Can Japan Transform Itself Into an International Shooting Destination?

Tomi Um

The Japanese government is preparing measures to make the country more accessible to global filmmakers, but insiders warn that bureaucracy and red tape could sink the initiative before it gets off the ground.

Two years after Japan stepped back onto the international stage following its wartime devastation by hosting the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, James Bond, in the form of Sean Connery, arrived in the country to film You Only Live Twice. From July 1966 to March 1967, the fifth Bond film was shot mostly in Japan, from Tokyo to Himeji Castle to the southern island of Kyushu.

But in the intervening half-century, few major international productions have filmed there, even those (The Last Samurai, 47 Ronin and Ghost in the Shell) set in the country. Barriers including language, logistics, shooting restrictions and minimal financial support are often cited, with some degree of truth to all of them.

But as Tokyo prepares to host its second Summer Olympics, in 2020, the government is working toward a series of measures to make Japan more accessible to filmmakers around the world. However, some fear that significant progress will grind to a halt amid the infamously slow and laborious wheels of Japanese bureaucracy, while the holy grail of major financial incentives might not even be on the agenda.

The snappily titled Strategic Program for the Creation, Protection and Exploitation of Intellectual Property 2017 task force has met four times to look at the range of issues related to the film industry. The panel brings together the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism; the Agency for Cultural Affairs; and the Japan Film Commission from the government side, plus a few movie producers and the heads of several major domestic studio-distributors.

The plethora of ministries and agencies involved speaks to one big problem: The absence of a single entity responsible for policy and the distribution of available subsidies. Some in the industry have advocated bringing everything under the umbrella of the JFC, but that move doesn’t appear likely any time soon. Meanwhile, the involvement of the domestic film companies adds another dimension.

"The studio-distributors want to sell their movies overseas and are not really interested in attracting international productions," says Mako Tanaka, who took over as head of the JFC in October after running the Kobe Film Commission for many years. "The tourism ministry is only interested in providing assistance if a production is going to bring more people to Japan or a specific area."

The purview of the task force is extensive. A partial list of its responsibilities includes attracting foreign productions, streamlining shooting permit procedures, increasing support for co-productions, utilizing productions to boost local economies, promoting Japanese films abroad, exploiting new markets, projecting financing for independent domestic films, and film archiving. After this summer, the task force will split into multiple groups according to their different areas of focus.

The relative lack of subsidies and tax breaks for productions is due to a lack of economic necessity, according to Tanaka. The situation in Japan is different from those in developing Asian countries in that there already is a lot of work for the film industry and a shortage of people. Japan is suffering a severe labor squeeze — there are now 1.4 job vacancies for every person without work.

“So the economic incentives are not so great in attracting an overseas production,” says Tanaka. “Similarly, countries with less-developed film industries benefit from the experience of their crews working with a Hollywood production, which is not a significant factor for Japan. And tax rates are relatively low in Japan, so rebates wouldn’t be that large, and therefore shooting incentives are a better deal for international productions.”

Even those in favor of boosting financial support acknowledge the challenges. “I am pushing for subsidies for movie productions like those available in other countries. But these require a large amount of public funds, which is a big hurdle, and we need to get the public’s understanding,” says Masahiko Shibayama, a lawmaker in the House of Representatives and a special adviser to the prime minister. “The government also is considering supporting location hunting by foreign producers to help attract inbound tourists. This can be a win-win, with the double impact of production spending and tourism.”

More than 70 percent of the international productions that want to shoot in Japan target Tokyo, according to Tanaka, but it’s the most difficult place to obtain permits, thanks in part to its dense population and narrow streets. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government established Tokyo Location Box in 2001 as a go-to window for film productions, and it receives more than 100 inquiries a year, though not all from overseas. “For films with car chases, explosions and other action scenes, there are still a lot of restrictions,” says a TMG spokesperson.

The famous “Scramble Crossing” in Tokyo’s Shibuya is a favorite location for visiting crews, but issues of traffic control and safety mean it remains off-limits to most. “It’s still very strict, especially in Tokyo. And for some locations, like Scramble Crossing, you just can’t get a permit,” says Anna Hashimoto of Michaelgion, a Tokyo-based production company. “If it’s a small crew, you just have to do it guerrilla-style and pretend to be tourists.”

The government task force has announced plans to make it easier to shoot in public places, including shutting down major highways, which thus far has proved close to impossible. Says Georgina Pope, head of Tokyo production company Twenty First City: “Shooting on trains and major roads is still a nightmare — I try to dissuade people from even attempting it. Nobody is really willing to say yes as it’s never one person’s responsibility, always a committee.”

Multiple layers of bureaucracy presented numerous challenges to Daren Afshar, head of Winery Productions and a longtime lobbyist of the government for shooting incentives. Working on the Japan episode of Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour, which aired in 2016 on the History channel, Afshar says he “had a request to film at Osaka Castle. We had to go through three levels of management, none of whom knew who could give permission. In the end, I called the mayor of Osaka, who then facilitated a discussion.”

Language also remains an issue; there are fewer multilingual professionals in Japan than in many other countries. Against the background of a tourism boom and the 2020 Olympics, however, the government and many private companies are working to raise the general level of English. "I’m able to run two or three crews now in English; there are more youngsters coming back from film schools abroad,” says Pope.

But even perfect English and cooperative authorities would unlikely be enough to compete with the 25 percent incentive that lured Ghost in the Shell to New Zealand. Paramount spent $120 million in New Zealand, about half of that in Wellington, the capital, including more than $10 million just on accommodations and vehicle hires.

Japan will continue to miss out on opportunities of this scale unless it implements comparable incentives, notes Afshar. “There are a lot of small things happening; we’ve just done a Netflix doc,” he says. “But these are $20,000-a-week budgets, not the massive productions that should be happening.”