It’s amazing how quickly the time seems to fly in Japan. It was just a short time ago that Japan won the bid for hosting the next Summer Olympics, and now it’s already 2015…only 5 more years until Japan will once again be in the Olympic Spotlight. It is certainly a modern, 1st World Country, but is Japan truly ready for the influx of foreign tourists, guest workers, and subsequently, residents?
As a country deeply steeped in tradition, Japan has always been somewhat unique in the world. It is an eclectically perplexing mishmash of old-world ideologies mixed with modern technologies; of ancient traditions interspersed with some modern ideals, of a mostly homogenous culture trying to come to terms with the unstoppable force of globalisation and all the changes it brings.
It is sometimes absolutely mind-boggling that a country which prides itself on having innovative technology, lacks behind some other countries in some very essential ways; from access to WiFi, to accommodating disabled people, to views about the rest of the world. For example, especially when it comes to a high-tech bathroom/toilet experience, Japan still has many outdated squatting toilets that not even Japanese people like to use. Often-times in major train stations, you will see escalators going up, but very few escalators going down, if at all. As someone who travels frequently, this design-choice is wildly perplexing at the very least.
The advertend influx of tourists and guest workers will undoubtedly put a major strain on Tokyo’s transportation system, which is already filled to the brim during peak hours. Will the foreign guests really see being pushed into already overfilled train cars, a.k.a the Tuna in a Can Sensation so common in Tokyo’s trains and Subways, as an enjoyable way to travel? How will Tokyo’s transportation options, which are already past the bursting point, accommodate the projected influx of foreign visitors? It is very apparent that a major overhaul of the current, aging system is necessary, but will there be enough time and monetary resources available before 2020?
Another mystifying phenomenon in Japan is that Credit Cards are still very rare and Cash is still King. In many other countries, it’s the other way around, with electronic transactions far outnumbering cash transactions. This might cause some problems for the visitors used to their electronic cash. How will Japan’s financial infrastructure adjust to this changing financial landscape, especially in regards to make it easier for foreign currency transactions between banks?
Japanese, just like the people who speak it, is truly unique, and in many parts of Japan, not many people speak English (or other languages). This is already a huge barrier now, especially considering how notoriously difficult English is for most Japanese people. Even though it is becoming more common these days (very slowly), but ubiquitous English comprehension is still somewhat of a rarity in these lands. And what about the written word? While Hiragana and Katakana are not that difficult to learn, it’s the Kanji that will make it quite ardous (to put it mildly) for most travellers to get around Tokyo, let alone Japan. As long as people stick to the big cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagoya, they will probably be able to find their way with Google Maps, as there is some English signage provided, but that very quickly disappears once you step outside the 4 big cities.
How will the city of Tokyo in particular (and for that matter, the country as a whole) cope with these issues?
Another factor to consider is that even if the infrastructure can hold up, the societal perceptions of “Foreigners” are still deeply steeped in 1970s non-Politically Correct Stereotypes, more often than not mixed with covert Xenophobia by the “Golden Generation”. While personally, I have come to accept and in certain ways even enjoy the extra space on trains because not many people are brave enough to sit next to me, I’m sure it will be quite a shock to many Japanese people seeing so many “gaijin” on their trains, unless there is some kind of major educational campaign by the government, or a vast perception shift by the local populace, who (for the most part) are still curiously wary of these “foreign-people”.
Can Japan truly handle all of the necessary changes before, during, and after the Olympics in 2020? Is Japan truly ready to be front and centre of the world’s stage again? From now till 2020 will certainly be an exciting time for Japan. What do you think? Is Japan truly ready for a change?
Photo Credit: Perati Komson