What does this look like you?

Is it a hot spring or a hot plate of food?

And would the promise of seeing a ninja convince you to visit rural Japan?

This week the Inbound Business EXPO organized by Nikkei Inc. takes place in Tokyo. Businesses wanting to benefit from the increase in overseas visitors will gather together to see if they can boost their tourism-friendly practices.

It’s a pertinent time, the Olympics is a critical moment for Japan to up it’s game as a tourist destination. If successful, the continued patronage of foreign visitors could offset the fall in domestic spending.

Super Abe

Since that hopeful moment in Rio when Shinzo Abe jumped out of a pipe dressed as Super Mario, the Japanese government has gone into overdrive to attract more and more overseas tourists.

‘Super Abe’ was just the beginning of Japan leveraging its ‘soft power’. The country has massive cultural capital particularly in popular culture loved all over the world (Pokémon Go anyone?).

This month, The official Olympic (TV) Channel announced several animated characters chosen as Tokyo 2020 ambassadors and that will feature on merchandising. The list includes Sailor Moon, Naruto, and Dragon Ball Z’s Goku.

Among the various controversies of Japan’s tourist ambitions, here we may find the real debate, as the Facebook post was plagued with cries of ‘Where is *insert favourite character here*?’

What’s in a symbol?

For the sake of miscommunication, the government has proposed changes to many symbols used on maps and road signs. The symbol for a hot spring was set to be replaced with one supposedly easier to understand (the standard symbol had reportedly been mistaken for a plate of hot food).

The proposed new symbol caused an uproar in traditional hot spring locations since the original has been used for hundreds of years. They also didn’t want to be forced into an expensive overhaul of their logo-displaying products and merchandise. The government eventually backed down on the hot springs debate, but other symbols, such as the (swastikas-like) temple symbol, are still being debated…

Sitting Comfortably?

This year, Japan’s public toilets are set for a tourist-friendly revamp. The famously sophisticated functions will use standardised symbols on the control panels making them easier to navigate.

Until now, different manufacturers have been using different symbols for each function, which the Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association says, confuses foreign tourists.

The organisation hopes the new symbols will make things easier for non-Japanese speakers and create “a toilet environment that anyone can use with peace of mind”

Do You Have What It Takes to be a Ninja?

Although tourism has risen exponentially in recent years, the benefit has mostly been restricted to Tokyo and other major cities. According to Mitsubishi UFJ, gaining a share of inbound tourism is crucial to sustainable growth in rural areas where populations are declining more rapidly.

Drawing visitors away from the neon lights and deep into Japan’s countryside to spend their yen is every rural prefecture’s dream. It makes sense then, that they’re going to great creative lengths to encourage travel to their regions.

Ninja performance on sightseeing bus – photo APP

Five prefectures famous for their ninja history (Kanagawa, Nagano, Mie, Shiga and Saga) have created a national organisation to promote ninja activities and attractions to foreign visitors. Auditions for ninja performances were even open to non-Japanese, providing they have a strong interest in Japanese history… oh and the ability to do backflips.

Some of these tourism drives will be more successful than others, but with Japan reaching the goal of ’20 million annual tourists’ early, it seems they can’t put a foot wrong at the moment.

And for the record, when I look at the hot spring symbol, I see three snakes dancing out of a basket, snake charmer style.