Why is this interesting? - The Tokyo Edition

On tourism, English, and the adventure of travel

Since it’s Thanksgiving week we’re going to try something different. Monday through Wednesday will be normal editions, but for Thursday we’re going to send around interesting reads for the long weekend (and take Friday off). We’re looking for links from readers (thanks to everyone who’s already submitted), so if you’ve got something you think others would enjoy reading (doesn’t have to have anything to do with Thanksgiving), please use this form to contribute. Thanks! - Noah (NRB)

Colin here. Hello from Tokyo. I’ve been coming to Japan frequently since around 2004, and in that time I’ve seen the country become noticeably easier to navigate as a non-Japanese speaker. On my first visit, the city was an enigma wrapped in a riddle. If a train was re-routed, or if a variable didn’t go according to plan, there was sure to be a bit of confusion even for the most seasoned traveler. It was sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, but always made you feel something. The process of getting from point a to point b was a bit of an adventure. At the time of my first visits, Google Maps wasn’t up and running, adding additional complications. There are obviously helpful staff members in the train station and a sense of service and hospitality, but the country simply wasn’t Westernized in the way Hong Kong is. There was still a bit of mystery and intrigue. 

With tourism to Japan accelerating (a trip seems to be on everyone’s to-do list now, rightfully so), this is changing. I’ve been noticing the country, and Tokyo specifically, becoming more user-friendly to those of us that don’t speak the language. Signage is more prominent, taxis are easier to interface with, and there’s a more mandated English proficiency. In other words, there has been a concerted effort to round the edges of the country to make things easier for tourists.

Why is this interesting?

One of the biggest catalysts for this change is not just the surge in interest in Japan, but also next year’s Olympics. They have ushered in a series of systematic changes that touch on navigation, cultural sensitivity, openness, language, and more. It is a forcing factor that is making a country that was slowly opening up, move a bit faster. According to the Economist:

“...in 2019 efforts will concentrate on making the country more tourist-friendly once foreigners arrive—in the hope they stay longer and spend more, or come back again. One goal is to make the country easier to navigate without speaking Japanese. Already taxi drivers have been given translation sheets to help them communicate with foreigners. Signage around cities is increasingly in English as well as Japanese. Language lessons for hotel workers and the like are under way but take time; in the meantime they are being armed with translation apps.

In the year ahead one focus will be accommodation. There are few decent mid-range places to stay between fancy ryokan and run-down business hotels. A clumsy law on home-sharing in 2018 led to a drop in offerings by the likes of Airbnb, an American platform that matches hosts and guests. Making sure infrastructure is well equipped to cope is another area that needs work. More immigration officers are required immediately. With an eye to the future, plans for new runways, inc­luding one at Tokyo’s Narita airport, will move ahead. More businesses need to accept credit cards in the cash-based country.”

This energy is very noticeable, but as with everything, there is a push/pull. What makes Japan unique and interesting is the fact that it doesn’t look like every other place. Its major cities are not globalized hubs where you can squint and be in any city. Sure, it will be nice to be able to buy a ticket without standing in the foreigner’s queue or be able to interface with a restaurant without an intermediary, but some of the charm is indeed this disconnection. Feeling out of place and out of depth in an increasingly homogenized world where everything is frictionless will be an increasingly rare commodity in the world. There’s still some time left in Japan before our AR spectacles are auto-translating Japanese signage before our eyes, so some mystery and romance of travel can still remain. (CJN)

Book Review of the Day:

From the New York Times archive 35 years ago this month: “Having failed to review ‘Neuromancer’ when it first came out, we reviewed the paperback edition a year later.” [Via @NYTimesBooks] (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • New Yorker on techno-utopianism: “Big technological shifts have always empowered reformers. They have also empowered bigots, hucksters, and propagandists.” (NRB)

  • The piranha problem in social psychology: “In response to this attitude, I sometimes present the ‘piranha argument,’ which goes as follows: There can be some large and predictable effects on behavior, but not a lot, because, if there were, then these different effects would interfere with each other, and as a result it would be hard to see any consistent effects of anything in observational data. … The analogy is to a fish tank full of piranhas: it won’t take long before they eat each other.” (NRB)

  • What would happen if we abolished time zones altogether? (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Noah here. I’ve started a new company and we are looking for a sr. backend engineer to join the team. If you are one of those or know anyone who is great, please share. Dinner’s on me at a restaurant of your choice if you help us find someone.

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