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Japanese culture is often close to home for Americans, whether it’s at a sushi or ramen restaurant, a karaoke bar, a karate studio, Hello Kitty items in the local toy store, anime, origami, samurais, or geishas in movies and pop culture.
But the Japanese language can cause anxiety for some American travelers who might perceive the country as a difficult place to visit.
The Japan National Tourism Organization, the country’s tourism board, however, feels Dale Talde, a Filipino-American chef with TV credits on “Top Chef” and restaurants in New York City and Miami, and other chefs are the universal language in its marketing arsenal that will speak to Americans’ growing appetites for Japanese cuisine.
Earlier this month, the tourism board launched a campaign aimed at U.S. travelers that features Talde in three short videos cooking his original recipes using Japanese ingredients. Viewers are encouraged to vote for their favorite recipe through February 28, and the grand prize winner will win a round-trip coach airfare to Japan for two.
The U.S. market is already a bright spot for Japan – some 1.2 million U.S. travelers visited Japan in 2016, a 20 percent increase over 2015. That’s up from 565,000 in 2011 when an earthquake killed nearly 16,000 people and led to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.
Parts of the country are still recovering from the disaster. The combination of the global recession and earthquake took the country’s tourism industry about six years to bounce back.
In the videos, Talde features ingredients, such as matcha green tea and Wagyu beef, native to certain Japanese prefectures. The tourism board hopes the campaign will increase awareness of outlying Japanese regions beyond hubs like Tokyo and Hiroshima, for example.
Though lesser-known parts of the country are apparently starting to gain traction with U.S. tourists and others. Tourism to regions, such as Kochi and Miyazaki prefectures, that are highlighted in the videos saw a 13 percent year-over-year increase in visitors in July, for instance.
Tourism to Japanese cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka in July increased 8.5 percent year-over-year. Japan had an overall 24 million visitors last year, and hopes to have 40 million by 2020 when it will host the Summer Olympics.
With high-speed rail service throughout Japan, some of the prefectures that the tourism board is trying to promote are within a few hours’ train ride from Tokyo and make for attractive day trips.
Anaheim, California-based Contiki, a tour operator that primarily caters to 18 to 35-year-old travelers, said it’s seen sharp growth in U.S. bookings for its two Japan tours since it introduced them three years ago.
Adam Cooper, Contiki’s U.S. president, said Japan tour bookings are already up 30 percent year-over-year for 2018. “The decision to launch trips to Japan three years ago was based on market demand,” said Cooper. “We continue to see really strong growth in demand and bookings for our trips to Asia in general, in particular, Japan goes from strength to strength.”
Making Japan More Approachable
Typically, tourism boards choose chefs native to their destinations to act as brand ambassadors.
But in Japan’s case, the tourism board chose New York City-based Talde for its latest campaign and also has a partnership with Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin in New York City, for a video series to promote Japan’s culinary attractions.
The tourism board also plans to work with Japanese chefs to promote the country in the future but feels that Talde and Ripert will come across as more relatable to the U.S. market, one of Japan’s most important overseas visitor locales.
“I think having these two chefs highlight Japanese cuisine in the U.S. speaks to how Japan has naturally become a more welcoming country to foreigners,” said Ken Iwata, executive director of the tourism board’s New York office.
Iwata said that while the campaign is trying to introduce Americans to hidden gems of Japanese cuisine, the goal isn’t to completely change Japan’s food narrative. Food is the number two factor in why Americans choose to visit Japan, Iwata said, and that’s primarily because of the growing popularity of sushi and ramen in the states.
“Just look at cities like New York City where you already have many other options besides sushi and ramen if you want Japanese food,” said Iwata. “Talde also had a lot of influence with Momofuku which is also really popular.”
The campaign is one of the biggest pushes the tourism board has made toward U.S. travelers as Iwata said that the Japanese government has allotted more funding to the tourism board in recent years.
“We feel that food is a common language that cuts across all demographics and age groups that everyone will be able to identify with,” said Iwata.
Japan’s Tourism Future
Japan’s lackluster economy and political situation are also at play with this campaign.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has prioritized tourism. Iwata said the government is relying on tourism to help boost the economy. A weaker economy has put Japan on sale for U.S. travelers as the U.S. dollar has strengthened against the Japanese yen.
“Japan was once very conservative and isolated because we are an island, but that’s been changing,” said Iwata.
The government is also working on translation mobile apps for travelers to help make the language barrier less intimidating, said Iwata. The odds of encountering a local who isn’t proficient in English remains high and that’s why the government will require all high school students to be proficient in English starting in 2020, for instance.
Language barrier notwithstanding, Japan has a lot going for it. Relations between the two countries have certainly come a long way since the end of World War II more than 70 years ago. Feelings of fear and distrust have mostly dissipated, and many Americans perceive Japan as a high-tech and forward-thinking nation, said Iwata.
“The robot hotel that we have that opened two years ago has gotten a lot of international attention,” he said. “I think that more tech will make travel cheaper and could help lower room rates at hotels, for example.”
Japan’s in a position that many other countries would dream of when it comes to tourism, although there were fears about radiation after the Fukushima accident. Japan has strong arrivals growth; its culture is well-known in the U.S. and other top markets; the country will host the Olympics in 2020, and it has some of the world’s most advanced transportation infrastructure.
But if Japan wants to lure more U.S. travelers, it will need to assure them that they won’t have trouble communicating when they get there — despite Talde’s culinary creations.