Tune in to Japanese news and variety programs and you’re likely to see some segment on foreign travelers to Japan. These bits are mostly complimentary fluff pieces, extolling Japan’s virtues as a top tourist destination. But one columnist recently wondered: how many of these pieces are put-ons for the Japanese public’s benefit? And why are there so many of them?
You! Why’d you come to Japan?!
It seems no one needs arm-twisting to convince them to travel to Japan. (And hey, as a company that offers guided tours of Japan, we don’t object.) Inbound tourism from some countries is already exceeding 2019 levels.
In international surveys, Japan continues to rank high on the list of must-see tourist destinations. For example, the country earned the No. 2 spot on CNN Traveller’s November 2022 reader’s choice ranking.
International tourists are also discovering – finally! – that there’s more to see in Japan than just Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Morioka made the NY Times’ list of top 52 cities to visit in 2023, reflecting the city’s growing popularity as a domestic tourist spot as well.
This popularity isn’t lost on local news and variety programs. In a “JAPAN MENTIONED” sort of phenomenon, Japan becoming international news is itself scuttlebutt for local news. And that includes the country’s popularity among foreign tourists.
So it’s no surprise that news & variety programs would have numerous “tourist on the street” interviews asking visitors what brings them to the country. Perhaps the most (in)famous is the show YOUは何しに日本へ (You wa nani shi ni Nihon e), or “Why Did You Come to Japan.” The Monday night TV Tokyo show, hosted by the comedy duo Bananaman (Shitara Osamu and Himura Yuki), loves to jump unsuspecting tourists at the airport and quiz them about their love of Nippon. (Like this poor Russian girl going to a Hatsune Miku concert.)
The outtakes range from mildly amusing to downright cringe-tastic. The show’s crew is a dread sight for many foreign residents returning to their homes who just want to get their luggage and get the hell out of the airport.
Is it all staged?
The goal of these segments is obvious. They reflect back to a local audience an outsider’s view of what makes their country special and unique.
And that’s not a bad thing, per se. If you’ve grown up and lived in a culture all your life, you can grow to take certain things for granted. Having these reflected back to you from someone enjoying them for perhaps the first time can help us rediscover gratitude for where we live.
However, not everyone is impressed. Writing for Nikkan Gendai, Umahara Kamina laments the general repetitiveness and low quality of these segments.
“Of course, the answers are what you’d expect – ‘Mt. Fuji’s so beautiful,’ ‘The ramen’s delicious,’ ‘The toilets are clean.’ There’s nothing out of the ordinary, nothing interesting.” Kamina wonders whether no one ever complains about anything – e.g., taxis refusing to pick up foreigners, the crowds, etc. – or whether those outtakes just end up on the cutting-room floor.
Other segments, says Umahara, seem like clear setups intended to drive home a point the producers already wanted to make. One clip features a middle-aged Chinese woman who’s come to Japan to buy electronics. The interview asks if she’s come to take advantage of the country’s weak yen. The woman doesn’t seem to know what the interviewer is talking about. All the same, the segment ends with subtitles indicating she’s “grateful” for the weak yen.
The benefit of taping foreigners: they never complain
In another somewhat horrifying example, a reporter interviewed a group of people who planned to “bullet climb” Mt. Fuji. This is a dangerous expedition where, in order to catch the first morning’s sunrise, people climb from Fuji’s 5th Station at night and ascend the mountain quickly without resting.
Multiple people during this past climbing season required medical attention thanks to their bullet climb attempts. However, instead of warning the tourists about this, the reporter merely says, “Good luck” (がんばって).
“That’s something,” writes Umahara, “that’d land on the agenda of the BPO [Japan’s organization overseeing broadcasting standards].”
But that also offers a clue as to why you see so many of these damn clips on Japanese TV. A TV director told Umahara that they’re cheap to produce. They don’t have to pay anyone who appears in the clips. And local audiences love to hear people heap praise on Japan.
But they’re also cheap because no one ever complains about them. Interviews with Japanese guests run the risk that the interviewee will sue the TV station if their comments are edited out of context.
By contrast, the subjects of these tourist interviews are generally non-Japanese speaking foreigners who don’t watch Japanese television and who go home to their own countries shortly thereafter. That means the staff can edit them freely without fear of reprisal.
Umahara suspects that, with fall tourism coming in, “We’ll hear things like, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen red leaves,’ and they’ll peak into izakaya popular with tour groups and make someone stand in front of the camera and say, ‘Sashimi’s the best. The water in Fukushima? Who cares?'”
In other words, for TV producers, foreign tourists may just be the perfect blank canvas for them to paint their own pictures of Japan.
What to read next
テレビの「街で外国人観光客に聞きました」ってヤラセはない？ “ニッポンすばらしい”ばかり. Nikkan Gendai
The best countries in the world: 2022 Readers’ Choice Awards. CNN Traveller