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Unprecedented Rumor Damage and the ‘Blooming’ of Yae no Sakura | Tadashi Egawa, Manager Commerce and Tourism Section Aizuwakamatsu City [Date of Issue: 27/December/2012 No.0214-0873]

Date of Issue: 27/December/2012

Unprecedented Rumor Damage and the ‘Blooming’ of Yae no Sakura

Tadashi Egawa
Commerce and Tourism Section
Aizuwakamatsu City

While Aizuwakamatsu City was not directly impacted by the unprecedented calamity of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear accident, it was confronted with an unparalleled crisis in the form of rumor damage arising from the accident. Here we look at the impact of that rumor damage and the patient efforts which are still underway to repair it. One major step in that direction will be the historical television series Yae no Sakura.

Located in the northwest of Fukushima Prefecture, Aizuwakamatsu City is a provincial town of around 380 square kilometres with a population of around 125,000 (as at October 2012). The whole city is surrounded by a rich farm belt and then a large mountainous region. To the east of the city and 500 meters above sea level lies Lake Inawashiro, Japan’s third-largest lake, which, with most city land at 200 to 280 meters above sea level, serves as a natural dam.

The Aizu basin, surrounded by natural features such as Mt. Bandai and Lake Inawashiro, has some of the finest scenery in Japan in each of the four seasons, bringing in 3.5 million tourists every year.

Tsuruga Castle

Tsuruga Castle

After the Great East Japan Earthquake, we received concerned enquiries and messages of encouragement from all over the country, but fortunately the city suffered no major earthquake damage, and because the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant lies around 100 kilometers away with major mountain chains such as the Abukumas and the Ou Mountains in between, the nuclear power accident too had no significant impact, with even the elderly or children continuing their lives as happily as usual.

We have also taken in evacuees from the town of Okuma where the nuclear accident occurred, providing maximum support toward recovery.

But in 2011, Aizuwakamatsu City was visited by only 2.35 million tourists. Given that we normally have an average of 3.5 million, this represented a major slump of more than 1.15 million people.

The drop-off was due to the Great East Japan Earthquake which occurred on 11 March 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, and the impact of rumor damage arising from that accident. This unprecedented situation left people wary of aftershocks and afraid of possible radiation, while also plunging the whole country into an austere mood. Tourist numbers plummeted, with school excursions and group tours in particular suffering a major decline. Usually, a flood of huge tour buses arrives in Aizuwakamatsu, bringing elementary and junior high school students every year from 841 schools outside the prefecture. Last year, however, rumor damage saw that figure dive to 100 schools.

Most severely affected were restaurants, and hotels, around 90 percent of which suffered declining sales. Some hotels were down to 10 percent of the pre-quake level. Because tourism is a key industry with a major impact on the Aizuwakamatsu economy, this situation presented the city with an unparalleled emergency.

To meet this challenge, Fukushima Prefecture, Aizuwakamatsu City, the Aizuwakamatsu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Aizuwakamatsu Tourism and Local Products Association, the Aizuwakamatsu City Tourism Bureau and the JA-Aizu agricultural cooperative joined forces to launch a national campaign emphasizing the safety of the Aizu area.

(1) Support from companies with connections to Aizu

With the cooperation of Hino Motors, Shiseido and other major companies with connections to Aizuwakamatsu, we sold products directly from corporate premises, enabling us to make a solid appeal as to the safety and reliability of local specialties and produce.

These promotions have been held in 41 companies to date, the Metropolitan area, with the additional goal of bringing people to Aizu on staff and training trips. The companies also supported us by utilizing and handling Aizu produce in staff cafetarias and shops where there was the prospect of forming long-term contracts.

(2) Rumor damage ‘caravan’ formed

A ‘caravan’ was created to go around Japan advertising the safety of Aizu products. The caravan participated actively in recovery support events around the country, selling local speciality goods and conducting activities to attract tourists.

From July 2011 when the caravan was formed through to July 2012, the caravan went out to 88 places from Hokkaido in the north to Osaka in the west. Printed all over with pictures of Okiagari Koboshi, a traditional Aizu toy doll that when knocked down always rights itself again, the truck went nationwide, alerting people to Aizu’s troubles and appealing for visitors.

The caravan

The caravan

(3) Efforts to restore Aizu tourism

To reverse the heavy slump in school trips, the Aizuwakamatsu Tourism and Local Products Association worked with the School Excursion Project Council to organize a school trip caravan to visit elementary and junior high schools which have come to Aizu in the past. Caravan staff spoke directly with parents from other regions concerned about whether they should let their children go to Aizu, explaining how safe Aizu is and calling on them to take a cool and objective look at facts.

They also organized monitoring tours for travel agents and media tours to enable first-hand experience of how unchanged life is in Aizu.

(4) Recovery support premium gift certificate project for stimulating purchasing power

Recovery support premium gift certificates were issued after the disaster to stimulate locals’ purchasing power, 30,000 gift certificate sets with a 10 percent premium rate (worth a total of 300 million yen) were issued. These sold out in two hours, which was indicative of the high level of local interest. Subsequently, we boosted the issue to 600 million yen, and participating entities have also increased to more than 500 stores.

(5) Maximum use of Yae no Sakura

In 2013, NHK’s annual, year-long historical fiction television series (known as ‘Taiga dorama’) will be Yae no Sakura, which is set in Aizu. The heroine of the series is the ‘handsome woman’ Yae Niijima, whose strength and beauty saw her through the turbulent final days of the Tokugawa shogunate to open the way into a new age in the Meiji period.

The “Handsome Woman Yae Niijima and the Aizu Expo” exhibition has been underway since 2012 as a pre-event, and the first episode of the series will air on 6 January 2013. On 12 January, we will open the Taiga Dorama Hall, featuring costumes, sets and other items used in the program, with the aim of spreading the ‘Taiga drama’ effect throughout Aizu and Fukushima Prefecture as a whole.

Press briefing (photo courtesy of NHK)

Press briefing (photo courtesy of NHK)

We continue to receive messages of encouragement and support from many towns that have connections with Aizuwakamatsu City. These towns, with which we have deep personnel and historical ties, continue to convey special messages to Aizu through the ‘Aizu samurai spirit’.

Not least to repay all those kind thoughts, Aizuwakamatsu City will continue to exert its utmost efforts to wipe away rumor damage. We warmly invite you to visit Aizu next year to enjoy the deepening ‘Taiga drama’ atmosphere and the full blooming of Yae no Sakura.

(original article : Japanese)

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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