From the Heart

Written by Kamini Devadass, Be Movement issue 3 – JAPAN, published March 2014

The tenth millionth visitor to Japan landed in Narita airport on Friday, December 20, 2013 – a remarkable achievement after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked the country and cloaked it in despair almost three years ago. Japan’s travel industry owes this inflection point to a solicitous international community, and for this, Hideki Manabe, Executive Director of the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO), Singapore, is grateful.

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“If there is no support, we can do nothing. Japan is thankful [to] all the countries [because it] received much support,” Manabe says.

He pauses, then continues, “I learned it is very important for us to think not only [about ourselves], but [also about] other countries. Always, thinking about other countries is very important. Japan should support all countries. We want to contribute to the development of the world, join many countries in development, exchanging culture and many other fields. When another country is in a difficult situation, we would like to support them. This is the Japanese obligation for the future.”

When the travel industry in Japan was hamstrung by the 2011 disaster, various national tourism organisations (NTOs) in Singapore collaborated to help revitalise the industry. The Korean Tourism Organisation promoted combined tours to Korea and Japan. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) allowed Japan to use public space along Orchard Road to hold an exhibition entitled ‘Japan Trump’. The exhibition featured every prefecture in Japan on panels laid out as a deck of playing cards. It was the first time the space was used for the promotion of a country other than Singapore.

A glimmering thread in the web of international relations, tourism facilitates the exchange of culture. The respect for a country’s distinctiveness and understanding of commonalities gained from travel make tourism indispensable in developing strong international relations. Manabe says, “Tourism is a basic [aspect] of international relationships. It [creates] international connections. It promotes peace and basic relations. This is admirable.”

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Prayers for no more natural disasters.

“Every industry is based on human connections. If tourism is not active, a relationship cannot be formed. That is very important and so I want to work on tourism,” he adds. “For individuals, travelling is to escape from [one’s] hectic daily life and also have adventures and cross-cultural experiences. For society, [travelling] contributes to the revitalisation of economy and cross-cultural communication, it also contributes to the diversity of cultures and the soul of a society.”

There is still much to do to improve the travel standing of Japan. Manabe, a man conversant in the many hues of tourism, is ready to take on this sobering task.

Speaking of the Fukushima disaster that scarred the tourism industry, he says, “The radiation matter is most difficult for Japan. [We are] trying to solve this. We [have informed the public and tourists] about the restricted areas and areas that are safe […] People reject going to Japan because of the radiation matter, [not knowing much], so we have to give tourists more information.” The Fukushima disaster remains a concern for many travellers and Japan has been doing its best to assure them that visits can be undertaken to the country through the use of mass media and field trips for students.

Manabe identifies the amount of information available for non-Japanese speaking travellers as another area for improvement. “Our travel agencies and our tourism industry have to [learn] to receive [international] tourists [better]. For example, it is difficult to get information [in English] in public areas. These matters are very important for tourists. The Japanese government and also tourist industries [should] join and cooperate to solve this matter.”

Manabe singles out lessons he can learn from STB to meet his goals, “Singapore is a very small country, but many people [still] visit Singapore. From Singapore to Japan, 140,000 to 180,000 [Singaporeans] go to Japan and from Japan to Singapore 750,000 [Japanese] visited Singapore. So STB’s promotion is very, very good. They [know how] to show Singapore’s charms. Japan has a big potential in the field of tourism, so we should find how to promote more efficiently and show our charms to the whole world.”

As travelling becomes commonplace in today’s world, a lag in Japan’s tourism industry is a concern as the nation hopes to build stronger international relations. “1.1 million or 1.2 million is not so important because 1.1 million is almost equal to 1.2 million. [What matters] is that the numbers are increasing. Continuously promoting Japan and hoping to support the STB or another NTO [through more] exchanges is my purpose,” he says.

His enthusiasm is clear in how he speaks fondly of Japan’s charms and quirks.
Whilst globalised cities like Tokyo and Osaka excite the curious and re-inspire the weary, it is Japan’s hidden gems that animate Manabe most. “Many Singaporeans visit Hokkaido, Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya. Singaporeans visit them because, to Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya, there is a direct flight daily. They can easily go to these cities,” he says. “But Japan has many [other] regions and attractive cities such as Kyushu, Wakayama, Gifu and Shikoku.”

“Gifu [for example] is in central Japan and close to Nagoya. It has very traditional houses and [tourists] can stay in these houses. In winter, it snows and you can have very beautiful sights,” he adds.

His personal favourites are the places that have retained their rustic charm, “I like Hokkaido. Ten times I went to Hokkaido when I lived in Tokyo and [Hokkaido’s] four seasons are [so] different. Another place is Wakayama. [It is] very near to Osaka and has delicious food and a [very] traditional culture.”

Extolled for their culture of selfless hospitality, Manabe is confident that “… when they [tourists] feel the Japanese hospitality, they will like Japan.”

Extending this hospitality to all, Manabe says from his heart, “I want to thank you for visiting Japan.”

Featured destinations:
Hanamaki Onsen

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During the recovery of 3.11, everyone in the Tohoku Prefecture did their part, including long-established Hanamaki Onsen, who cancelled tourists reservations and reserved their large premises for rescue teams and government organisations.

Dai Yaki Pottery Factory (115 years)

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“From the day I was born until I die, I have and will create pottery. Pottery is in my blood and I am made of pottery.”
Hoshu Sugimura, 5th Generation Master Potter

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