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Japan Credits Overseas TV Content Sales With Triggering Tourism Boom

Given the apparent link between the surge in the number of overseas tourists arriving in Japan and escalating foreign sales of the country's domestically-produced TV content, is there a formula here that other destinations could possibly follow?

Photo: Mount Yotei: The setting for a recent edition of the popular Love Hokkaidō travelogue.
Mount Yotei: The setting for a recent edition of the popular Love Hokkaidō travelogue.
Photo: Mount Yotei: The setting for a recent edition of the popular Love Hokkaidō travelogue.
Mount Yotei: The setting for a recent edition of the popular Love Hokkaidō travelogue.

With the number of overseas tourists visiting Japan having soared over recent years, government and tourism officials are crediting at least part of this upturn to the success the country's TV industry has had in selling content abroad. It is believed that the positive depiction of Japan in such programming – now a staple of many overseas conventional broadcast and streaming services – has inspired many viewers to move the country to the top of their must-visit list.

In total, Japan welcomed more than 28 million foreign tourists in 2017 – a huge increase on the eight million arrivals recorded for 2010. For many, there is a telling correlation between this tourism uptick and sales of Japan-made television content.

Back in 2010, the total overseas sales value of Japanese broadcast content was logged at 6.6 billion yen (US$60 million). By the end of 2016, however, the corresponding figure was 39.4 billion yen, with the increase due to both the rapidly rising number of content-hungry platforms and a more aggressive export policy by Japanese programme makers. A combination of these two elements had led to far higher numbers of non-domestic viewers being exposed to positive depictions of Japanese culture, lifestyle and tourism attractions than ever before.

The volume of cultural and lifestyle programming exported, however, is dwarfed by the overseas sales of Japan-sourced anime video content. Anime – the country's proprietary and highly distinctive graphic style – has been the backbone of the country's cartoon industry since the 1960s and has, more recently, also conquered the computer-gaming sector. Although originally a strictly Japanese phenomenon, it is now globally popular among younger viewers and gamers, with its ubiquity almost certainly having also helped to drive visitor numbers.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, anime-related sales accounted for 80% of all revenue from exported Japanese broadcast content in 2016. The remaining 20% largely stemmed from drama and variety show programming.

Apart from its undoubted cross-border popularity, another reason why the figures are skewed in favour of anime is that it is far easier to dub into the language of any local market than big budget dramas or fast-moving, supposedly spontaneous, variety shows. With the primary overseas markets for Japanese broadcast content seen as North America and other countries across Asia, overcoming this language barrier is regarded as a major challenge for non-anime programme makers if the export momentum is to be maintained.

Photo: Anime: The most popular Japanese cultural export since the kimono.
Anime: The most popular Japanese cultural export since the kimono.
Photo: Anime: The most popular Japanese cultural export since the kimono.
Anime: The most popular Japanese cultural export since the kimono.

Anime aside, programme makers in some of Japan's more tourist-friendly regions are seen as having notched up considerable success in promoting their appeal to overseas tourists. One of the clear leaders had been Hokkaidō, the northernmost of the country's primary islands.

Programme makers there were somewhat ahead of the curve, having produced content celebrating the local landscape and way of life since the 1990s. Indeed, depictions of the island's snowy winter climate – which has made it one of Japan's leading skiing centres – and legendary seafood / dairy dishes are seen as having played key roles in luring visitors from Europe, the US and across Asia.

Among the areas that have followed suit is Kyūshū, with the southwestern island finding a ready overseas audience for the locally-made travelogues that highlighted its active volcanoes and natural hot springs. Of late, other popular visitor destinations – including Tōkai and Hokuriku – have also got in on the act, with their efforts credited with producing a substantial boost for their respective local tourist economies. In addition to locally-themed strands, programmes dedicated to Japanese cuisine (particularly ramen) and the more idiosyncratic elements of the country's national culture are also seen as having helped pique the interest of would-be visitors.

Given Japan's success in scaling the league of the world's most visited countries and regions, other popular tourist destinations have been wondering if they, too, could benefit from such a television-led windfall. Asked whether adopting a similar policy might make sense for Hong Kong, Liz Shackleton, Asia Editor for Screen International, the leading publication for the global film business, said: "Locally-produced films and TV shows that showcase the city's food and culture could undoubtedly have a positive impact on tourism numbers, especially as many of the streaming services are now well-placed to distribute this kind of content globally.

"In fact, something very similar is already happening on the mainland. This has seen local content creators producing documentaries that are being shown on a global basis. A particular success here has been Tencent's Flavorful Origins, which is now introducing a wide variety of Chinese cuisine to viewers in more than 200 countries and regions via Netflix."

Adding a warning that Hong Kong could be at risk of missing out on any tourism-TV-related bonanza, she said: "When international productions make use of any location, it nearly always contributes to an increase in local tourism, with New Zealand – the setting for The Lord of The Rings trilogy – being, perhaps, the best-known example. To date, Hong Kong has been proactive in this area and has already provided the location for several major international movies, notably Tomb Raider, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Ghost in The Shell and Skyscraper.

"In recent years, however, there has been a huge global shift towards episodic TV production. This has seen many countries in Asia introduce production incentives and funding schemes to encourage the major streaming companies, the likes of Netflix and Amazon, to use them for location shooting. Hong Kong, though, doesn't currently offer any such incentives but, with the global landscape becoming increasingly competitive, it may have to reconsider its stance."

Photo: The Pearl: Being fictitious has been no impediment to this Hong Kong skyscraper attracting tourists.
The Pearl: Being fictitious has been no impediment to this Hong Kong skyscraper attracting tourists.
Photo: The Pearl: Being fictitious has been no impediment to this Hong Kong skyscraper attracting tourists.
The Pearl: Being fictitious has been no impediment to this Hong Kong skyscraper attracting tourists.

As a sign of the close links between on-screen appearances and tourism, a number of overseas visitors to Hong Kong have, apparently, been determined to tour the smoking ruins of The Pearl, a 240-storey building in the city's central business district that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson fails to save from destruction in Skyscraper (2018). Clearly, the fact it was wholly fictitious was deemed no good reason to omit it from their tour schedule.

Shota Maruko, Tokyo Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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