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Let’s Play a Game: Just How International Is Japan, Anyway?

Japan internationalization

by CarterJMRN


Let’s Play a Game: Just How International Is Japan, Anyway?

Kokusaika (internationalism) was a cherished expression of Japan’s elite back in the nineties. Those worthies predicted that the Japanese would break out of their insular mindset and embrace global norms and practices. So the Japanese flocked abroad to get MBAs, many sponsored by their companies, hoping for a worldwide boost. Others went solo to study English or become chefs, fashion designers, martial arts instructors or whatever. Overseas travel was de rigueur. Japan was ready to internationalize and take the world by storm; at least so it seemed. So what is left of this internationalization today, in 2019?

The slow demise of Japan’s internationalization

But Japan is a land where appearances often outrank substance and action, and kokusaika was an attractive feel-good garnish. A lot of those MBA grads came back with big ideas, for example, only to face a corporate hierarchy that considered them too tainted by foreign ways, so they left in droves to leverage their knowledge at multinationals.

While you don’t hear internationalization used as frequently anymore—Japan’s new go-to catchphrase now is omotenashi (Japanese hospitality)—that doesn’t mean Japan isn’t furiously flirting with the rest of the world. You can probably guess the major spur: the Rugby World Cup 2019 and the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, now less than a year away.

Makeover moves to internationalize, part II

Japan loves to be loved, but even more than that it hates to be embarrassed. With the oversized lens being trained on the nation because of the Games (and before that, the Rugby World Cup now underway) and so many more tourists, the country is in overdrive to fix a host of glaring boo-boos in the way it presents itself.

In 2018, for example, the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) completely updated its massive website—over two thousand pages of content—dumping the stilted, overly detailed wording for more practical, understandable and appealing descriptions in 14 languages, including Russian, Bahasa Indonesia, Arabic, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. Tokyo did much the same with its official tourism site, in languages such as English, Chinese, Korean, German, and Thai.

Full-frontal omotenashi tourism in Japan

Meanwhile, the Japan Tourism Agency is making a major push to revamp the often laughable, baffling and dull explanations at World Heritage Sites and lesser-known attractions all over Japan, from the ancient site of Dazaifu in Kyushu’s Fukuoka to the wilds of the Akan National Forest in Hokkaido. The 1,000-yen departure tax every Japanese and foreign traveler leaving Japan from any airport or seaport has paid since January 7 this year is funding those improvements.

One primary goal here is to get foreign visitors out of the standard loop of Tokyo, Nikko, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and so on, to explore Japan’s outback. Even local municipalities like Tokamachi, a little town deep in Niigata’s snow country, are luring visitors with information and fun activities.

Just how international are the Japanese?

The Japanese still love to explore the planet. Nearly 19 million of them journeyed abroad in 2018, the highest number ever. That’s encouraging. But while more Japanese university students are studying abroad than ever—over 105,000 in 2017—only a paltry 2 percent are going for a year or more. Fortunately, the business lobby Keidanren has agreed to introduce year-round hiring of university graduates from the 2022 academic year, which should encourage more study overseas. Japanese universities are aiming to have 300,000 international students on campus by 2020, and are getting close.

Unfortunately, the stratified nature of the country’s social construct stifles change and personal expression. Many Japanese living abroad—and there were over 1.35 million of them as of October 2017—left because they felt freer to be themselves outside the country. Insanely long hours, sexual and power harassment at the office? No thanks. Back to the lockstep school system and social hierarchy? No again. (This is especially true of women with school-age children.)

Japan can’t afford to lose those people. In a 2018 Pew Research Center survey of 1,016 Japanese, nearly 60 percent of respondents saw Japanese nationals leaving to work overseas as a “moderate/very big problem.” In 2002, that figure was just 39 percent. All those globalized Japanese expats could be bridges to the rest of the planet, but they’re not interested.

Some very positive moves to internationalize

At the local level, 390 communities throughout the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area and beyond have registered to host Olympic and Paralympic teams from other nations as part of the government’s Host Town Initiative. In the run-up to the Games, municipalities such as Setagaya in Tokyo, Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture, and Kasama in Ibaraki Prefecture are putting on events to get people excited about and more familiar with the events and their athletes, encouraging them to talk with the athletes, get training tips and cheer them on during the Games. They’re also introducing Japanese culture to the athletes.

That’s the kind of grassroots exchange Japan needs. Also welcome are the 200,000 Japanese and foreign residents who have applied to serve as volunteers during the Games. They’ll make these global events run much smoother.

On the practical side, Japan’s trains, stations even buses now have better signage and more announcements in other languages, while fleets of black London-style taxis that are both roomy and easy to board roam Tokyo’s streets, ready for larger passengers from abroad. The Paralympics have also helped put some serious focus on barrier-free venues and other facilities to make the city more accessible, which is a major consideration for anyone disabled who’s visiting Japan. Even hospitals are adding interpreters, mobile translation systems and multilingual guidebooks to handle foreign patients, which could become vital if the temperatures next summer are as high as predicted.

Where the opportunities in internationalizing Japan lie

Japan expects 920,000 visitors per day during the Games. That’s a lot of people with a lot of needs. One effective short-term strategy would be to find the host towns supporting your country’s Olympic and Paralympic teams and seek out tie-ups for bespoke travel guide and interpretation services, catering and other food services, national and Games-related merchandise/souvenirs and so on.

Food, beverages & the service industry

Security and private escort services for Games attendees of the wealthier persuasion would also be worth investigation. And since the Japanese have an intense fascination with the new and unusual, pop-up stores and food stands featuring products from back home are a great chance to test the market waters. Some of these options could lead to long-term business.

In the long term, food and beverage represent the largest expenditure for Japanese households—there are well over 600,000 restaurants and bars here—so investors may also want to investigate setting up F&B franchises. Real estate, lodging and hotels are other avenues to explore. 

Finally, foreign companies may want to poach new Japanese university grads from other lands with Japanese-language skills and a desire to remain in Japan to serve as interfaces between their home countries and the Japanese.


Image by Masashi Wakui from Pixabay