Tourism Pollution in Japan Sparks Strife – and Bans

Tourism Pollution in Japan Sparks Strife – and Bans

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People in Shibuya
How can Japan reduce "tourism pollution" problems without reducing tourism? And how can travelers help reduce friction when visiting?

In recent years, tourism has been a welcome salvation to Japan’s economy. After the disaster of Fukushima shook up not just Japan’s economy, but the number of visitors coming in from overseas, the government launched several campaigns in an attempt to revive the country, and rebuild its reputation as an ideal travel destination.

Yet some recently feel that these campaigns proved to be a little too effective.

The tourism boom arrived only a year after Fukushima, and the number of incoming visitors from overseas has been increasing ever since. Tourism certainly has its good points, especially for hotels and travel related businesses, and small towns that rely on outside sources to keep their economy flowing. It can also create a bridge between cultures, and fosters a deeper understanding between both travelers and their hosts.

Japan has set a goal of drawing 40 million annual visitors by 2020 in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. Already ringing in at 28 million in the past year, it seems likely that goal will be easily reached, if not surpassed, by the deadline. However, this has also given rise to some other concerns, specifically concerning a clash of cultures due to the increased presence of visitors with a decreased understanding of or respect for their surroundings.

How much tourism is too much? Can (and should) tourism be controlled, and how can that be done in a fair manner? If locals are already issuing complaints about foreign tourists now, how will they manage to get through the Olympic Games?

When Good Tourism Goes Bad

While tourism is indeed a wonderful thing when dispersed evenly throughout a country, it can become a problem when the majority of visitors begin to gravitate to specific locations, especially when those locations are in or near residential areas or sacred grounds. The result is tourism pollution (観光公害; kankou kougai).


Over-tourism in these locations can lead to minor and major inconveniences, not just for other tourists, but for residents of the area. These include overcrowding in buildings and (already crowded) transportation, litter and noise pollution, violations of rules and customs (both intentional and accidental), and the destruction of the atmosphere originally cultivated and maintained by the locals. The result is even more friction between the locals and their guests.

The problems go both ways. The stress caused by inconsiderate visitors often lead locals to harbor resentful feelings towards their visitors, and foreigners in general. The innocent and respectful visitor, and even the professional foreign-born worker, can quickly become a target of discrimination.

Omotenashi Wears Thin

A geisha walks in kimono down a Kyoto street, a paper umbrella obscuring her face.

Despite a cultural emphasis on “omotenashi,” or hospitality for guests, some in Japan seem to have hit the politeness ceiling. Particularly in residential Kyoto, locals have complained that their streets have become overrun with foreigners, their obnoxious attitudes and irritating selfie-sticks turning their beautiful town into a cultural theme park. Residents complain of feeling like live museum pieces on public display.

Residents can’t make reservations at their favorite local restaurants because they are too crowded. Young girls dressed for work in geisha garb get stopped for selfies en route as if they were some kind of exotic zoo animal. The elderly visiting the shrines and temples for peace or for prayer find the solace quickly disturbed by a group of rowdy young tourists blasting music from their phones. Spaces and structures have even been defaced – such as the bamboo forest, which found over 100 bamboo trees ruined with the names of tourists irresponsibly carved into them like graffiti. Thanks to irresponsible visitors like these, the “miyabi,” the peaceful atmosphere of Kyoto, has completely vanished.

Even the popular Japanese comedian and director, Kitano “Beat” Takeshi, commented on the state of tourism in residential attractions, criticizing foreigners and the Japanese alike, stating his belief that Japan has “sacrificed its cultural integrity for the sake of money,” and that foreign tourism is “polluting the Japanese spirit.”

A Ban on Tourism: Discerning or Discriminatory?

Tourists in Kyoto's Bamboo Forest
Tourists walking through and snapping selfies of Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest (竹林). Recently, 100 trees in the forest were found to be defaced by graffiti. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Because of this, some local businesses have switched back from offering multilingual services to only Japanese, and some places have even gone so far as to post “No Foreigners” or “Japanese Only” signs at their entrances. And making more recent headlines, many popular tourist attractions have imposed a “tourism ban” aimed at large groups of non-Japanese visitors, the most common culprits of public disturbances and etiquette violations.

While many, if not most, places still welcome individuals, couples, and travelers in much smaller numbers, this call to action also raises concern over its morality, and whether it qualifies as racial discrimination.

While the majority seem to agree that it hasn’t quite reached that level (as the rule restricts not foreigners in general, just large touring groups), some worry that if the idea gains too much popularity, discrimination could very well become an issue. It also doesn’t help the travelers on their end either, as it strengthens rather than dismantles the common stereotype that “Japan hates foreigners,” and could result in further tension between cultures and less travelers opting for Japan as a destination, reducing tourism.

Past incidents have shown that it does not take large groups of tourists to cause damage. While banning large groups may ease the crowding problem, it does nothing to prevent small groups and individuals from being equally destructive and disrespectful.

For example, take a look at the outrage sparked by YouTuber Logan Paul and his crew just last year. Infamous for his inconsiderate filming of a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, several others of his videos from his Japan visit showed him along with only a couple other accomplices creating total chaos and violating hundreds of cultural rules on purpose and on camera, and led to a discussion about banning him from the country.

In order to prevent more Logan Pauls from creating disaster in tourism-heavy areas, what is needed, some argue, is not a ban on large groups, but strict and more officially established and recognized rules and guidelines, as well as a better cultural education for foreign visitors both before and after their trip. It also wouldn’t hurt to have more efficient methods of dealing with foreign visitors, and better access to information in different languages.

The “Sayonara” Tourist Tax

In anticipation of the 2020 Olympics and to hopefully smooth some of the issues caused by inefficiencies in handling tourists, the Japanese government has implemented a new “tourist tax,” also called the “sayonara tax,” requiring foreign visitors to pay an extra 1000 yen fee (about $10) upon leaving the country, added to their original travel fare.

Effective since January 7, 2019, this departure tax will be used to improve the tourist infrastructure of Japan, to help improve access to travel information, develop the resources available, and in general create a smoother trip and more comfortable environment for travelers, ultimately leading to less stress on locals as well. The Japanese government expects this tax to bring about 50 billion ($461.6 billion) yen between fiscal years 2018-2019.

This tax is not particular to Japan, and is found in many other countries as well. With so many people eager to visit Japan, it is a small price to pay to improve future experiences, the experience for other visitors, and of course, the experiences of locals who have to live with it every day.

Improving the Travel Experience for Travelers and Locals Alike

While the tourist tax is a step in the right direction, it’s on the government to ensure those funds are put to use in ways that would make a radical difference. If Japan is having tourist troubles now, how much worse could it get when the Olympics roll into town? Japan needs to be prepared to handle the impending influx of outside visitors. And similarly, foreign visitors should be prepared and know what to expect when entering the country.

Attractions and establishments should create and clearly display stricter rules and regulations rather than allow visitors free-roam of the location. Places such as temples can implement an off-hours schedule where the premises are restricted to locals and worshipers, and traveling visitors are strictly prohibited. Local restaurants (as well as any attraction) can set a daily limit on group reservations, and can require that reservations are made a day in advance. And penalties such as fines for destruction of property or disturbance or peace should be strictly adhered to.

Along with these rules, travel services should be updated so that visitors can have easier access to information, not just on attraction locations and facilities, but the rules, penalties, and general dos and do-nots of Japanese culture. Transportation should also be enhanced to provide better accommodation and prevent disrupting locals’ travels and commutes. Pamphlets explaining local and cultural etiquette, rules, and expectations should be distributed at every port of entry and included in every attraction’s information guide.

The Educated Traveler: What Japan Wants Tourists to Know

Tourists being guided around Japan
Picture: エガワエン / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

If there is one thing Japanese locals want foreign visitors to know, it’s this: People should educate themselves on the culture of the country they are visiting. And when they do visit, do so respectfully. Travel should be an experience, not a live reality show for your followers, and if you are really interested in the people you meet, rather than making a spectacle of them and hounding them for selfies, learn some basic words and try to engage them in conversation. In general, just be respectful of the locals, and the locals will welcome your arrival.

In the end, what determines the quality of the visiting tourists depends upon the quality of their education and their respect for the culture they are visiting. What most Japanese people want tourists to know is that they are not unwelcome – just their public displays of rudeness and vulgarity. If all travelers would do the responsible thing and make some effort to familiarize themselves with the customs of the country they are visiting before they go, and make sure to adhere to those customs throughout their stay, then tourism becomes a harmonious and fulfilling experience for everyone, no matter what country you find yourself in.

Will Japan Mandate Tourists To Travel With Tour Guides Soon?


【海外メディアななめ読み】1月より徴収スタート「さよなら税」に対する海外メディアの反応. Yamatogokoro

京都が「観光公害」を克服するための具体的方策. Toyo Keizai

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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