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Dear Prime Minister Abe, Greetings from the heart of your capital. I just touched down at your recently expanded Haneda airport and shuttled into town in near-record time – 22 minutes from airport kerbside to the Hotel Okura.
While waiting in the immigration queue (you should try flying in and standing in this line sometime – especially if your flight comes in one minute after a packed Korean Air jumbo where no one has filled out their immigration forms), I started counting the number of times I had been to Japan since the start of the year – this latest passport stamp is number seven. All in, I reckon I’ve been here more than 100 times in the past decade, so I thought it was high time to offer a thank you for your nation’s warm hospitality, while also sending some suggestions. Please feel free to forward them to the relevant ministries.
I’ve noticed that you’ve been on a bit of a media spending spree of late. From beef promotion to humanitarian initiatives, tourism to inward investment, you have a lot of stories you want to tell – and it seems like you’re having some success letting the world know you’re open for business.
Yet surely you can do better than the dreadful tourism campaign you’re running? Not only does it look tired and dated (Mt Fuji, sushi and sakura), it does nothing to sell your country’s edgier, more intimate side. Then again, it’s perhaps a good thing that it’s not creating a tourism boom because your immigration system needs a complete overhaul.
We’ll leave aside the issue of residency for foreigners for now, and just deal with the cumbersome immigration and customs forms that need filling out. Why two? And why not adopt a speedier system for regular business visitors (like Hong Kong has implemented) or some kind of fast track? A 40-minute wait in a too-warm immigration hall is a poor welcome. I understand that you’re trying to conserve energy and like to keep the air conditioning hovering around 25C but you might split the difference by turning the heat down in the winter as everything is too warm. Surely you’ve noticed that people are fanning themselves all year round in climate-controlled environments?
Your ambassadors no doubt send you cables telling you how often people ask, “Is Japan safe?” or “Is it really bouncing back?” I can tell you I get a lot of the same questions sent to my mailbox. My reply? I tell them there’s a renewed energy about the place, that Japanese companies are on the move, and winning the bid to host the 2020 Olympics has certainly put some added wind in your nation’s sails.
At the same time, I also explain that it can still be frustratingly slow to do business (though Japanese companies can move at lightning speed when they want to), that too much time is wasted by salarymen who grunt, groan and suck air through their teeth and fail to make a decision, and the lack of basic English by some senior managers is hindering international growth.
I do hope you’re taking all of these comments in the best possible spirit as they’re meant to be constructive. You no doubt work with legions of advisers and consultants who keep you weighed down with reports, so I thought I might offer a few tips to keep the momentum up, while also cutting out some of the nonsense.
1. Ease of entry: overhaul your ports immediately to get tourists and business people speeding into and out of your country.
2. As home to some of the world’s most respected architects and engineers, embark on a programme to build new flagship embassies round the world.
3. Offer financial and infrastructure support to the UK and assist in rebuilding railway stations and laying high-speed track.
4. Do the same for Australia and Canada while you’re at it.
5. Push ahead with plans to sell your submarines to the Australians. Canada could do with some new subs too.
6. Create a climate to entice the best and brightest nationals back home. Especially women.
7. Follow the lead of Fast Retailing (parent of Uniqlo) and encourage English as the official language for more businesses and institutions.
8. Overhaul NHK’s international output and bring it up to date. Or you could scrap the public broadcaster and launch a new pan-Asian broadcast news brand with a mix of the public and private sector.
9. Bin the hokey tourism campaigns and offer the world a modern view of Japan – sell your design talent, bar culture, infrastructure, ski resorts and new generation of chefs.
10. Start a campaign devoted to faster decision-making or more spontaneity. I know it’s tricky but it just might mean you remain the world’s third-largest economy that little bit longer.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at ft.com/brule