By Yoko Tanimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterLocal residents and foreign visitors alike are over the moon about growing moves to develop the nation’s nighttime economy.
Events and tours that aim to encourage consumption and boost local economies by increasing a city’s night attractions are spreading across Japan.
While many of these activities were launched in response to criticism from foreign tourists that Japan was boring at night because it lacked places to have fun, locals also have jumped at chances to discover a side of their hometowns they have never experienced before.
At 9 p.m. on a weekday in mid-May, a married couple in their 40s set out from the recently opened OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka, a hotel operated by Hoshino Resorts Inc. in the Kitaotsuka area of Toshima Ward, Tokyo. The couple had never stayed in this district before, but they were not nervous about heading out in the darkness because they were on a tour guided by a hotel employee called an “OMO ranger.”
The first stop was a craft beer bar in a shopping street. After chatting with people at the bar and sampling a few brews, the couple was taken to a nearby small bar where a karaoke session with some regular customers brought the house down. “We visited some unique places that don’t appear in any guidebooks. The tour was short but very enjoyable,” the couple said.
OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka has prepared five guided tours for its guests, which include pub crawls and visits to other nearby night spots and points of interest. Each tour takes about two hours and costs ¥1,000. (Food and drinks are not included in this price.)
“Just staying and sleeping at a hotel is a wasted chance,” said Manami Sugiyama, a public relations representative for the hotel. “We want our guests to experience the nighttime attractions that only locals know. These tours will also boost the area’s economy.”
Moves to expand this market for nighttime entertainment-seekers have spread in tandem with the increase in foreign travelers to Japan. In 2017, about 28.69 million visitors came to Japan, a record high and up about 20 percent from the previous year. However, the average spending by these visitors fell 1.3 percent to about ¥153,921. One cause of this decline was the lack of chances to experience the nightlife here.
In a proposal issued in March, the Japan Tourism Agency called for more attractive entertainment experiences to be made available at night. The agency plans to discuss with the public and private sectors issues such as securing transport access to and from such events and extending event times.
Many Japanese also feel more could be done to make nightlife more enjoyable. In an April survey on nighttime economic activities conducted by Tokyo-based research company Macromill, Inc. on 1,000 people aged 20 to 59 in Tokyo’s 23 wards, 30 percent said they had been frustrated that shops and facilities did not operate at night.
Shops and restaurants that started staying open until late have experienced some success. In December, the Shinagawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo started operating the bar on its top floor until 4 a.m., a move that resulted in customer numbers increasing by about 30 percent. The hotel’s 24-hour restaurant also offers a “midnight steak fair” from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., during which special steak dishes are available. According to the hotel, this steak campaign has attracted not only foreign guests but also many Japanese including groups of women and people stopping in on their way home from work.
Local governments are also eagerly getting involved. In November, the city of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, opened up Himeji Castle — a World Cultural Heritage site and a national treasure — at night and held lighting and illumination events at the castle. About 90,000 people visited the castle over 17 days, a figure that exceeded expectations.
However, challenges abound in efforts to push more nighttime events. Ritsumeikan University Prof. Junya Tsutsui, an expert on sociology, pointed to a shortage of employees able to work through the night.
“The service industry’s labor shortage is severe enough as it is,” Tsutsui said. “Unless work style reforms move ahead and people become able to work more flexibly, including during the day, the number of people able to work at night won’t increase. Consequently, the number of Japanese able to enjoy nighttime entertainment also won’t grow.”
Safety efforts vital
Moves to energize the nighttime economy have been afoot for some time overseas. This involves not only offering more forms of entertainment, but also giving consideration to public safety and convenience so tourists and other people can comfortably enjoy themselves.
Government authorities are spearheading these moves in Europe and the United States. Consultant Takashi Kiso, an expert on nighttime tourism in Japan and overseas and author of a book on the economics of nighttime entertainment, said: “London has a government official called a ‘night czar,’ New York and Amsterdam both have a ‘night mayor.’ They take on a leadership role in promoting the city’s nightlife.”
A major focus is making the city safer at night. A classic example is Britain’s “purple flag” system, which recognizes places safe to enjoy a night out. To receive a purple flag, an area must have a range of appealing nighttime tourist attractions, maintain cleanliness standards and provide measures to ensure visitors are safe, such as by having security guards on hand. “An area also needs responsible alcohol and health policies, such as not serving drinks to inebriated customers,” Kiso said.
In London, subways and buses run through the night on weekends so people do not have to worry about getting stuck in town.
In New York, subways also operate 24 hours a day. Art galleries are open until around 9 p.m. on weekends, and musicals and other shows often start at about 8 p.m. The city’s improved public safety means visitors and locals alike can go for a night out without fearing for their safety.
In Asia, Taipei, Hong Kong and other cities are known for their vibrant night markets, which are magnets for tourists. In the past, local residents here had a regular practice of eating at food stalls so many people would be out at night. As a result, staying out late did not come with a sense of danger.
What can Japan learn from all these cases? “If commercial activity is given top priority and residents feel dissatisfied or uneasy about going out, the nighttime economy won’t take root,” Kiso explained. “It’s vital to carefully consider steps to prevent noise, rubbish and public safety problems from having a negative effect on the surrounding area.”
City that never sleeps
I went to New York and watched a musical that started in the evening. I was unfamiliar with the area and felt apprehensive about going out by myself, but I found the area around the theater was as crowded as it was during the day. I was surprised at how many people were out enjoying themselves at night. I readily bought a ticket.
Watching my first stage production on Broadway was a moving experience. I am glad I did not stay cooped up in my hotel. If enjoying nightlife is safe and free from worry, I want to do it more often.Speech