Ever since I started producing content related to Japan’s booming tourism industry, I have consistently encountered one question: What will Tokyo be like during the 2020 Olympic Games? So, I set out to find some answers from those who would know best.
Fortunately my network led me to Mike Williamson, the general manager of Hilton Tokyo, who was kind enough to sit down with me and share his perspective on life in Japan and how Tokyo will accommodate the 2020 Olympic Games. Whether you are planning to attend the Olympics or are simply considering a visit to Japan in the near future, the following interview will give you insights on what to expect when traveling to this ever-fascinating island nation.
Living and Leading in Japan
First, tell us a little about yourself and your role.
I've happily been in Tokyo for five years now, and I’ve worked for Hilton for more than 20 years in different locations including Europe, the UK, and China. My job is to represent and build the brand. We have 600 team members that are working here full time. I lead them and make sure that we deliver the level of hospitality that our customers expect when they come to Japan, in line with the company brand.
What led you to Japan?
Happily, the company brought me here. I'd like to say that I'd always dreamed of living in Japan, but that wouldn't be true.
Like many other people, I didn't know an awful lot about Japan before coming here, but I’ve worked in a number of international cities. Beforehand, I was in Shanghai, and after a couple of years there, I was asked to come to Tokyo. This has been a great experience, and in many ways, a surprise.
Could you share a few details about how your experience in Japan has been so far?
As a personal experience, it's been great. I’ve been lucky to have a nice lifestyle and I enjoy living in Tokyo. It’s a great city. I enjoy—perhaps because I'm British—the seasons here. We have a great climate. I actually like it when it's cold. When it's cold, you often have a blue sky. That's quite unique, especially since I was in Shanghai beforehand. As for my free time, my family and I have visited some areas of the country, and we’ve always had a super time.
With regard to my working experience, it’s a very good time to be here in Tokyo and in Japan. Everybody knows that the number of tourists has increased a lot in the last few years, partly—or perhaps greatly—encouraged by the government. At the same time, Hilton has invested a lot of money in our hotels throughout the country, and business is generally good. So, I'm very lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Do you have any advice for travelers or people who would like to live in Japan?
I think the best advice is to have an open mind, get here, and just start to explore as much as possible. Certainly Tokyo, and many of the cities here have great public transport systems. You can walk everywhere safely, and there's always something interesting around the corner. Some people cycle an awful lot. Everything is very well organized and it’s easy to get about. There’s so many interesting things catering to every single age group. It’s fascinating.
What challenges have you faced in Japan and how did you overcome them?
On the surface, there are very few challenges being in Japan. Obviously, there’s language, but in Tokyo, there is an increasing level of English with regard to public transport facilities, et cetera.
From a working point of view, the challenge is the fact that everybody is so polite and hospitable. Sometimes, you have to really ask questions to understand what's really going on and what people really think because people do not wish to cause offense. If there is something that is not necessarily working, people may not be as forthright as we might be in the west.
So does that mean that you need to find ways to communicate directly with your team?
You may need to communicate directly but with respect for the hospitality of the people that you're with. It's very much about questioning and verifying as opposed to a western culture where people may be much more direct in their conversation style.
Japan’s Tourism Boom and the 2020 Olympic Games
Japan’s tourism boom started well before the 2020 Olympic Games were announced. Why, in your opinion, has Japan become such a popular destination?
Well, I think Japan is actually coming from a relatively low [tourism] base. So yes, by percentages, the number of tourists coming into Japan has increased dramatically. But at the same time, there's so much more potential for it to increase further.
When I came here five years ago, there were 15 million visitors a year, then it went to 25 million, and now they talk about 40 million. Still, relative to other major tourist destinations, these numbers are—if you could spread them across the whole country—still not huge.
Certainly, some of the actions that have been taken with regard to lowering visa restrictions have helped. The government has obviously been doing a lot more with regard to merchandising, marketing, et cetera. The currency exchange rate, of course, is also an aspect of it—if it's expensive people are less likely to visit Japan.
Do you think Japan can successfully support continued growth in tourism, especially with regard to infrastructure?
I see no reason why not. I'm not an economist, but I was in London during the  Olympics, and for four or five years before the Olympics, half of the conversations were about whether the infrastructure could cope or whether the train system was going to breakdown—all these people were coming in with all these stories of doom and gloom.
The reality was that it was probably one of the best times I've ever seen, and I'm sure that it will be exactly the same here in Tokyo. It's a huge city with a huge amount of infrastructure, and I have no doubt that the organizers here will facilitate and enable it to work perfectly. I think it will be a great time.
That brings us to the core of this interview. Friends, family members and readers of my content are wondering what Japan will be like during the Olympic Games, specifically regarding the crowds, mobility, and accommodations. Can you give some specifics on what to expect?
I don't believe there will be problems here over that specific period. But you have to remember, it's only a period of a few weeks. There’s also eight to 10 other months of the year that will also be a great time to come to Japan. So yes, come over to attend the Olympics—or not. While the games are based in Tokyo, there's an awful lot to see throughout the rest of Japan as well.
The advantage of having the Olympics here is that Tokyo is one of the three or four great cities in the world. It’s a developed city that works—and it works well. All the facilities for the general public and visitors are here already—they don’t have to be developed from scratch as they would with other cities in the world. So they are tried and tested, they work, and they will continue to do so during the Olympics.
The one thing that I've seen in the last five years, is that if people in Japan say something's going to happen, it’s a hundred and one percent chance that it's going to happen.
It sounds like you expect 2020 to be as smooth as any other year in Japan…
As far as traveling goes, I don't see it being a lot different. I think amongst people, in general, there will be an uplifting of spirit. And I say that based on my own experience in London, where there was an increase in people’s general pride and positive feelings. That will come out in the way that they express themselves, and the way that they will be welcoming people from overseas. I'm 100% sure, based on what I've seen in the past and what I've seen living here, that will be very much the case, and it will make a very nice experience for people visiting.
I might be jumping the gun a little bit, but it seems like 2020 would not only be a fine year to visit Japan, but it also might even be one of the best times to visit…
I couldn't think of a better time to come here.
Accommodations, Travel, and Language
In that case, let’s talk about accommodations. There are countless hotels in Tokyo and Airbnb is also a factor (despite having been limited by recent regulations). What is the Hilton doing to stand out from the competition?
The advantage is the Hilton brand. We have a great brand and you're going to be assured of quality service, great hospitality, and an attentiveness to anticipating your needs. And that's the same whether it's in Tokyo, London, New York, Frankfurt, or wherever.
In addition to that, you have standards of service and amenities you're going to be assured of. Whether it's the pool or the restaurants—we cover every aspect of an international hotel. We have a great example of that here in Tokyo. The hotel [in Shinjuku] has been here for about 30 years, and we’ve spent nearly $50 million on this particular hotel in the last five years. We're extremely well positioned to look after guests coming in for the Olympics and afterwards as well.
Let’s talk about language. I'm content with the level of English services available here in Japan, and I’ve never heard complaints from travelers. Ironically, concerns regarding English communication come from within: Japanese businesses, government, and ordinary citizens. Should visitors expect any communication challenges?
Of course in any place where there are two different languages there is a challenge. Somewhat embarrassingly, I will say, I don't speak Japanese. I've lived here for five years. And I have no problems whatsoever. For example—the whole public transport system—everything is in Japanese and English. There's a lot of reference documents, and most websites have English as well. Yes, there may be some times when that’s not the case. At local restaurants, you may only be able to get a menu in Japanese, but in much of Tokyo, that's more of a rarity than being the norm.
You've got such a variety of different restaurants, tastes, and price levels. Most of the time, in all of the well-known areas, it's all in English. For me, it's easy to get around. And it's certainly become a lot easier in the last four or five years. And I know the government has been putting a lot into efforts to promote the use of English.
And the other thing I would say is, when it comes down to hospitality, or just people in general, it is amazing here. It's amazing how often you’ll see a tourist just standing there, looking over a map, and somebody will actually come up and ask them if they need help. Bear in mind that I come from the UK, a city with huge amounts of tourism, but a scene like that is much less likely to happen.
So, while there may be a lack of [English] language [in Japan], it's more than made up for by the efforts of people wanting to help with their hospitality.
In other words, people shouldn't expect any more difficulties than they would in any other foreign country. And hospitality might even make Japan an easier place to travel.
The Last Word
What would you tell travelers that are still on the fence about visiting Japan in 2020?
Genuinely, when it comes to Japan, there cannot be another country in the world that is so developed both from an economic point of view and a technological point of view, with so many aspects of culture and leisure. So little is known about all of this by people overseas.
For many people, coming to Japan is actually an adventure rather than just a visit. Considering that, I can't think of a reason not to come to Japan. Now is the right time to come. It is not expensive, it is very safe, it is easy to get around, and people will be amazed at what they see. Everybody wants to come back once they've got a taste of it.
Special thanks to Cynthia Usui (Head of Hospitality, Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games for the Coca-Cola Company) and Momoko Gonohe (Hilton Tokyo Marketing and Communications Manager) for making this interview possible.