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Behind the Scenes / Old cargo ship culture helps buoy local tourism

The Yomiuri Shimbun

By Koichi Mochizuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterAn increasing number of foreign visitors are coming to Japan, thanks to the government’s efforts to make Japan a nation highly conducive to tourism. Although the government is attempting to increase visits and overnight stays by foreign tourists in regional areas to bring about regional revitalization, the strategy faces a number of obstacles.

We explored this situation by examining various projects, including one in which certain local governments with connection to kitamaebune (see below) — cargo ships that were active from the Edo period (1603-1867) to the Meiji era (1868-1912) — are cooperating to attract overseas tourists.

The 23rd Kitamaebune Kikochi Forum (Kitamaebune ports of call forum) will be held May 26-27 in Dalian, China.

The forum traces its origins to the kitamaebune corridor concept, a proposal by author Yoshimi Ishikawa to promote exchanges between regions that were formerly ports of call for kitamaebune. In response to Ishikawa’s proposal, the forum convened for the first time in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, in 2007. The event was organized mainly by businesspeople such as Hirata Farm group Chairman Kaichi Nitta, who is from Sakata.

The forum has since expanded in scale to promote regional exchange between ports of call and has convened a total of 22 times, most recently in Tottori in November last year. Its 23rd iteration in Dalian will mark the first time it has been held outside of Japan.

In April 2017, the Cultural Affairs Agency added 11 cities and towns to its Japan Heritage list, which are Hakodate and Matsumae in Hokkaido; Ajigasawa and Fukaura in Aomori Prefecture; Akita; Sakata in Yamagata Prefecture; Niigata and Nagaoka in Niigata Prefecture; Kaga in Ishikawa Prefecture; and Tsuruga and Minamiechizen in Fukui Prefecture. The municipalities were listed under the heading “different spatial realm formed by dreams of men came across wild waves of the Sea of Japan — Senshu (ship-owner) villages of Port of Call for Kitamae-bune, freight vessels.”

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The Japan Heritage project recognizes “stories” that convey Japanese tradition and culture through the historic charm and features of various localities, with the goal of promoting regional development.

Last August, 10 airline, railroad and other firms involved in the Forum — including East Japan Railway Co., West Japan Railway Co., Japan Airlines Co. and ANA Strategic Research Institute Co. — cofounded the Kitamaebune Koryu Kakudai Kiko (Organization for expanding kitamaebune-related exchanges), a general incorporated association headed by Kenichiro Hamada.

The organization aims to act as a research institute that supports the regional revitalization and tourism promotion efforts of local governments, while leveraging the exchanges the forum has fostered among municipalities.

The proposal to hold the forum abroad for the first time ever in Dalian originated with the new organization. At the upcoming forum, events including a panel discussion with Dalian-based collaborators will be held to promote visitation by foreign tourists to the 11 kitamaebune ports of call featured in the Japan Heritage list.

“China is a big market [for Japan’s activities to attract foreign tourists]. Dalian would make for an ideal gateway to the three northeast provinces [near the Sea of Japan] and an ideal location for the first-ever overseas forum,” said Hamada. There are plans to consider expanding the forum’s overseas ventures if the Dalian event is successful, he added.

Riku Miyamoto is the mayor of Kaga — one of the 11 municipalities — where the 17th forum was held, and also serves as chair of the Kitamaebune Japan Heritage promotion council. The mayor stressed the significance of strengthening engagement overseas.

“Increasing the number of people involved in overseas exchanges is crucial to revitalizing Japan,” Miyamoto said. “When we talk about inbound tourism, the ‘golden route’ on the Pacific coast is generally the standard. However, if we can devise a system that conveys the wonders of historic and traditional culture like kitamaebune, I think the areas along the Sea of Japan will get a big boost.”

Motomu Hozumi, the vice chair of the council and mayor of Akita, which was also named in the Japan Heritage certification, noted the importance of beefing up overseas engagement.

Hozumi said: “The original idea was to revitalize former kitamaebune ports of call by cooperating with each other. With concerns about the decreasing population not only in regional areas but also in urban areas, we need invigorating measures that increase the number of people involved in exchange activities, along with countermeasures against the chronically low birthrate to stop the [population] decline, among other policies. I think we need to look not only domestically, but also to foreign countries like China and others in Asia.”

“Rather than looking to Tokyo, we hope to tap into the horizontal coordination along the Sea of Japan as a new axis,” Hozumi added.

The Japan Tourism Agency has supported the forum — which has always been led by the private sector and held in regional areas rather than in Tokyo — with a view to expanding the benefits of foreign tourism to regional areas. It is also paying attention to the upcoming forum in Dalian.

The forum is “meaningful in that it is promoting inter-regional partnerships overseas through a regionally centered rather than Tokyo-centered event, and introducing a side of Japan that is not focused on Tokyo,” an agency official said.

Only 40% of stays in rural areas

According to the agency, the number of foreign visitors to Japan hit a record-high 28.69 million in 2017. The figure represented a 19.3 percent increase over the previous year’s figure of 24.04 million, and an increase of roughly 20 million from the 8.36 million recorded in 2012.

The amount of money spent by foreign visitors increased to roughly four times the amount spent in 2012, reaching ¥4.4 trillion.

The government aims to hit 40 million visitors in 2020 — the year of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games — and 60 million in 2030. These goals appear to be in sight.

However, 46.12 million overnight stays by foreign visitors were recorded in 2017 in the three major metropolitan areas covering Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Aichi, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, accounting for 59.1 percent of all overnight stays.

By comparison, only 31.88 million such stays were recorded in regional areas that year, accounting for 40.9 percent of the total.

For foreign visitation rates in 2016 by prefecture, Osaka topped the list with 44.7 percent of overseas tourists visiting, followed by 44.5 percent visiting Tokyo, 35.4 percent visiting Chiba and 33.2 percent visiting Kyoto.

The “golden route” tourism corridor, which stretches from Tokyo along the Pacific coast to Osaka and Kyoto, boasts high popularity, complicating efforts to expand foreign visitation and stays among other regions.

The government aims to extend the benefits of foreign tourism to regional areas, and considers becoming a nation highly conducive to tourism to be a pillar of regional revitalization.

According to the government, an increase in foreign visitors who visit and stay in regional areas is needed to achieve its target of 40 million visitors, adding urgency to efforts to improve the accessibility of regional areas to foreign tourists.

In April, the government passed the international tourist tax law, which levies a ¥1,000 tax on each visitor departing Japan.

The government says the money will be partly used to promote visitation and lodging in regional areas through “the improvement in satisfaction levels for experience-based stays in regional areas via such measures as improving tourism resources by utilizing each region’s culture and nature, among other steps.”

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 3, 2018)

■ Kitamaebune

Cargo ships that supported trade in the coastal regions from Hokkaido to Osaka via the Sea of Japan from the middle of the Edo period to the Meiji period. Goods carried on the vessels were bought and sold at ports of call along the route, which nurtured prosperous shipping villages at which ship owners made huge profits through trade. They fell out of use with the advent of railroads and steamships.Speech

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