Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tokyo Three Months After

Japan's maximum metropolis, Tokyo, was little damaged by the frightening trifecta of earthquake, tsunami and radiation that struck several hundred miles away in northeastern Japan in March. But the world's most populous city - and one of its most vibrant - has suffered along with the rest of that normally very safe country by sustaining severe damage to its reputation as a safe place to visit.

Three months after the massive disaster, Japan is trying to relaunch its important travel and tourism industry; the industry accounted for 5.3 percent of Japan's gross domestic product in 2008 and generated 4.3 million jobs, according to Japanese government officials. As Japan's capital and largest city, Tokyo contributes a lion's share to both.

According to a story published June 15 in the Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com), the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan in April plummeted 62.5 percent from the same month last year. Figures for May were expected to be equally dismal, or nearly so, as lingering fears of earthquakes and/or radiation are causing many travelers to stay away.

Those numbers have prompted an unusual letter from the Governor of Tokyo, Mr. Shintaro Ishihara, asking travel journalists and others to help get out the word that things have returned to normal in Tokyo and the city is actually perfectly fine as a destination. I received the letter today, dated June 15 and sent on paper by post from Japan to my home.

Of course, it is part of Ishihara's job to promote tourism and the economy in general, but his words seem heartfelt, and as far as anyone can know now, largely factual.

His language is also notably more temperate than his initial reaction to the disaster three months ago, when he suggested it was "devine intervention'' and punishment for the Japanese people's "egoism.'' The American TV and radio commentator Glenn Beck said something similar about the disaster, asserting it could be "a message from God.'' The controversial Ishihara, a former writer and frequent source of critical remarks about foreigners, apologized under pressure.

Anyway, so that you can evaluate Ishihara's appeal for yourself, here are excerpts from his June 15 letter to foreign writers:

"I ... felt very proud as a Japanese to learn that the calm response of our citizens in such trying times has been highly lauded by the people of the world. The nation is now working as one for the recovery of the stricken regions, and Tokyo is also doing everything in its power to support such efforts.

"Tokyo suffered very little direct damage from this diaster,'' he writes. "With regard to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident, this is unlike the accident at Chernobyl, which resulted in widespread damages; we are not detecting levels of radioactive materials that will impact health, and the lives of the inhabitants of Tokyo are currently unaffected by this incident. It's business as usual here in Tokyo. Please dispel any concerns you may have about visiting and staying in our city, as there are no problems with the water, air, food, public transport and other urban functions, and public safety here remains as high as it has ever been.

"You can thoroughly enjoy the charms of Tokyo again, as well,'' he continues. "Tourist attractions such as Tokyo Disney Resort and the Edo-Tokyo Museum have resumed operations, and events such as the gala summer Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival will be held ...''

"I hope you will visit Tokyo and Japan,'' the governor concludes, "and experience the Tokyo of today - a Tokyo that is no different from what it was like before. Please also see with your own eyes how Japan is taking the path to recovery, united in its efforts to overcome this tragedy. I would also be very grateful if you could then return home and inform others about the strength and vibrancy you found in our city and our nation.

"The people of Tokyo await you with our established spirit of warm hospitality. Feel safe about visiting Tokyo and Japan. We look forward to welcoming you.''

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