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Communicating with Tourists: What’s the Rumpus?

SNA (Tokyo) — Chris Kirkland of Tokyo Cheapo joins WTR to discuss the reasons why Japanese have difficulty communicating with foreign tourists even when ample resources are available.


Michael Penn: Welcome for another season and another episode of What’s the Rumpus. My name is Michael Penn and I have a guest which I’m very excited about: this is Chris Kirkland. He is one of the, how should we say, founders and geniuses behind Tokyo Cheapo, which is one of the businesses here, a very entrepreneurial business, which has quickly become a success, and we’re gonna ask him, we’re gonna pick his brain, about tourism in Japan in particular, but I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say. So how you doing Chris?

Chris Kirkland: Excellent, thanks for inviting me, Michael.

Michael Penn: So thanks for coming to What’s the Rumpus. It’s been about two years since our last episode so we’re all feeling kinda nervous about getting started again.

Chris Kirkland: Well, I hope I’ll deliver the goods.

Michael Penn: [Laughing] Alright, excellent! Well, so, first of all, let’s find out a little bit about you. So how is it you got into this business you’re doing now, and what does it have to do with tourists?

Chris Kirkland: So me and my cofounder Greg, Greg Lane, we were sitting in a cheap izakaya about six years ago, and, uh, we were chatting a bit about new business ideas that we could do, cause both of us, I suppose, are entrepreneurs. We’ve had several businesses and we were exchanging new ideas and we both were like, well, no one’s done a guide to Tokyo on the cheap, let’s give it a go.

Michael Penn: So I guess the other stuff was mostly expensive?

Chris Kirkland: Yeah, like most of the media at the time seemed to focus on how you could spend three hundred bucks on sushi, or, you know, a hundred dollars on a pizza or something ridiculous like that. But we’d been living in Tokyo for quite a while, respectively him much longer than me, and you know we’d kind of been, like the rest of us, getting by on a fairly modest budget. We knew that Tokyo wasn’t that expensive. Yet the world seemed to think that Tokyo was this stupidly expensive place, so we saw an opportunity, very easy to start a blog in 2012, so we just started writing some articles, and the rest is history, as they say.

Michael Penn: Alright. And so of course I’ve talked to you before about the origins of Tokyo Cheapo. That’s another video, a different series, you can see on the Shingetsu News Agency Youtube Channel and on our webpage, but today we’re here to talk about tourists. So how does Tokyo Cheapo in your experience interact with inbound tourism in Japan right now?

Chris Kirkland: So when we we started it originally we were thinking it would probably more be for people moving here, expats living here, but our timing coincided almost exactly with this huge boost in incoming inbound tourists. So, basically, about eighty percent of our readers now are inbound tourists; they’re either kind of researching a trip back home or they’re here kind of you know checking on their phone for stuff to do places to eat, and just, you know, generally following our advice.

Michael Penn: And do you have any sense of how many of these tourists are looking for like Japan on the cheap as opposed to five star restaurant Japan?

Chris Kirkland: So McKinsey, there’s a recent McKinsey report, that also mentions four years after we originally came up with the idea, you know, people are excited about Japan as a more budget-friendly destination, cause everybody wants to work within a budget and nobody likes to overpay. So the idea is that you can have this really kind of first class experience but it can be of sort of economy pricing. No one’s gonna argue with that. I mean, like, our demographics of our readers is quite broad, you know, kind of almost everybody reads the site We do have articles about, you know, how to score a five star hotel on the cheap or Michelin-star restaurants with cheap lunch, but the general focus is helping people save money and that seems to like it checks everybody’s box.

Michael Penn: Alright, well I know that as a starving journalist that checks a very necessary box for me! Well so of course I as a resident of Japan when I’m looking for events or looking to do some research about an area, Tokyo Cheapo is a site which I reach for, probably one of the first.

Chris Kirkland: Awesome

Michael Penn: So I think that you guys do things with a lot more class and a lot more intelligent coverage than most of the other sites that I’ve seen. Let’s talk now a little bit about how the Japanese are reacting to this massive inflow of tourists. I think, you know, four or five years ago we were talking about, “Wow, there might actually be ten million tourists coming to Japan from other countries! And now we’re up towards the possibly twenty-five million range now, and the government in the next couple of years even wants is looking at thirty to forty maybe for 2020 Olympic year in particular they really want to, you know, boost it. So how are the Japanese dealing with this? Are they dealing with it well?

Chris Kirkland: Well, I think there’s many mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this is one of the few places in the economy where there’s real growth. It’s, you know, it’s, I think, I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, so I won’t try and quote any, but there’s definitely like a few percentage points of GDP in this industry, and it’s just going up and up. But with that brings these marauding hordes of foreigners who aren’t necessarily used to the kind of delicate customs of Japan. So, yeah, the locals do have mixed feelings about it. I not being Japanese myself and not really watching Japanese media, just anecdotally catching bits here and there, I don’t feel confident to speak for the Japanese, but I do notice things like, you know, every now and again on the news there’s some sort of story about some faux pas a tourist has caused. You know, generally, I think people are kind of realizing that, you know, interacting with foreigners isn’t as hard as they thought it would be. I don’t know if you’ve noticed like the amount of English that people speak to you like convenience store. You know, someone will say the price in English, that like never happened when I first arrived.

Michael Penn: Yeah that’s right there’s definitely been cultural changes, particularly in the big cities.

Chris Kirkland: So I get the sense that there’s overall it’s kind of quite positive and people are sort of quite happy to welcome new people to their country.

Michael Penn: Ok, well we’re calling this video, I believe, “communication with tourists,” so what is the point of this theme? Why is this something that should attract our attention or be of note?

Chris Kirkland: Umm, cause it’s funny? [laughter]. I mean, we’ve all explored the hashtag “engrish” in our travel, so I think most of the listeners will know what we’re talking about. You know ,failures to use the English language properly which are humorous. I kind of came with a few examples that maybe you can edit into this. I think my favorite one… let me just, let me read it rather than paraphrasing… I was on the Tokyo Metro the other day, and there’s a lots of rail passes in Japan and there’s one for Tokyo called the Greater Tokyo Pass. This is a collaboration, I think, between all of the railways, you know JR, Metro, Toei… so it’s a big deal, and they’ve got this nice big blue poster, all in English, and the headline for that is, “Let’s play happily and exhaustively at the popular spot of the metropolitan area!” So, yeah, it’s an interesting topic because the humor aside it’s, like, it’s such a big growing industry, but it kind of points to, why would such a rich, developed country fail to produce, you know, basic copy? This Metro example here, there’s billions and billions of dollars behind those companies. You’d of thought they could of at least pulled some English teacher out of a lesson for half an hour to fix it or something.

Michael Penn: Okay, well, that is a key issue and that’s one of the things that I think every foreigner who lives here for a while shakes their head about is when the resources clearly are available, especially for big companies and for local governments, you know it doesn’t seem like it would be very difficult for them to have a few native speakers on staff who, you know, just smooth out the English, especially if they’re going to put it out in public. You know, they’re going to represent Japan in this sense, especially with all these tourists coming. So, what is your assessment of why they don’t take grammar and spelling seriously in terms of public signs?

Chris Kirkland: So, I think there’s several reasons. Perhaps a really obvious one is the inbound tourism industry is very new. I think before 2012 most of the tourism in Japan was domestic. So they were all just focused on what Japanese people like to do, and communicating to them. So, you’ve got to kind of be forgiving, because it’s a very new industry, so it’s not equipped. They just sort of don’t have that experience. Another thing I think is the way business operates in Japan, and that keeps out a lot of what would seem like common sense to us. A lot of the business happens between friends and existing companies, and there’s not really any of those companies set up to deal with tourists, so they just ask the people they know, and it’s kind of like the blind leading the blind, really. So there’s all these consultancies popping up who are trying to cash in on this big wave of money going into the tourism industry. But even they don’t seem to be, like, exposing the truth, and it’s very frustrating from our point of view, from my point of view, cause it seems you know there’s enough English speakers in Tokyo. Surely there would be like a roaring trade in hiring, you know, copywriters. I think because of the way business operates, because it’s sort of old-fashioned hierarchical and people just are used to doing business in their way with their friends, it’s slow to change.

Michael Penn: Well that points to some deeper issues doesn’t it? I mean, you know, is there any sort of way that you see to start to pull the Japanese business world, and maybe the culture, out of kind of its parochial mindset that it doesn’t really matter You can find Ms. Tanaka if you go over to the other department. She speaks English kinda well. Have her come and translate, right?

Chris Kirkland: So, I was asked at a recent travel event we organized, I was asked on a panel discussion, if I had a billion dollars, what would I spend it on to improve tourism in Japan? And, I said, it’s not about money. I would just make sure I had more foreigners in decision-making positions. I think that, you know, so much will follow from that. So I think that that’s perhaps the first thing that needs to happen because, like, most of the decision-makers are older Japanese people rather than like people who represent the demographic they’re trying to do business with and reach and communicate to.

Michael Penn: Well thank you very much for joining us for our first episode of the second season of What’s the Rumpus We’re hoping to do this basically each Monday night, for at least a few months ahead, so we have lots of exciting guests in the pipeline. So please join us and, uh, be good.

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