An increasing number of tourist areas and shopping districts in Tokyo have been equipped with Wi-Fi hot spots, so tourists can access the Internet via their smartphones and other devices, especially with the approach of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
This measure has been taken partly in response to complaints by visitors from overseas, as many entertainment districts and tourists spots provide free access to the Internet in the United States and Europe.
As social networking services are seen to be an effective means of communication instead of telephones in the event of disasters and other emergencies, both the public and private sectors in Japan have been promoting free Wi-Fi services.
An association of shops at the Nakamise shopping street at Sensoji temple in Taito Ward began providing a free Wi-Fi service for foreign visitors in July. Its free service had already been made available in some sections of the street. However, some tourists said it could not be used with their overseas cell phones, while others complained that they could not read the Japanese and therefore could not access it.
In response, the association introduced equipment that helps foreign visitors access Wi-Fi services more easily. The guide screen provides 11 language options, including English, Chinese, Korean, French and German.
A visitor from New Zealand said: "The ability to search for information is very important for tourists from overseas. I think building a system for Wi-Fi use in town and allowing us to use it freely is a must."
Shigemi Fuji, 66, chairman of Asakusa Tourism Federation, said: "As the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approach, we need to recognise what foreign tourists need and make efforts to help make their travel more satisfactory. It's part of our 'omotenashi' hospitality."
Wi-Fi services enable users to access the Internet without using cables with personal computers and smartphones. Some restaurants and other facilities in Japan are equipped with the system, but there are not many hot spots around.
According to a Japan Tourism Agency survey conducted in 2011 on foreign visitors in six large cities in this country, 36.7 per cent of respondents said they were inconvenienced by insufficient free Wi-Fi services.
That response was the most frequent to the question about the problems they encountered when they stayed in Japan.
In the area around Shibuya Station, which is undergoing redevelopment, the Tokyu Group began providing free Wi-Fi services in a number of languages in March.
A visitor from Canada said: "As I wanted to confirm the flight schedule for my return trip home, I used the service. It helped me a lot. In Canada, there are many free Wi-Fi spots."
However, there are some problems in providing free Wi-Fi services.
For example, when free Wi-Fi services do not require a password, communication is not encrypted and e-mails can be spied on.
Nevertheless, there are many good reasons for tourism areas to improve their free Internet access.
Merits to boost tourism
An increasing number of foreign tourists post positive opinions about these areas with photos and videos on Twitter, Facebook and other social networking media. This helps attract other tourists to these areas.
Local shops on the Ginza-dori avenue in Chuo Ward began providing free Wi-Fi services in 2012.
"We don't especially advertise the services. But the number of visitors who use them has increased as foreign tourists advertise them by word of mouth on the Internet," a Chuo Ward official in charge said.
The central government and the Tokyo metropolitan government are providing subsidies for installing free Wi-Fi services.
Behind this move is a lesson from the Great East Japan Earthquake, when communication via cell phones became virtually impossible as a huge number of cell phone users tried to confirm the safety of family members and acquaintances at the same time.
If free Wi-Fi services become widely available, it will be possible to access the Internet via smartphone or tablet to contact people through e-mail, or use apps for free calls.