Friday, December 30, 2011

Dedicated to the Opportunities

You may have heard, a couple of months back, about how the Japanese government was going to give free airfare to ten thousand foreigners so that they could pump their money into the Japanese tourism sector, still reeling from the Tohoku earthquake in March. If you were looking forward to that, well, keep dreaming - the Japan Times reported yesterday that Japan's Finance Ministry has refused the Japan Tourism Agency's ¥1.18 billion request for 2012. Apparently - and I know this is hard to wrap one's head around, but work with me here - they "thought it would be difficult" to convince people that it was so important for their tax yen to go toward flying a bunch of gaijin over; besides, if newspaper travel sections are any indication, a lot of them may not have made it out of Tokyo anyway.

Though, when you think about it, that billion-plus yen might not necessarily go as far as you think - I wondered, would it even work? With today's exchange rates, that works out to just under $15.6 million Canadian, and while it's easy to think of that amount as pocket change in a government's context, the Japanese government already has all of its change spoken for and then some. Dividing the amout by ten thousand gaijin leaves ¥118,000 or $1,552 to cover fare to and from Japan for each one of them. Ideally, some would have come from inexpensive places; while an Air Canada round-trip flight from Vancouver to Narita in October 2012 is a little more than $1000 before fees and taxes, the same flight on Japan Airlines is a staggering $8,125.14. It seems, however, that it's considerably cheaper to fly JAL from the States.

It's a bit of a shame since I was hoping on being one of those ten thousand gaijin. In the end, though, this doesn't change anything; aside from a few Internet hopes and dreams being shattered, perhaps, everything is the same as it was yesterday. As far as my thoughts about this go, it comes down to the differences between the dedicated traveller and opportunistic tourist.

If JAL charges eight thousand dollars for an economy ticket to Vancouver, I shudder to think of how much one of those business-class seats in the front must cost. That's where you'd find a rich opportunistic tourist.

Before I start, let's break it down. A dedicated traveller would be someone who has it in their mind to go somewhere well in advance, who takes the time to learn the lay of the land and has a firm idea of why they're going over there in the first place. Opportunistic tourism would be, well, just like what the Simpsons did in the episode where they visit Japan - hanging out in the airport waiting for literal last-minute sales on unfilled seats. While that sort of tourism isn't really anything to sniff at within North America, it's a bit different when you cross the Pacific. For one, not everyone in Japan speaks English. The average opportunistic tourist from North America would not be particularly likely to speak Japanese - and that right there would seriously compromise how much an opportunistic tourist could really understand over there.

Yet, even if one was completely unable to communicate, understanding would still creep through. Hell, even that brief experience would be valuable if it shocked the complacent out of their comfort zones.

"I wish that a million of us would visit the USSR," wrote Robert Heinlein in 1960. "The dollars the Kremlin would reap would be more than offset by the profit to us in having so many free men see with their own eyes what Communism is." While there's thankfully no such adversarial spirit between North America and Japan today, the underlying theme remains true - there is always a profit to society when a critical mass of its members gain a true understanding of something else, a wider perspective. Nothing can be comprehended in isolation - whether it's your country, your language, or your society, you cannot truly understand it without something to compare it to. Despite a patina of superficial similarity, Japan and North America represent starkly different cultures, and understanding what they do and do not have in common will leave a person who is better equipped to understand and interact with the world as it is, and not just how they imagine it to be.

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