The year 2013 marked an important turning point for tourism in Japan. Mt Fuji became a world cultural heritage. Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. "Washoku", or traditional Japanese food culture, was inscribed on the list of intangible cultural heritage.
Due partly to these developments, the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan hit the 10 million mark for the first time in history. A weaker Japanese yen, the broader exemption and relaxation of visa requirements, and the introduction of low-cost airlines have also contributed to this new record.
Despite political difficulties in the region, the largest number of tourists still came from South Korea (23.7 per cent), followed by Taiwan (21.3 per cent) and China (12.7 per cent).
Tourist numbers from South-east Asian countries grew by 48.3 per cent to more than one million for the first time, thanks in part to the easing of visa requirements.
These trends continued into this year.
The number of foreign tourists was a record high of 6.26 million in the first half of the year. The Tomioka Silk Mill, a symbol of Japan's industrialisation and modernisation effort in the 19th century in the vicinity of Tokyo, became another world heritage site.
Against this backdrop, the Japanese government announced an ambitious tourism promotion action plan in June, aimed at doubling the number of foreign tourists to 20 million by 2020.
Policymakers and business leaders are hoping that the selection of Tokyo as the Olympic host in 2020 will catalyse Japan's effort to promote inbound tourism.
The Mizuho Research Institute has estimated that 808,000 tourists will visit Japan and spend about US$1 billion (S$1.2 billion) during the 2020 Olympic Games. The Games will also raise inbound tourist numbers before and after the event, based on the experience of previous host countries.
The Olympic Games aside, promotion of inbound tourism has become one of the pillars of the Abenomics growth strategy.
Receipts from inbound tourism have grown from US$8.8 billion in 2003 to US$14.6 billion in 2012, even as expenditure for outbound tourism fell slightly from US$29 billion to US$28 billion in the same period. In April this year, Japan's travel balance of payment showed a US$170 million surplus for the first time in 44 years.
Despite the recent positive developments, Japan's track record as a host nation is dismal.
The government's recent White Paper on Tourism said that in terms of visitor numbers, Japan was in the 33rd place in the world in 2012. Within Asia, it was eighth after China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Macau, South Korea and Singapore. Given the food, culture, art and other tourist attractions the country has, these are disappointing results.
THE tourism promotion action plan announced in June has spelt out remedies, such as wider availability of free wireless LAN spots, user-friendly, multilingual travel navigation systems and services, and information on "Cool Japan" brand products and better shopping opportunities.
In 21st-century Tokyo, a major metropolis, railway stations rarely have English maps readily available. Some street signs in English alphabet are simply useless. For example, instead of having a sign that says "Tokyo Metropolitan Government", a sign says "Tocho" - a transliteration of the Japanese name, meaningless to anyone who does not read Japanese.
The station near the Tokyo Olympic Games main stadium is called "Kokuritsu-Kyogijo". We will have to wait and see whether it will read "National Stadium" by 2020.
The icing on the cake: The incomprehensible line "Yokoso! Japan" had long been a tag line to promote inbound tourism until recently.
It means "Welcome! Japan". But would anyone who doesn't speak Japanese know it?
Fortunately, that tag line was replaced by a much better one that says "Japan. Endless Discovery" in 2010.
This year, the Tokyo metropolitan government has brought together 56 ministries, transportation authorities and business enterprises to rationalise English signs and directions within the next five years.
To make shopping in Japan a more pleasant experience, the Japanese government has decided to provide tax exemption on a wider variety of goods to include food, drink and medicine from October this year.
It will double the number of duty-free shops to 10,000 by 2020.
Still, difficulties remain.
In European countries, foreign tourists can make tax exemption applications at the airport and get the money back on their credit cards. This system does not exist in Japan. Tourists need to make a tax exemption application every time they buy something, unless they do all the shopping at one big department store, where they can get the job done at one stop.
ON THE positive side, halal food and drinks are becoming more widely available. Last year, 177,000 Malaysian and 137,000 Indonesian tourists visited Japan, up by 36 and 35 per cent respectively from the previous year.
Some hotels now have new kitchens and provide halal traditional Japanese courses, halal beef shabu-shabu, halal yakiniku grilled beef and halal bento boxes. They also provide prayer rugs and qibla direction signs in guest rooms, and arrange a prayer room in banquet facilities for group guests.
Tourists in the future may be able to stay in traditional spacious Japanese houses seen in the samurai films. Under the current rule, these houses cannot be used to accommodate tourists unless they have a front desk and a requisite number of restrooms. Further deregulation can eliminate such impediments.
It takes effort on the part of not only the government but also the people to promote inbound tourism. Foreign visitors leave Japan with good memories not necessarily because they saw beautiful temples and shrines or experienced a quiet shinkansen bullet-train ride moving at the speed of 320kmh.
They do so when they feel goodwill from and enjoy the hospitality of the people in the host nation.
Japan and its people have so many good things to offer. What they need to do now is to engage with foreign visitors more passionately and share with them what the Japanese people really cherish in their daily lives.
When Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, the focus was on restoring the sense of confidence and pride in the minds of the Japanese people.
In 2020, it will be about sharing with their friends from overseas what Japan and its people have to offer: a country rich in tradition and culture, yet innovative and enterprising, a creative model for sustainable growth and a good quality of life.
And allow me a personal pitch: Now that you have read this essay, you have one more reason to visit Japan in 2020 (or even before that): to find out how successful or unsuccessful the country's efforts will have been.
I will wait to welcome you here.
The writer is professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (Grips) in Tokyo, where he is director of the Security and International Studies Programme.