much will the new mixed and non-Asian generations of Japanese people will benefit of change! No more staring in the train, say what!? Imagine a Japan that doesn’t require transgender people to be sterilized before changing sex. Imagine a Japan where all kinds of birth control are not taboo and widely available. Imagine a Japan dropping the blackface. Imagine a Japan that embraces multiculturalism. Imagine a Japan with multitude of vegan, halal, vegetarian and gluten free options. A japan that recognizes same sex marriage. Also, this is rare but, apparently, did happen: Imagine a Japan in which every school accepts all kinds of hair color.
In my opinion, your wish of having an undiluted, all Japanese Edo Experience on your trip does not weight more than the needs of ALL the people that live here every day.
The mixing of Japanese society with non-Japanese has already been happening for years. There are mixed race kids here, I see them every day! And I want acceptance for them. I see mixed and non-Japanese couples trying their best like all of us, and I want acceptance for them. I also see myself spending my life here and I definitely don’t welcome anyone saying my presence makes their Golden Gai drinking experience worse.
Are you affected by the Edo Playground Syndrome? Or maybe, you know someone with the symptoms? Try these:
- Visit Japan in a less comfortable or spectacular season. How about February or November? Definitely less tourists.
- Skip the Tokyos, Kyotos and Naras and discover the incredible rest of the country. Have you ever been to Ehime or Niigata?
- Choose to travel sustainbly and be aware of the carbon footprint of your trip. Global warming is bringing a lot of damage to Japan.
- You can also try to learn a bit about the country’s customs before coming to Japan for the first time. Example: there aren’t garbage bins everywhere, you need to carry your waste.
In my opinion, a wish of having an undiluted, all Japanese Edo Experience on your trip does not weight more than the needs of ALL the people that live here every day.
Fortunately, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many foreign visitors that go the extra mile while being considerate to (all) the people that live in Japan. There’s also so many incredible people making content that brings you closer to the real Japan!
In conclusion, thinking of Japan as a developed country formed by normal human beings with normal struggles, wishes and needs, is always a good idea. Indulge me to finish this piece with this sort of silly pun (sorry): Please, don’t think of Japan as a bonsai that needs trimming to keep frozen in time for anyone’s viewing pleasure. 🙂