Japan’s mission to boost the number of overseas visitors suffered a setback this week after hundreds of hoteliers and inn owners said they would turn away foreign guests.
Of the 7,068 hotels and inns that responded to a survey by the communications ministry, 62% had received at least one foreign guest last year, while 38%, or 2,655 establishments, had received none. Of that number, 72% said they would prefer their doors to remain closed to non-Japanese.
The results were published only days after Japan’s newly formed tourist agency said it planned to increase the number of foreign visitors to 10 million by the end of the decade, compared with 8.35 million last year. It then hopes to double the number to 20 million by 2020.
Many cited language problems, while others said they did not have the facilities for foreign guests, although what that actually meant wasn’t specified. Some said they would be unable to respond properly if any problems involving foreigners arose on their premises.
Smaller hotels and traditional inns, called ryokan, are most reluctant to court the international tourist yen.
In theory at least, the country’s thousands of ryokan, often located deep in the mountains or near the coast, are supposed to offer old-fashioned hospitality: faultless service, rooms with sliding paper screens and tatami-mat floors, communal hot spring baths and exquisitely presented local delicacies.
“The survey sheds light on a pretty dark part of Japan,” said Debito Arudou, an American-born naturalised Japanese citizen.
Arudou, the author of a book on racial discrimination in his adopted country, called on local government to enforce anti-discrimination laws and revoke the business licenses of offending hotels and inns.
“They are supposed to be part of the service industry, but they’re not providing that service to foreigners.
“They claim they can’t provide foreign guests with a proper standard of service, so instead they deny it to them altogether. That’s arrogance on a grand scale.”
Officials from Visit Japan, a government-sponsored tourist drive launched in 2003, conceded there was little they could do to encourage reluctant hoteliers to change their ways.
“It is up to the individual hotels and inns to decide who they have as guests, but we would like them to realise that the influx of foreign visitors represents a huge business opportunity,” Daisuke Tonai, a spokesman for the Japan National Tourism Organisation, told the Guardian.
“Although we can’t force them to act, we certainly want hotels and inns to do more to make overseas visitors feel more welcome.”
Renewed efforts to woo overseas visitors got off to an inglorious start last month when Nariaki Nakayama, the transport minister, was forced to resign after saying that Japan was “ethnically homogeneous” and that the Japanese, in general, “do not like foreigners”.
His replacement, Kazuyoshi Kaneko, whose brief includes tourism, admitted that foreigners were unwelcome in some places.
“Some people might not like the idea of having foreign tourists very much,” he told the Japan Times. “Although it’s not our intention to change the people’s mindset, [the tourism agency’s] major task will be to attract a large number of foreign tourists.”
Though tourist numbers have risen significantly from 5.21 million five years ago, Japan has strict visa and immigration rules and has been criticised for its sometimes frosty attitude towards outsiders.