The largest majority of the 24 million tourists that came to Japan in 2016 visited Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. However, off the beaten track, Japan has a lot more to offer. The Governor of Miyagi Prefecture, located in the Tsunami-hit Tohoku region, has a clear vision in mind. Governor Yoshihiro Murai wants to take advantage of Miyagi’s long history, breathtaking landscapes, and unique culinary tradition to show tourists the authentic Japanese experience and re-boot the local economy.
JNTO and the Ministry of Tourism. In your personal opinion, what is the role of the tourism sector for the future of Japan?
As you mentioned we indeed had a large number of visitors, with 24 million tourists coming to Japan. Of course, having that many people coming to Japan does support the economy. But more importantly because of that many people were able to get in touch with the Japanese culture itself, and we are very happy to see them understanding what Japan is about. Moreover, due to the experience tourists are making here, the general opinion is that Japan is a very secure place. Especially around here, it’s very dark at night, but in spite of that you can see women walking alone during nighttime. To have foreign tourists come and actually experience the safeness of this country will also build trust, which ultimately is very important for the tourism sector.
All of us of course do understand that when visitors come to Japan for the first time, their stops would be Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, the cliché route. I also follow cliché routes when I travel. For my honeymoon my wife and I went to Los Angeles. For us, going to the USA, doesn’t usually mean going the countryside for a first visit. Nevertheless, I have great expectations that visitors that are going back to Japan, for a second or third time, they will start travelling up north.
Another thing I would like to point out is that not a lot of Japanese people have the opportunity to communicate or engage with foreigners. Therefore, in order for Japan to become a more international country, it’s very important for us Japanese to actually interact with foreigners. I actually went to Kyoto the other day and I was very surprised because all of the taxi drivers were able to speak English. The reason for that is that more than half of their customers are foreigners. Unfortunately, here in the Tohoku region, there is almost no taxi drivers who can speak English. That is because there are not a lot of opportunities for them to have foreign customers. Of course, it’s important to provide them with English courses as foundation, but what is more important for them is to have a chance to interact with foreign visitors. During my speech for the New Year’s party (Shinnenkai, Japanese traditional new year gathering) I actually stated that I would like to try to make Miyagi Prefecture a more open and international community.
Right now, my focus is to bring more tourists to this region.
Among the tourists, there are many Asians. The number of foreign tourists from the United States only makes up about 10%. I want to make this region more open to American tourists to come visit.
Japan urban areas are getting overpopulated, which creates challenges in terms of infrastructure development that cannot always keep up. In this context, do you think that tourism can create more opportunities in local areas? What could be its contribution in terms of socio-economic development for the future of the Miyagi Prefecture?
Unfortunately, in Japan, the population will continue to decline. Especially in the Tohoku region it is said that in the next 30 years the population will decline 1% per year. Therefore, in 30 years it will have shrunk by around 30%. The population decline will be more serious in the younger generation range. As a consequence, the consumption rate will start declining. As the local residents are not spending as much because of the population decline, one way around is to bring international tourists here that make up for it.
Of course, Japanese tourists from other areas will come here and spend money too. But foreign tourists spend more. Thus, are putting a lot of importance on foreign tours.
The Great East Japan Earthquake has taken its toll on the Miyagi Prefecture, not only from an economic standpoint, but also in terms of image. Could you share some details about the status of the 10-year disaster recovery plan after terminating stage 1 and having passed into the reconstruction phase and explain the challenges that might be faced for the “development period”?
Six years ago, the coastal region of the entire Tohoku region was devastated by the disaster, and just in Miyagi prefecture alone, 10,000 people lost their lives. Today, there are more than 1,000 people still missing. 22 years ago during the Hanshin Earthquake, 6,000 people lost their lives, and the vast majority were found. In comparison to that, in Miyagi we still have 1,000 people to account for. These numbers show the scale and just how devastating the Tohoku disaster was.
One of the challenges for us is to carry out what we call a “creative recovery” in this prefecture. In terms of infrastructure, we have privatized Sendai airport. That is because publicly own airports are facing a rigid unified organization, imposed by the government. By handing over the airport management to a concession, they will oversee the management of the airport, and that way they can set landing fees at a lower price comparing to other airports, attracting more business. We were able to get the law changed and starting from last July the Sendai airport began operations as a private airport, being able to double the number of international routes since. Unfortunately, we don’t have any routes to the USA yet as we are working at trying to bring more air routes from Asian areas.
Those are some of the policies, and when we are talking about tourism, the government is not only trying to attract tourists, but also trying to create an environment that makes it easy for tourists to come to Miyagi.
Located in the central part of Tohoku and facing the Pacific Ocean, Miyagi Prefecture boasts an exceptional mix of culture and breathtaking landscapes that offer the ultimate Japanese tourism experience. Could you share the historical background of Miyagi Prefecture and the main historical sights?
Miyagi’s history is very long, thinking about when it was flourishing, we can go back all the way to 1,200 years ago. There is a city called Tagajo, which is also one of the disaster affected cities here in Miyagi prefecture. During the Heian period about 1,200 years ago, Tagajo served as one of the central areas of the government north in Japan. There is actually a monument up there which also holds the inscription of the Tsunami.
Also, Date Masamune rode this region 400 years ago and due to that the Sendai region and the prefecture of Miyagi were formed. At that time the Aoba castle was built. He also ordered to have the Sant Juan Batista vessel be built, and sent it from Miyagi to sail all the way to Italy, which took 3 years. In Ishinomaki, there is a replica of Sant Juan Batista. If there are tourists interested in the history, I encourage them to come visit this region.
Sustainable tourism is a growing trend within Japan and the Minister of Environment, Mr. Yamamoto does not spare any effort for the administration to promote some of the natural sights. In this context, can you give us some details about the unique eco-tourism destination that can be admired here, such as the snow monster and the fox village?
We are working very hard to create onsen where people can go with bathing suits, because many foreign tourists are not used to our Japanese culture of bathing naked. The reason for that is that we want them to enjoy the Japanese culture, but not force it on them. This means being able to bring a little bit of their own culture while also enjoying a bit of ours.
Before, the fox village was a minor a sightseeing spot where you could encounter foxes in a closed area. For us it seems just a like a regular everyday kind of facility, but for foreign tourists, it’s actually a new attraction. That’s something we just realized. We’d like to pick up on those attractions and to share those with foreigners.
Tohoku has a very rich culture and history, instead of creating something and building new sightseeing spots, we are trying to take advantage of what we have here.
Another key part of tourism is cuisine. Japanese food is booming in the USA following a long streak of many years. When it comes to Miyagi prefecture, what is the typical gastronomy?
Something that is unique about this region compared to Kyoto, Osaka or Tokyo is that we can always produce or catch something new, be it vegetables, rice or fish. For example, when you go to Kyoto, the food presentation is taken great care of. They’ll process the food and present it in a very delicate way. This is because long ago, they would bring the food from the Tohoku region, and by the time it got to Kyoto it wasn’t as fresh, so they had to process it to preserve its taste and make it look appealing. People here in this region do not focus on the rearranging or processing of food, but they rather focus on its freshness.
As an example, the new rice crops that have just been harvested are the best and most delicious. Nothing has to be added to appreciate its rich flavor. I was raised and born in Osaka, and back then I ate rice all the time, but it wasn’t until I came to this region that I realized how delicious rice really is. Additionally, the fish and seafood of this region compared to others is very different. I personally believe that the fish we catch off the Shiogama coast or Kesennuma coast is the best. The sushi here is probably the best in Japan.
Again, we need to share our food culture with American people and not force it onto them. Here in Miyagi, we produce Sendai beef, which is delicious and basically melts in your mouth. However, it might not be fit for the American taste since the Sendai beef is too oily and has a rich flavor. Instead of presenting it as a steak to Americans, we use it to prepare other things such as sushi for example. That way you can have just a small portion and flavor it if necessary. It’s a special sushi that we have created just for the Americans so I hope it gets promoted well.
From a business investment opportunities perspective, the government is pushing a strategic policy in order to link the Japanese economy with the global market to take advantage of international opportunities. It is true that Japan is still the third largest domestic market in the world but in such a globalized world it is imperative to internationalize. From this point of view, what are the economic sectors that have the highest growth potential in terms of attracting foreign direct investment and how would you like to strengthen the relationship in terms of business, investment and trade with the US?
In order for Japan to grow it is important to put emphasis in three sectors: IT, finance and manufacturing. In regards to the IT and financial sectors, they are especially important in the Chubu and Kansai areas. Tohoku will probably not be able to reach the same potential. On the other hand, in Tohoku the cost for land, labor, water, electricity and other public utilities is much lower, compared to other parts of Japan, so we believe that this region is perfect for the manufacturing industry.
In Tohoku people might not talk a lot but they focus on work. It is my hope that we can contribute to the global economy through the manufacturing industries here.