Interview: Ken Iwata of Japan National Tourism Organization


Written by Young Jeohn

Mr Ken Iwata of JNTO

Mr Ken Iwata of JNTO

Some weeks back, the JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization) organized Japan Week; a free event to promote tourism to Japan. Due to the rising influence of anime and manga in the United States, they're focusing their efforts on the millennial crowd who are apt to watch their favorite series on Crunchyroll.

In line with this focus, they're featuring Kizuna AI - a virtual Youtuber with more than 1.5 million subscribers - as a main attraction to promote Japanese cultural information and language in a fun, entertaining way.

We chat with Ken Iwata (KI), the executive director of JNTO about some of these initiatives.

1. What was the "Aha!" moment that gave the idea to see millennials as the target market for tourism to Japan?

KI: According to MMGY global, millennials are a huge segment of the travel industry open to new experiences. This information inspired the idea for JNTO to collaborate with Kizuna Ai. I believe this cutting-edge animation technology could be a great tool to raise awareness of Japan as a travel destination.  

2. Can you share your outlook on the number of expected visitors to Japan in terms of growth?

KI: By 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Japan is aiming to achieve 40 million visitors from all over the world. As for US market, we hit 1.3 million in 2017 (10% growth compared to 2016). We have run multiple campaigns including Kizuna Ai to showcase various attractions in Japan, and we are hoping to see the number of visitors from the US continue to grow.

ItoEn sold their teas and frozen treats in Matcha, Sakura and Black Sesame flavors.

ItoEn sold their teas and frozen treats in Matcha, Sakura and Black Sesame flavors.

3. Japan Week is being held at Grand Central, a place with great visibility for your campaign - and for the companies participating. Was participation by invitation or could any Japanese related company be present if they showed interest?

KI: Any Japanese business is welcome to exhibit at Japan Week.  As a government entity, we provide equal opportunities to any Japanese related companies that are eager to promote Japan with us. (For example, Delta Airlines, which is a U.S. company with direct flight to Japan, has worked with us in the past). 

One of several 3D trick art installations

One of several 3D trick art installations

4. One of JNTO's goals is to promote via social media, and the 3D trick art booths seemed to do a great job of that. What's the story behind these booths?

KI: JNTO wants travelers to think out-side-the-box when it comes to visiting Japan. This notion inspired us to implement these inspiring 3D trick art installations. The 3D Trick Art installations provided Japan Week attendees with fun and engaging social media opportunities. We are thrilled with the results. 

5. Kizuna AI looks likely to be the new amabassador for JNTO in promoting Japanese culture to millennials. While the youtube channel has 1.6 million subscribers, most of the content is in Japanese. What is the plan to reach the English speaking market with this character?

KI: Although Kizuna Ai speaks Japanese, we have created videos for the US market with English subtitles provided by JNTO. 

There are currently two episodes featuring subtitles – one on Japanese food and one on Japanese traits – available on the campaign page. We are happy to announce there will be three more episodes added this week highlighting Japanese technology, onsen spa experiences and Japanese subculture. 

Our goal is to show millennial travelers that Japan’s tourism offerings go beyond its traditions by highlighting its unique pop culture scene and sophisticated technology through Kizuna Ai. 

6. Tokyo Otaku Mode is prominently featured as a big contributor to JNTO's goals. Can you clarify their role with JNTO and the extent of their participation?

KI: Tokyo Otaku Mode (TOM) is JNTO’s partner for this campaign. They won a competitive bidding and handles all the tasks including managing website to run the campaign. 

Tokyo Otaku Mode with Mr Bill Hu

Tokyo Otaku Mode with Mr Bill Hu

7. Crunchyroll is an extremely popular source for anime content. Any plans to leverage this audience to promote your goals?

JNTO does not have anything planned at this time.

8. There's an on-going contest with a grand prize of round-trip tickets to Japan. For the winner (and others who are looking forward to visit Japan), what would be the top 5 places that you would recommend they visit on their trip?
KI: The last episode of the campaign is entirely dedicated to introducing Japan’s subculture, including anime, manga, and games. It introduces three holy lands for Otaku culture in Tokyo, such as:

Akihabara, known as a birthplace of Otaku culture with over 40 % of travelers to Japan visiting here. It is now also known as the shopping district for electronic devices.  

Nakano area is filled with manga and amine stores, including bookstores that specialize in used manga. Lastly, 

Ikebukuro is a popular area for otome, young women, who love manga and amine and contains many cosplay shops. There is also anime pilgrimage. People can visit the sites that are drawn in anime, manga, and movies, such as Tokyo- 3 from Evangelion or Suga shrine strains from the movie Your Name.

From Studio Ghibli to Kawaii Monster Café in Harajuku, the list goes on, but we are certain that visitors to Japan will have endless discovery. 

9. Lately, we've noticed more Japanese professionals in anime and manga promoting Japan to the American market. In November, we interviewed manga artist Mikey Maeda (see link below) who flew here from Japan to share his passion for teaching manga illustration. What are your thoughts about working with such professionals in future events as they seem to share a similar vision for promoting Japanese culture?

KI: It’s great to know that many artists are promoting Japan from various perspectives. As JNTO, we promote Japan as a tourism destination by introducing tourism attractions. We are always open to any ideas/new partners to promote Japan as a destination together in the U.S. market. 

10. We would love to know if you have more events planned. Is JNTO participating at Japan day in May?

KI: JNTO will have an information desk set up at Japan Week.

JNTO on Instagram

JNTO on Instagram

11. Hashtags are very important to link photos, news and events to JNTO. What are the most important ones you'd like people to use when instagram'ing, tweeting or posting on facebook?

KI: JNTO’s hashtags are

In addition, we set different hashtags depending on campaigns. 

Japan Week   #japanweeknyc2018
Discover Japan Recipe Contest #discoverjprecipe
Kizuana Ai #japantripsenpai

12. Is there anything you'd like to add that we haven't asked you?

KI: Another way we are reaching the millennial travel market is through our recently launched “Enjoy my Japan” campaign. This is a global campaign seeking to entice long-haul travelers to visit Japan and explore the country beyond the well-known popular attractions and immerse themselves more fully in the rich depths of Japanese nature and culture that exist off the beaten tourist path. 

This extensive, multifaceted promotion involves a broad variety of initiatives, including the launch of a dedicated website ( featuring video clips that show a broad range of activities and scenes not typically associated with Japan, strategically targeted digital advertisements, and television commercials to be aired in multiple markets.


Young Jeohn

Adding creative flair to Otakus & Geeks with his videos, photos and written musings. Having lived abroad with extensive travel experience from Scandinavian ice castles to the fashionable Harajuku district in Tokyo, he carries knowledge from old-skool anime days and enjoys eating with chopsticks (with expert precision), talking shop with companies large and small and other questionable activities he can't talk about in public. His website lives at