Mount Fuji

Could fear derail bold tourism bid?
Japan's foreign crime policies weaken drive for visitors


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of Dec. 2, 2003, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

There's a great irony in the Japanese government's "action plan" to double the number of tourists who come to these shores by 2010.

While the goal of the campaign is to attract more foreigners to Japan, an ongoing tendency to blame a deterioration in public safety on the foreign community could scupper Japan's chances of really benefiting from a tourism windfall.

As Japan's jobless rate rises to record levels and regional economies are being hit hardest by over a decade of tough economic times, the government is now looking to tourism to give the country a boost.

But a steady stream of declarations from government ministers, local lawmakers and a beleaguered National Police Agency warning of bad foreign elements has been disturbingly reflected in national surveys that show the policy is failing to garner the popular support needed to maximize the benefits of a tourist influx.

In November, the government released the results of its own poll that found nearly one in three Japanese — 32.4 percent — do not want more foreign tourists to visit here. Some 90.2 percent of those cited a rise in crimes allegedly committed by foreigners as the reason.

Of those polled, 53 percent were opposed to moves to simplify visa and other immigration procedures that may discourage potential visitors from coming to Japan.

Antipathy toward increased tourism, generated by an officially sanctioned fear of foreigners, could see Japanese turn their backs on the tourist yen.

Of course, foreigners are regularly depicted as the driving force behind Japan's skyrocketing crime rate over the past decade, despite the fact that they account for only 1.2 percent — which includes visa violations, a crime only foreigners can commit — of the national crime total. And the foreign crime issue doesn't look like it's going to be going away in a hurry.

Just last Friday, a new government White Paper on crime continued to emphasize the destructive influence of foreign criminal elements, with organized crime involving foreigners, particularly Chinese, emerging as the government's newest safety bane.

That organized crime should be of such concern is a little odd, given the long-running and quite open operations of this country's crime syndicates, but while lumping together all foreigners in the crime statistics is bad enough, particular targeting of Chinese and other Asians in Japan should have tourism chiefs shuddering, since the Asian market is key to Japan's efforts to increase tourist numbers.

Also on Friday, Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa repeated his vow to tighten immigration controls to make it more difficult for "foreign criminals" to enter the country.

He didn't make clear how immigration officials might be able to distinguish between criminals and tourists.

Mind you, until recently the government didn't really care too much about the economic benefits of international tourism, an industry that accounts for 11 percent of the world's gross domestic product.

Indeed, during the bubble period the government saw it in its interest to run a big "tourism deficit" — Japanese tourists abroad outspending foreign tourists in Japan — in order to offset the burgeoning industrial trade surplus the country was running against many of its major trading partners.

But these days, it's an entirely different situation. Japan has shifted into high gear in its international tourism campaign.

Last month it signed an accord with China and South Korea to boost efforts among the three to attract tourists from outside North Asia. Japan also wants the United Nations to designate 2004 as an official "tourism year."

Yet how successful will such efforts be? There's no doubting that Japan has much to offer the foreign visitor, and the infrastructure to handle an influx.

However, as a result of the targeting of foreign crime, the Japanese public in recent years has formed a very clear, albeit utterly distorted, image of foreigners as being dangerous troublemakers.

Thus, the government is helping to undermine one policy, that of increasing tourism, by its pursuit of another, that of targeting foreign crime as a serious social bane, a drive assisted by the media and a police force finding it increasingly difficult to catch any real criminals.

The extent to which the depiction of foreigners as dangerous and or criminal can have negative economic consequences was especially evident during the soccer World Cup, which was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea in 2002.

Prior to the tournament, the media and police continuously issued warnings about how foreign hooligans and others would cause havoc in the Land of Wa.

By the tournament's end, of course, no such problems transpired. Yet on the other hand, police kitted out in riot gear ready to pounce on foreign troublemakers were instead called out to subdue homegrown hooligans on several occasions.

In Sapporo, those local retailers who hadn't closed voluntarily were left fuming after authorities shut down the city's main entertainment district for fear of violence and vandalism.

Additionally, many Japanese who frequent the area were reportedly scared away by the prospect of hordes of dangerous foreigners.

Of course, there were no such troubles. And a lot of yen was left untouched in foreign and Japanese wallets.

Elsewhere in the world, these kind of large-scale events are a boon to local businesses.

Indeed, the hosting of the 1964 Olympics underscored Japan's incredible economic growth in the postwar period.

In Sapporo, however, many local businesses actually lost money during the World Cup.

Several hotels did well, though: they were billeting stations for the huge army of riot police dispatched to protect the city.

There remains a danger that unless Japanese officialdom ceases to unfairly paint foreigners as lawless, devious interlopers, the country won't be able to fully exploit the vast wealth of resources, structural and social, that could provide massive economic benefits in the future.