The government has announced its aim to bring 20 million foreign visitors to Japan by 2020 -- a goal that seems poised to be reached as early as this year. Given the sudden surge of overseas guests -- otherwise known as "inbound tourists" -- local eateries are aiming to increase the numbers of the sightseers to their establishments.
On a weekday in January, nearly half of the customers at Brook's Green Cafe in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward were foreigners. The restaurant's display cases showcased dishes including prepared foods made from rice flour, as well as items catering to both vegetarians and vegans -- the latter of whom consume no animal products whatsoever.
With such offerings as organic Fuji matcha soft-served ice cream and golden sesame cappuccino, the restaurant's menu features a decidedly Japanese-style flavor.
Capitalizing on its location -- which is within walking distance from districts that are popular among foreigners, including Meiji Jingu and Harajuku -- the restaurant renovated its interior and its menu in October with overseas visitors in mind.
Japanese tea and tea ceremony-related goods are available for sale at the cafe's entrance, and the menu is available in 10 different languages -- with one-third of the employees themselves foreigners.
Wi-fi is also available inside the establishment, and guidebooks are available for customers to borrow. Staff members have additionally studied how to answer questions such as how to get around local roads and ride the trains.
"The wishes of our foreign customers, as well as my own experience opening a store in Paris, have made me realize that there is a desire for both organic and Japanese-style ingredients," comments Brook's Group President Hiroko Ogawa.
She adds, "As a leading macrobiotic nation. I also began thinking that in the lead-up to 2020, we should be serving Japanese-style food from the perspectives of both beauty and health."
According to the Japan Tourism Agency, the number of overseas visitors to Japan in 2015 was 19.74 million -- a 6.33 million increase from the previous year's figure.
The product market also experienced sudden growth, with total purchases made by foreign tourists that same year soaring to nearly 3.48 trillion yen -- a 71.5 percent increase over the previous year -- and related phrases such as "bakugai" (explosive purchasing) also making their way into everyday parlance.
Nearly 20 percent of these funds went to eating and drinking establishments. The matter of whether or not such businesses can make inroads with the inbound tourists is accordingly a matter of considerable significance -- and has resulted in some local governments beginning to offer assistance in this regard.
Tokyo's Sumida Ward, which is home to the Tokyo Skytree tower, held a seminar last October titled "Learning about foreign customers (Taiwanese edition)." Event participants learned little-known information such as the fact that a considerable number of Taiwanese are vegetarian, and that some 70 percent of tourists post photos of their journeys on Facebook.
Around 50 percent of local restaurants are now also in the midst of creating menus in English, which they subsequently plan to announce through the use of a common sticker. Also in the works is a special local map geared toward foreign visitors.
Meanwhile, Tokyo's Taito Ward -- which includes favorite tourist destinations such as Asakusa -- began offering financial assistance last year for the cost of businesses to obtain halal-related certification, wherein they are able to serve food to patrons observing Muslim rules -- which forbid the consumption of pork and alcohol for religious reasons. Obtaining the halal certification requires passing a strict examination, whose content includes food preparation methods and the ingredients included in a restaurant's seasonings.
Organic Vegan Restaurant Kaemon Asakusa, which obtained halal certification last year in November, developed dishes on its menu that do not use mirin or other types of cooking wines -- and also offers an area where guests may engage in prayer. While the restaurant used to have almost no Muslim customers at all, there are presently a total of around 50 such patrons per month.
"Beyond the financial assistance being offered, public relations efforts have also been taking place all across town -- and the effects have been significant," commented Kazunori Uehara, the restaurant's owner and chef, with regard to the tie-up with local government officials.
His establishment serves as an example of the Internet-based infrastructure that serves to connect local eateries and watering holes with potential foreign customers.
"Gurunavi," a website that features information on eating and drinking establishments, expanded in January last year in order to begin including foreign language versions of its service. When restaurants enter information in Japanese, it is now automatically translated into different languages such as English and Chinese.
Because the site allows participating eateries to opt to enter information such as the type of ingredients, seasonings and cooking methods that they utilize, patrons including vegetarians and Muslims have an easier time choosing establishments to eat at.
At present, more than 70,000 venues have registered their shops' information with the website. A Gurunavi PR representative commented, "Numerous restaurants are having a hard time with providing information targeted toward foreign customers. In the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, these types of needs are only going to increase."
Meanwhile, problems are beginning to arise in terms of friction between Japanese and foreign customers as a result of issues such as the latters' manners.
"Japanese people should voice their opinions directly, and should also express their displeasure," emphasizes Masaru Suzuki, an affiliate professor of tourism studies with Kyoei University. "Japanese tourists similarly did many bizarre things while traveling overseas during the bubble years; this is no different from the etiquette violations (that we are seeing today in Japan) by group tour participants who are not used to foreign travel."
"By learning about one another," he adds, "internationalization will progress."
In the future, the presence of foreigners will be a very familiar sight. Professor Suzuki notes in this regard, "We are at a critical juncture right now in terms of whether group tour participants will return again later as private travelers. To this end, it is important that we make the matter of responding to this issue a national commitment -- and this also includes ordinary citizens."