Japan’s Efforts Pay Off

Shifting focus temporarily from Japan’s more recent woes, one economic policy of Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that seems to be doing as it was intended is the government’s defining of Japan as a major tourist destination.

For the first time ever, in 2013 the number of visitors to Japan surpassed 10 million—a goal originally set for 2010 but quite the accomplishment nonetheless.

Since then the Japanese government has set its sights on 20 million visitors by 2020. While this may seem overly ambitious, especially considering the recent setback regarding legalized casino gambling, with Japan winning the bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games and visitor numbers this year set to exceed 13 million this might not be entirely out of the question.


Often viewed as “exotic,” the image of Japan that follows next in the minds of many is that it’s prohibitively expensive, and that the language barrier is simply too great. For the most part, one could argue this is still a somewhat correct assessment. But for those looking only to visit for a short while, a number of these hurdles have been overcome. Or at least considerably lowered.

Many major train and subway lines now have signage and announcements in English—some even in Chinese and/or Korean. Restaurants in areas most frequented by tourists now, more often than not, have foreign-language menus available. An increasing number of ATMs now offer a selection of language services for overseas credit and ATM cards. There’s free Wi-Fi. And, in October tax-free shopping was expanded to include consumables, such as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

While this more foreign-friendly approach has certainly helped to create the vision of a more “accessible” Japan, it’s not the only reason. There are a number of factors to thank, key among them are the Japanese government’s relaxing of requirements for tourist visas issued to visitors from China and Southeast Asian nations, the streamlining of immigration procedures for visitors, and the increase in the number of low-cost carriers (LCCs) that now service Japan. But perhaps the most significant reason has been the rapid depreciation of the Japanese yen in 2013—and its recent further depreciation—which has now made Japan a much more affordable destination.

Yet even with this remarkable growth in international inbound tourism, Japan still has a long way to grow. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), as a travel destination, Japan currently ranks below such countries as Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Ukraine—none of which are particularly renown as holiday hotspots.


  • JapanMan

    I was sooooo ready to call B.S. on this when I saw that Japan was behind those other countries, but there they were: Saudi Arabia 13,213, South Korea 12,176, and Ukraine 24,761. Versus Japan 10,364. – Thanks for the UNWTO link. It saved me from putting my foot in my mouth.

  • ArabMoney

    Yeah IDK how friendly they are in Tokyo. Osaka seems way more open. Tokyo won’t even let you in a health doe. Not very O MO TE NA SHI if you ask me.

    • Ken Doe

      You said it, bro. I look Japanese (mom was from Kyushu) and am fluent in Japanese, but I sometimes get the “No foreigners” respone when I check out new joints. A buddy says prices are a bit lower in Osaka. Do you feel the same?

  • Mark

    Mr. Cooper, another informative article. As a frequent business traveler in Asia over the last decade or so, I can see how this “perfect storm” of economic and political factors has boosted tourism numbers in Japan. It will be interesting to see whether a correction in the exchange rate will also see a correction in the number of tourists that visit. I wonder how price sensitive visitors from Asia to Japan are. I would love to see you follow up on this article in the future when new data becomes available.