First up: Thanks to the crews, business owners, workers, and volunteers who have been cleaning up Garapan in preparation for the coming increase in Japanese visitors.
Before settling on Saipan last year, I lived over a decade in Japan and have been visiting the country since 1985—traveling and exploring the country from the northern shores of Hokkaido down to Iwo To (Iwo Jima). Japanese friends often tease me that I know Japan better than them and, for a foreigner, I have a fairly good understanding of the land and the Japanese people. I consider Japan to be my second home.
Considering how important Japanese tourism could be for the economy of the CNMI and being mindful of the longstanding Japanese connections to the Marianas, do let me share a few personal insights about the Japanese, how they travel and what they look for in a vacation destination and a few observations I made last week while driving around the island.
• Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff are seared into the Japanese collective consciousness and are sacred sites. In my mind, they are every bit as sacred as Chamorro and Carolinian traditional burial sites, modern cemeteries, and the CNMI Veteran’s Cemetery. Both sites are despoiled with garbage and old concrete and railing debris. The generator driving the cell tower at Suicide Cliff is a distraction (and somewhat an insult) to the quiet, peaceful and somber nature of the site where so many died—why isn’t it solar or wind-powered or the generator located further from the summit and a power line run to the transmitter? It’s simply rude, lazy, and inconsiderate.
• The US flag at the Japanese Peace Memorial is faded and frayed. The Old Man by the Sea trail sign is broken.
• The multilingual informational placards around the island (at points of interest) are faded, and in some places, unreadable. There needs to be additional translations made into Japanese and South Korean as well. A good historical, cultural interest and hiking trail map handout of Saipan in English, Japanese, and South Korean is sorely needed.
• The governor may crow about spending $15 million bucks on tourism outreach in Japan (an effort, by the way, I support) but the CNMI fails to provide basic sanitary human needs at most historic sites and beaches. Not even portajohns. What do you expect people to do? There also needs to be sanitary containers provided for diapers and period products. Garbage containers in tourist sites and trail heads too (or else it’s all going to wind up in the sea and on beaches).
• The Japanese are exceedingly fond of animals and that includes strays. The kind of advertising Saipan doesn’t need are social media posts of Japanese tourists being bitten by dogs left roaming about by irresponsible and ignorant owners. This is a public safety issue, folks, and the boonie dog/roaming dog problem needs to be solved.
• The Japanese value cleanliness, politeness, safety and customer service, all areas where we can all make improvements (and, in the process, this will make a better community for us all).
• Due to Saipan having been part of Japan for a few decades, the blood lost in battle, and from all the other ties both lands have with each other, many Japanese have historical and family links to Saipan and are interested in these events as the militarist/World War II-era history taught in Japan is, at best, cursory and anodyne. We should see the Japanese tourists as a sort of visiting family or, at the very least, close neighbors that we haven’t seen in a while.
• We overlook the true value of what the CNMI can offer tourists from Japan (and we should emphasize that we would like to establish a real relationship with them and have them return over and over). That said, it’s the environment, sea, and beaches that matter most to them, along with golfing, local food, and culture, having fun, relaxing, sunrises and sunsets and exploring nature and history. Where we really fail them is in the adventure tourism market segment (I mean, it’s almost impossible to visit and explore the Northern Islands and I’ve been trying to do so for nearly a year—the local government and tourism officials have been of absolutely no help and I know there are many others who want to make the trips). We also come up short at emphasizing Saipan (the northern end) as a clear/dark sky viewing experience opportunity as most Japanese live in brightly-lit cities and never get to see the deep, dark sky that we take for granted. Considering that the Japanese economy is either the third or fourth largest in the world (depending on measuring metrics) and that young single women are a major driver of that economy, we totally overlook the Japanese phenomenon of “girls travel” where young women travel alone, in pairs or groups and spend lots of money. Let’s be good guests and ensure that women can travel and stay here safely and without being harassed, abused, or assaulted. Let them know that we welcome them and that their safety matters to us. There’s a lot of room for improvement in this regard, given just how epically bad Saipan’s sleaze and safety reputation was in Japan in the ’90s and 2000s.
We should also be good hosts and remind Japanese tourists that Japan immigration and customs may possibly conduct urine tests of some citizens returning to Japan as they are well aware of Saipan’s excellent and locally legal cannabis.
Mark Farmer (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Mark Farmer, who is retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, is a regular contributor of photographs to Saipan Tribune.