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Business trends

Turning Japan into a country that never sleeps

Tourism industry aims to keep foreign visitors spending late into the night

The Shibuya City Tourism Association gives overseas visitors the chance to sample the district's nightlife with modestly priced evening tours. (Photo by Kaori Yuzawa)

TOKYO -- With hopes of raising the number of overseas visitors by 40% to 40 million people by 2020, Japan's government, municipalities and businesses are trying to promote the country's nightlife.

On a July evening at 7:30, three foreign tourists began a tour of Tokyo starting at Hachiko, a famous dog statue and popular meeting point near Shibuya Station. Escorted by a local guide, they bought some takoyaki octopus dumplings, a popular street food, then dropped by a sake shop and washed them down with a bit of rice wine.

After visiting a video game arcade and Don Quijote, a popular discount store, they finished off the evening with dinner at a stand-up sushi bar and photos at Shibuya's famous "scramble crossing" at 10 p.m. A 29-year old visitor from Laos seemed quite happy with the two-and-a-half-hour night tour, which costs 3,000 yen ($27) per person. The guide escorted six groups that day and said the tours are often fully booked.

Offering interesting things to do is a key part of persuading tourists to open their wallets anywhere, and Japan is no exception. The Shibuya City Tourism Association began offering the evening tours in response to calls from visitors looking for a taste of the district's nightlife.

Foreign arrivals in Japan reached a record 28.6 million in 2017, with spending at 4.41 trillion yen, also at a record high. But expenditures per person fell 1.3% on the year to about 154,000 yen. The "explosive buying" boom, in which wealthy tourists, mostly from Asia, would visit Japan and clean out store shelves, has subsided. Reaching the government's target of 40 million overseas visitors will require inspired thinking.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, per person inbound tourist spending in Japan came to $1,276 in 2016, lower than Singapore or Thailand, and less than a third as much as the $3,923 that visitors to Australia spend on average.

Part of the reason for Japan's low number is a dearth of entertainment options, even in cities frequented by overseas tourists. There is plenty of room for growth, and businesses are keen to make the most of Japan's nightlife.

In December, Seibu Holdings pushed back closing time of its 39th-floor bar at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. The change has paid off. Customer traffic has risen 30% since last December compared with the previous year, according to the hotel. In April, the hotel extended the operating hours of its bowling alley.

Amuse, a talent agency, in May concluded a one-year run of "Wa!" at the hotel. The showcase of Japanese culture, featuring taiko drumming and other attractions, was popular with overseas tourists, especially late shows starting at 8 p.m. The company, eager to cash in on that demand, plans to roll out more nighttime events.

Tokyotokeiba, which runs a racing track in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward, plans to add a light show to its nighttime horse races starting in October. The company will also keep its Tokyo Summerland water park in the western part of the city open later this summer.


The live show "Wa!" showcases Japanese culture: Produced by talent agency Amuse, it was a hit with foreign tourists. 

Local governments have the same idea. The city of Chiba, east of Tokyo, will hold a two-night event in early August, together with 50 or so restaurants and facilities across the city. The Chiba City Museum of Art, for example, will host a "silent disco" in which people will dance to music played on wireless headphones. Yoshimoto Kogyo, another talent agency, will put on 10-minute owarai live comedy shows on monorail trains. There will also be an esports competition.

This year's festivities are a trial run. The city will take what it learns from the event to plan for a larger one in 2020 that will offer late-night activities.

Experts believe offering visitors interesting things to do into the wee hours will be good for Japan as well. "Expanding the nightlife consumption will lead to accepting diversity and creating new cultures and ideas," said Takaaki Umezawa, a partner at global consultancy A.T. Kearney.

Japan's tourism industry has been slow to tap into the nighttime economy. Big international cities like London and New York have long worked to promote after-hours consumption by appointing "nighttime mayors," for example. The Japan Tourism Agency in March suggested that making the most of the nighttime economy will lift spending by foreign tourists. In July, the agency began soliciting proposals to jazz up the country's nightlife.

The government is part of that effort. A working group on promoting the nighttime economy was set up within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in April last year. "We are seeking to launch a government council within several months" to deliberate relevant measures, said Tsukasa Akimoto, secretary of the working group and Japan's state minister for tourism.

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