TOKYO -- As the number of overseas tourists to Japan grows sharply, the scarcity of nightlife in major Japanese cities, compared with hotspots in the U.S. and Europe, has become all too apparent.
Large American and European cities offer a dazzling array of nightlife, including musicals, live performances, parties and club nights.
With awareness growing that nightlife in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto lacks the buzz to attract foreign visitors, efforts are underway to expand and excite the industry, which has the potential to hit 400 billion yen ($3.56 billion) in time for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, according to one estimate.
Earlier this month, the Argentine theater company Fuerza Bruta opened a live performance specifically targeting overseas tourists. The show, entitled "Wa!," is currently running at a hotel in Tokyo's Shinagawa district.
The 70-minute extravaganza showcases different aspects of Japanese culture -- including traditional drums -- in an exciting fusion of music, lighting effects, videos and dance. A 44-year-old Swiss tourist visiting Tokyo for the first time found the show an intriguing medley of different cultures.
Tickets to the show, produced by the Japanese entertainment company Amuse, start at 7,600 yen. The event was one of the company's solutions for the serious dearth of night
time entertainment for tourists looking for something to do between dinner and the last train. The last show starts at 8 p.m.
"We are trying to create a model program that includes sightseeing, staying and entertainment," said Kiyoshi Tatsumi, president of Amuse Edutainment and chief researcher of the group's research arm.
JTB, the nation's leading travel agency, also launched a traditional Japanese drum show for overseas tourists at the Shinagawa hotel in mid-September, with a start time of 8:30 p.m. "We will try to begin staging shows at a permanent venue in 2019," said Masaki Otsuka, managing director at JTB Communication Design.
Shochiku, a major movie studio and production company, is also working on plans for late-night entertainment.
Room to grow
Many visitors to Japan find themselves with nothing to do after supper. There are only a handful of popular nightspots for overseas tourists in Tokyo.
Major players in the entertainment and hospitality industries are trying to fix this, as there is a niche market for entertainment events held between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.-3 a.m. Currently, restaurants, clubs and karaoke bars are about all the country can offer in the evening. But overseas tourists do not spend much time or money at these places.
Clearly, there is much room for growth in the nighttime economy, and an increasing number of businesses are starting to take notice.
While the potential size of the market is unclear, Takaaki Umezawa, chairman of consulting firm A.T. Kearney Japan, says it could be worth 400 billion yen in 2020 if each visitor to Japan can be persuaded to drop an extra 10,000 yen on a night out.
A revision in the law regulating adult entertainment has made it easier for companies to enter the market, points out Takahiro Saito, a lawyer well-versed in the nighttime economy.
In April, a group of lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party formed an association to promote growth of this niche economy.
"It has long been said that Japan has a shortage of facilities for nightlife events," said Tsukasa Akimoto, an LDP lawmaker and state minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism. "But it's now possible to create a healthy market for them."
The government is planning a task force to come up with policy proposals by the end of the year to stoke growth of the nighttime economy. The group will mainly address transport infrastructure and regulations related to location and working conditions.
One key challenge for the project is how to ensure the safety of young people.
The good news is that simple deregulation could light up the industry without requiring much new investment.
Using existing entertainment facilities, such as theaters, for longer hours at night would do much to meet the demand for more varied nightlife. In this area, the country can take its cue from Broadway, where shows run until around 11 p.m.
In order to attract a diverse range of tourists, Broadway constantly tries to keep the district safe and offer convenient transport, with the subway running 24 hours.
Broadway adds over 1 trillion yen annually to the local economy, according to one estimate.
Last year, Britain started offering around-the-clock subway service on weekends as part of a project to expand the night-time economy by 10% in 10 years, to about 4 trillion yen.
Berlin and Amsterdam have their own thriving club cultures.
Economic activity via cultural and artistic sources in Japan generated 5 trillion yen in economic output in fiscal 2011. This amounted to just 1.2% of the nation's gross domestic product, according to the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
In the future, the government wants to see this number hit 3% -- the level in France and Canada -- which would translate into 18 trillion yen of economic output.
Nightlife is emerging as a fourth key element in the government's agenda to promote tourism, following nature, food and history.