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Prevent “tourism’s destruction of the country” – Learn from the chaos that has befallen Kyoto and Mt. Fuji

  • June 1, 2018
  • , pp. 126–133
  • JMH Translation

An interview with Japanologist Alex Kerr by journalist Yumi Kiyono


Kyoto’s excessive tourism pollution


Yumi Kiyono: The number of foreign tourists to Japan has increased steadily since 2012, when 8.36 million foreigners visited.  In 2017, inbound tourists are expected to top 28 million. The government’s goal of welcoming 40 million foreign visitors in 2020, when the nation hosts the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, looks to be within reach. What you said a quarter of a century ago is finally coming to pass.


Alex Kerr: I have long said that tourism will be the largest industry in the 21st century and that is why Japanese landscapes needs to be preserved and its cultural properties need to be managed.  In the 2000s, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used the phrase “raising the country up with tourism.” He coined that phrase because in those days the manufacturing industry was dominant and tourism was looked down upon.


YK: Now, though, wherever you look, there is talk of encouraging inbound tourism. Tourism has grown by leaps and bounds.


AK: I have beaten the drum of tourism promotion for a long time and I still work to promote inbound tourism today. I think, though, Japan has gone beyond “raising the country up with tourism” and entered the phase of “destroying the nation with tourism.” I have been based in Japan living in Kameoka, Kyoto, since the second half of the 1970s. I love Kyoto and I used to walk around its temples, shrines, and back alleys whenever I had a spare moment. Now, though, I am not inspired to walk around Kyoto. It has such horrible “tourism pollution.”


YK: What do you mean by “tourism pollution”?


AK: There are too many examples to mention them all. As for poor manners, the “paparazzi” in Gion top the list. Smartphone-wielding tourists surround geisha and maiko heading out to entertain at banquets and snap photographs close up. I hear that they tear the women’s kimonos and toss cigarette butts into the kimono sleeves in some kind of twisted prank. 


YK: This is a real problem.


AK: Twenty years ago, there weren’t that many tourists on the east side of Kyoto Station. The grounds of even Fushimi Inari Shrine were quiet. Now, though, there is always a heavy stream of people walking under the red torii gates that line the path up the mountain. The shops in town have started to complain about the tourists’ bad manners and the shrine is racking its brains about what to do. Foreign tourists toss coins used in their own countries into the shrine offering box. It takes work to separate out the foreign coins and they cannot be converted into yen. Temples charge an admission fee, but most shrines do not. This is why Fushimi Inari Shrine has a hard time resolving the issue of too many tourists.


YK: Small, untouched places are inundated with tourists as soon as word gets out by SNS.


AK: The bamboo grove in Arashiyama is a nightmare! It’s crowded like a rush-hour train these days. If you head out there expecting it to be like it used to be, you are in for a total surprise and exhaustion!


YK: Why did things get like this?


AK: One reason is the increase in the number of Chinese tourists. In 2005, 30 million Chinese traveled overseas. This number exploded to 130 million in 2016 (according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China). China’s outbound tourism spending is by far and away the largest. In fact, it is twice that of the second largest outbound tourism contributor, the United States (UN World Tourism Organization). Chinese tourists who come to Japan numbered 6.37 million in 2016, a new record and up by more than 25% from the previous year (Japan National Tourism Organization figures).


YK: Chinese employees of the Kyoto subway handle Chinese tourists, and Chinese shopkeepers at Nishiki Market call out to the Chinese tourists walking through the market. I am not entirely pleased with that.


AK: What we should be concerned about is that Chinese passport holders today account for only 5% of the population of that country. This number will increase by 10 million people a year. The onslaught of Chinese tourists has only just begun.


YK: Passport holders are only 5% of the population?


AK: Chinese tourists come in such vast numbers that their bad manners stand out. But it is not only Chinese that have bad manners. Westerners may have a comparatively good image in Japan, but they have awful manners. They bring huge suitcases. They drag them around town on wheels making a racket, and they bring them on trains and buses. The suitcases are hard on the roads, and they inconvenience other passengers.


Problem not unique to Japan


YK: Is there tourism pollution overseas?


AK: Tourism pollution is a global problem. Shocking cases are photographed and picked up by the media around the world. Tourists are clogging up the streets of Florence, Italy, and the Great Wall of China is jam-packed with visitors as well. The term “overtourism” was in frequent use in Europe well before “raising the country up with tourism” came along in Japan. Even the coined phrase “tourism phobia” has appeared in the media. In English, the suffix “-cide” means “killer” as seen in such words as “herbicide” and “genocide.” In Europe and Southeast Asia these days, UNESCO World Heritage sites that are destroyed by tourism are said to have been “UNESCO-cided.”


YK: That term is a bit shocking.


AK: In fact, all sorts of damage is happening. During the tourism season, Kyoto Station gets so busy that it is hard to get around as usual by train. The taxi lines at the station are long, and it is quite common to have to wait for an hour. There are traffic jams around town as well. Independent tourists, who are the ones who spend money, stay away from Kyoto and, even more important, the regular lifestyle of Kyoto residents is being threatened.


YK: More and more shiny new hotels are popping up along the picturesque streets of Kyoto.


AK: If there is a small vacant lot, a cheap hotel is built there these days, just like in the past when it was turned into a parking lot. Tearing down machiya is a new fad. If things continue like this, machiya will continue to be converted into accommodations and there will be fewer residents. The greatest charm of Kyoto as a city is in danger of being destroyed.


YK: Can anything be done?


AK: Cities and tourist sites around the world are trying many things to fix the problem. Florence used to be troubled by tourists eating and drinking in the areas near the Basilica di Santa Croce and other World Heritage sites. The area in front of this cathedral, where Michelangelo and Galileo are buried, is littered with leftover food and trash. Desperate to solve the problem, the City of Florence decided to sprinkle water around the stairs and building around lunchtime to ensure tourists do not hang around there.


The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand, is enshrouded with a sense of pristineness because it is entirely white. Recently, though, tourists descend on the temple in tour buses and cause all kinds of trouble. For example, Chinese women were not flushing the toilet after use but were just throwing their wad of toilet paper in the toilet bowl. The attendants spoke to the women, but the tourists would ignore the attendant and just walk out, apparently. Since then, the temple has required Chinese traveling on package tours to listen to a lecture on their tour bus before entering the grounds. They educate the tourists about Thai manners. Anyone who has not listened to the lecture is not allowed to enter the grounds. I understand this strategy has been effective, and the number of incidents has decreased.


Management and control


YK: Can these strategies be applied in Japan, too?


AK: If it were up to me, I would set up a gate at Hanamikoji Street in Kyoto (laughs). And I would grant access cards only to those who had taken a lecture on manners. Only those with access cards would be able to walk down the street. I would do this not only at Hanamikoji. I would set up “manner gates” at Kiyomizu Temple, Nijo Castle, the Silver Pavilion, the Golden Pavilion, and other famous sites.


YK: Good idea!


AK: What I have just said may seem like some kind of “black humor.” What I am trying to say, though, is that it is important for tourists to have a minimal level of understanding before they go sightseeing. That is very hard to achieve, though. Of course, the lecture would not be just for Chinese. I would have Japanese tourists attend, too.


Those Chinese tourists who are among the mass affluent travel independently and mind their manners. I think that the problem of the “bad manners of the Chinese” will gradually get better. But the cultural impact will not easily lessen without good management. I am speaking here about the overcrowding in Kyoto and its famous sites and the replacement of machiya with mini business hotels.


A Kyotoite acquaintance of mine says he wants to set up a gate outside Kyoto Station. We may need to thinking about maintaining the Kyoto brand and preserving the lifestyle of the people of Kyoto by limiting the number of visitors. This is already being done in Yakushima and Oze [National Parks].


YK: It is quite hard for people to see the negative impact of tourism when everyone is calling for tourism promotion.


AK: “Tourism pollution,” though, is being discussed around the world today. This means there is a framework for thinking about countermeasures. Japan should learn from these cases and adopt appropriate solutions.


YK: What are the keywords for solving tourism pollution?


AK: “Management” and “control.” It comes down to these two things. I am not talking about “opposing tourism.” Inbound tourism has the power to save the Japanese economy, and new designs and forms of hospitality will arise as Japanese inns and cuisine come into contact with ideas from around the world. I think it even could save Japanese culture as more and more people around the world deepen their understanding of Japan. Good management is critical, though.


Let’s look at a case study. Amsterdam harnessed IT to address its excessive increase in tourist numbers. They offered an app that gave tourists benefits. Amsterdam turned the information they received from the tourists into data and analyzed what sites or areas get crowded and when. So that people do not concentrate excessively on the tourist sites in the city center, the app suggests popular spots and restaurants in the surrounding areas. The city is also monitoring the number of tourist shops and accommodations in the city center and making sure they do not increase in number.


YK: Vacation home-rental services [like Airbnb] have also become a problem recently.


AK: Vacation home-rental services are a problem unique to our world today. There is a home-rental facility run by a Chinese in the area of Kyoto where my friends live. The guests stand at the side of the road eating “Cup Ramen.” They wander into neighboring lots, and they don’t clean up their trash. The owner does not live there, though, and so cannot be contacted. Japan’s new vacation home-rental service law will go into effect from June this year. Under the new law, the city administration will be able to look into the situation. I would recommend requiring such rental facilities display next to the entrance a plaque with the owner’s contact information.


YK: Enhancing “management” and “control” will limit the people who can go to the tourist site, for example, won’t it?


AK: What I am talking about is “appropriate” management and control. Not haphazardly enhancing management and control. For example, the Galleria Borghese in Rome operates entirely on a reservation basis. They give set periods for viewing the exhibit and limit the number of people who can enter the building at any given time. At the Uffizi in Florence, those who purchase a ticket reservation in advance are given priority in admittance. Art galleries and museums in Japan, however, are chaos. You wait in long lines to get in. While you wait, attendants shout through megaphones, saying, “Please line up on the right!” They are the “special attraction.” Even after you enter the museum, you can only get a peek at the artwork because the museum is so crowded. Japan is known for “quality control.” Ironically, though, this concept has yet to reach art galleries.


The reservation system is not used only at museums nowadays. More and more national parks in America are adopting the system. After introducing the system, the parks have found that traffic congestion in the area has lessened as have the long lines at parking lots. Travelers also have less stress. We are in the IT era now, so these kinds of measures are easy to introduce.


Art museums, temples, and shrines have the option of raising the hurdle by increasing their admission fees. But what about students and those not well off? Reservation systems are fair in that regard. The people most interested have an advantage. In other words, appropriate countermeasures will vary case by case. The debate in Japan many times lacks the perspective of “appropriateness.”


Is 1,000 yen too much to charge for Mt. Fuji?


YK: Views are split in Japan about charging a fee to climb Mt. Fuji.


AK: The charge is 1,000 yen per person, right? And, it is optional. Even so, some have said the charge violates people’s freedom or right to climb the mountain. I think, on the contrary, that 1,000 yen is too low.


Mt. Fuji is a World Heritage site. Japan could charge 3,000 or even 10,000 yen as an obligation to protect this mountain, which is the pride of Japan. Even with that kind of fee, those who really want to climb the mountain will come climb it. You could use the fees collected to solve the trash problem.


YK: You are saying that it is okay to accept only those who really want to climb Mt. Fuji.


AK: If the number of climbers dropped to 10% [of the current number] with a 10,000 fee, the income from the fees would not change from the current level but the amount of damage would drop to 10% of the current level. Until recently, it probably sounded better to say “everyone is welcome,” but we should seek “value” not “volume” today when tourists are coming in the hundreds of thousands.


Kyoto’s Saiho Temple, also known as the Moss Temple, was early to introduce an advance reservation system. It charges 3,000 yen for admission, which is higher than average. Before entering the garden, visitors also are required to attend a religious ritual of copying a sutra by hand. Katsura and Shugakuin Imperial Villas, which are operated by the Imperial Household Agency, also have long required an advance reservation. That is why they have been able to preserve their value. Japan has these trailblazers.


YK: Japan should think more about maximizing “value.”


AK: Hyogo Prefecture is home to the ruins of “Takeda Castle,” which is also known as the “castle floating in the sky” [because of the way it appears to be floating on a sea of clouds on foggy autumn mornings]. I visited the ruins of this mountaintop castle for the first time about 40 years ago. There were no tourists. After word got out on SNS that it was Japan’s “Machu Picchu,” though, tourist numbers skyrocketed to 600,000 a year at one point. They engaged in all kinds of inappropriate behavior, like destroying the stone walls and flying drones. The local area benefited very little, though, because tourists would come on buses and not even go to the area shops.


The story here is similar to that for Mt. Fuji. When the castle raised the entrance fee from 500 yen to 2,500 yen, the number of visitors dropped, but the castle ruins also suffered less damage. Japanese government administrations have difficulty with these kinds of decisions. They think they cannot charge local people such a fee. If that’s the case, then issue free passes to the locals so they can come and go as they please. That kind of approach is what I mean by “appropriate management.”


There is another important thing: local towns, temples, and shrines are completely under the thumb of major tour operators. If the operators tell them, “We cannot bring customers to a place like this!” they give in immediately. The tour operators do not take responsibility for the “pollution” that overtourism produces. A major prerequisite for management is for towns, temples, and shrines to have clear policies so the tour agencies cannot turn them around their little finger.


YK: First we need to know the actual state of “tourism pollution.”


AK: During the high growth years of the manufacturing industry in the Showa Era (1926–89), pollution worsened and many people suffered. It was the high growth period after the war, and the nation was late to initiate measures to address pollution. Once it started to take measures, though, the impact was clear. Japan excels in technology and management.


With its technological and management prowess, Japan can also produce results in tourism pollution countermeasures. As in the earlier case of environmental pollution, Japan is late to recognize that the situation of tourism pollution is already serious. If Japan does not take a management perspective and enhance its management technology now, tourism pollution will worsen and Japan will lose its appeal as a tourist destination as a result. Increasing inbound tourism is a good thing, but Japan will need to make efforts and take care that “raising the country up with tourism” does not become “destroying the nation with tourism.”




Alex Kerr

Born in Maryland in 1952, Kerr visited Japan for the first time at the age of 12. He graduated from Yale University (major: Japanese Studies) in 1974. After graduating from the University of Oxford, he settled in Japan in 1977. He is involved in a project to rent out machiya and reconstruct old houses in Kyoto. He is chairman of (NPO) Chiiori Trust. His main publications include Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan, Nippon keikanron (Theory of Japanese landscapes), and Another Kyoto.


Yumi Kiyono

Kiyono earned her master’s degree from the Graduate School of System Design and Management at Keio University. Her publications include Shin Toshi-ron Tokyo (A new debate on cities) (coauthored with Kengo Kuma) and Honmono no nihonjin (Real Japanese).

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