Isabella Bird, a British woman voyager who made her way around the Japanese archipelago at the beginning of the Meiji era, had a hard time during her travels here due to the curiosity that was displayed toward foreigners.
The inn where she stayed in Tochigi Prefecture had shoji doors that were full of holes, and people one after another began peering through them. The establishment's other guests -- as well as its staff, and even the proprietor -- also entered Bird's room without permission in order to catch a glimpse of her.
In a town that Bird visited in the Aizu district of Fukushima Prefecture, someone yelled out "A foreigner's arrived!" -- and a crowd rushed to gather around her almost instantaneously. When she returned to the inn where she was staying, numerous adults crowded onto the roof of the house next door, while children lined up along a nearby fence.
Every time she ventured outdoors, she said, the clop-clopping of the geta worn by the 1,000 or so people who followed along reminded her of the sound made by hailstones.
Despite being surrounded by throngs of people, however, Bird said that she never felt any concern regarding the possibility of injury to her person. The fact that she never once faced robbery caused her to later write that traveling in Japan was an absolutely safe pursuit.
The reaction to Bird's presence may have stemmed from the Japanese belief of old that "marebito" -- literally, "rare visitors," or those whose presence is not normally seen -- serve to bring good fortune into peoples' mundane lives.
Last year, a total of 19.73 million foreigners visited Japan. With the figure expected to exceed 20 million this year, a trend that is increasingly gaining attention is that of "minpaku," or hosting visitors at one's private residence -- either in an empty apartment that one owns, or in one's actual home.
One initiative that is taking place in this regard is an effort to permit minpaku accommodation that would normally violate the tenets of the Hotel Business Act by creating special rules for lodging via the system of national strategic economic zones.
Applications in this regard will be accepted starting Jan. 29 in Tokyo's Ota Ward, and Osaka Prefecture intends to follow suit in April.
Because the minpaku system is already in widespread use, however, a movement is also in force that is calling for cheap lodging to be permitted under the Hotel Business Act, and clear rules to be lay down in this regard.
Clearly, in view of the rapidly increasing numbers of visitors to this country, the minpaku-related regulations that are being put into place represent a case of too little, too late.
In order to address concerns regarding the impact of minpaku-style accommodation upon local neighbors, moreover, strict rules will need to be put into place.
Today, the so-called "rare visitors" are anything but unique or rare. It seems to be about time, then, that our country becomes a tourist-oriented place where such persons are treated completely naturally. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)