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Online Summer Programme 2022 – Report

In 2020, Sainsbury Institute (SISJAC) launched its first Online Summer Programme in Japanese Cultural Studies, a response to the cancellation of its residential summer programmes as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown. We saw an opportunity to reach out to a global audience who, like us, were forced to remain at home due to the growing pandemic. Three years on, and while in the UK we are learning to “live with” Covid, restrictions remain in Japan, mask wearing is ubiquitous, and, notably for scholars of Japan, entry into the country remains difficult for non-residents.

The theme of our third Online Summer Programme was “Heritage and Tourism in Post-Lockdown Japan”. Tourism is one of the industries most devastated by the pandemic, especially inbound tourism, and this is very apparent in Japan, where the Government had been working towards 40 million inbound tourists per year by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. SISJAC has not focussed on tourism, but of course it is closely related to the arts and heritages that are the subject of the Institute’s typical research. People travel to see and experience arts and heritages, both tangible and intangible, and it is important to consider how the pandemic has affected heritages in Japan.

From the start, we planned for this Online Summer Programme to be a little different. Our most popular sessions in previous years had been those with multiple speakers, and so we re-envisaged the programme as a series of roundtable discussions, rather than the lecture format used previously. Moreover, we decided that our panels would comprise a mix of academic researchers and heritage and tourism industry professionals, thus ensuring a diversity of viewpoints and experiences which would hopefully lead to interesting conversations. Another planned element of the programme that differed to previous editions was our intention to hold sessions in person, but streamed to our global audience. Although visiting under a tourist visa was still difficult, it was possible to enter Japan for business purposes. Thus, the programme was organised geographically, with sessions taking place in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Fukuoka, with speakers sourced from these cities or the surrounding area, and led by Christopher Hayes and Oliver Moxham.

Unfortunately, due to a new wave of Covid, the sessions were moved online, although the geographic foci remained. Nevertheless, at the end of July, Christopher and Oliver departed Heathrow Airport for Tokyo to deliver the programme.

On arrival, we were greeted by the sight of a masked Hello Kitty, and thus began our journey through Japan. In many ways, Japan was much the same as when we had visited previously, but the attitude towards Covid was markedly different to the UK and other European countries. Coming to Japan from the UK, where mask wearing has stopped for the most part, it was something of a shock. Although we were aware that mask wearing was still required in Japan, we were not prepared for the extent to which masks were being worn, including outdoors, even in cases where there is no one around. Walking around outdoors wearing a mask in 30+ degrees heat with 85% humidity was not easy, but we understood the need to follow the rules of the group. Nor did we want to catch Covid! Hand sanitising facilities, a familiar sight in the UK during the first two years of the pandemic, are still in place at every entrance in Japan, but so are temperature checking devices. PCR testing clinics could be found on every other block in the cities, with queues snaking along the pavements.

Attempting to host an academic programme under these circumstances required a great deal of flexibility and proactivity. We had hoped to meet with speakers for informal dinners, but as cases grew, this became an impossibility. Some British friends living in Japan, with whom Christopher had hoped to catch up, expressed apprehension even at meeting outside. Changes to the programme were made at the airport, on the train, and in hotel rooms, responding to the situation in Japan as it developed.

That being said, in the evenings we observed groups of young people enjoying drinks and food with minimal social distancing, and it was still possible to visit a sento or onsen public bath with no need for a mask. Large public events and domestic travel continued unabated. With international tourism practically impossible (except for those on very expensive group tours), and some exchange students still struggling to enter the country, the number of non-Japanese in Japan was lower than normal, which meant that as we travelled Japan, we felt conspicuous. One observation Oliver had was that places had got un-used to being visited by non-Japanese (or non-Japanese speakers), noticing that non-chain restaurants were rarely offering an English-language menu, a common occurrence pre-pandemic.

Returning to the programme, almost 260 people from across the world responded to our call for applications. Similar to previous years, a large percentage of applicants came from India (16%), followed by the USA (11%), and the UK (10%). Applicants came from a diverse range of age groups and educational backgrounds, although in contrast to previous editions of the programme, this year the majority (68.8%) of applicants had formally studied Japanese culture or language.

Many of our participants described the programme as the best and most interesting edition to date. For our roundtables, we secured high-profile and influential academics, including Professors Philip Seaton, Joseph Cheer, and Natsuko Akagawa, among others, whose knowledge and case studies illuminated the issues with sparkling clarity. In addition, industry insight from professionals such as luxury travel designer Satoko Nagahara, international tourism manager Pepijn Cox, and Kenny Macphie of the Fukuoka Convention & Visitors Bureau served as fascinating juxtapositions to scholarly viewpoints. Discussions touched on a range of topics and issues, including overtourism, sustainability, difficult heritage, host-visitor relations, the influence of popular culture on tourism, the impact of Covid-19, and what lies in the future for heritage and tourism in Japan.

In addition to these sessions, a particularly innovative feature of this year’s Online Summer Programme was our livestreaming from tourist sites. Since we were in Japan, we took advantage of the developments in online video conferencing to stream live from famous tourist sites in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Fukuoka. Not only did these allow us to engage with our participants in a unique way and give them an opportunity to experience Japan through our eyes while the borders remain mostly closed to tourists, we were also able to show the effects of Covid-19 on tourism in Japan, walking through mostly-empty shrines and much less busy streets, often the only non-Japanese in the vicinity. Walking through the red torii gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha was a particularly interesting experience as pre-Covid the paths would be congested with both domestic and foreign tourists, yet when we visited there were only a handful of visitors. This soon changed in the weeks following the programme, however, as the Obon summer holiday saw crowds of domestic tourists filling popular heritage sites, albeit not quite at pre-pandemic levels. An important part of the programme is the fostering of a community. There is a clear appetite for Japanese Studies all over the world, and the Online Summer Programme has served as a platform for bringing people together through this shared interest. 300 former participants from the past three years have now joined our private Facebook group, where they have become an active community. The Online Summer Programmes have also served as an introduction to SISJAC’s activities and former participants have become regular attendees of the Third Thursday Lecture series. Although visiting Japan remains difficult for the time being, we hope that our activities have helped sustain interest in the country for our participants.

Dr Christopher Hayes

Lecturer in Tourism & Events, Teesside University & Academic Associate, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures