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Visitors arrive from Japan with heavy hearts

By Gene Park

LAST UPDATED: 2:27 a.m. HST, Mar 23, 2011


» Honeymooners Takaaki Matsumoto and wife Chiaki arrived in Hono≠lulu Sunday from Japan. An earlier photo caption and story misidentified the couple.


Tourists from Japan are still flying in to Hawaii, but some interviewed yesterday brought pangs of guilt with them.

"I feel apologetic," said 31-year-old Osaka resident Yasuo Mitsuhiro, through an interpreter. "But I planned this trip over six months ago, so I decided to come anyway. Right now people are suffering in Japan, and I feel bad coming on a trip like this."

On March 11, Hawaii was hit by seismic sea waves from Japan's devastating magnitude-9.0 earthquake. And now the state anticipates a drops in visitor arrivals just as the industry was starting to show signs of improvement after the recession.

About 1.2 million Japanese travelers accounted for about 17.3 percent of statewide visitor arrivals in 2010. They spend up on average about $270 a day.

However, several traveling agencies and hotels have reported cancellations and decreases in reservations.

The impact of any significant drop in arrivals would be broad. Toru Hamayasu, who heads the Rapid Transit Division, overseeing the city's $5.5 billion rail transit project, said last week that the city is concerned about a drop in general excise tax collections.

He said Japanese travelers can account for up to 5 percent or 6 percent of the general excise tax and that the rail project depends on a surcharge of the tax for funding.

All of the arriving Japanese tourists interviewed yesterday said they had planned their trips months ago. None of them came from areas heavily affected by the quake or tsunami.

"I didn't even feel the earthquake," said Hasegawa Shizuka, 30, of Osaka, who has no relatives in affected areas, either.

Shizuka said many Japanese are fearful that another powerful earthquake could hit, and are focusing on stocking up on supplies just in case "so they can have something to live on to survive for a while," she said.

Mitsuhiro, an information technology specialist who was traveling with his family, said he is seeing the same trend.

"Things are disappearing from the supermarket," he said.

In Hyogo, items like batteries, rice and instant noodles are flying off the shelves, said Chiaki Matsumoto, 30, who arrived yesterday for her honeymoon, planned about six months ago.

"We have conflicted feelings about traveling at this time, but it's our honeymoon," Matsumoto said. "People in Japan are canceling wedding ceremonies because they feel they shouldn't be having fun while others are suffering."

Junko Kohara, 39, of Chiba said her Japan Airlines flight to Hawaii had many empty seats. When she checked for flights back to Japan, she found many of them were booked because many former residents are returning to check on their families. She is visiting Hawaii because her husband's parents live on Oahu.

Toshikazu Kokaji, 60, of Okayama said the quake rattled his brother's apartment in Tokyo, breaking dishes and knocking over his computer. Kokaji said people are stocking up on food and gasoline in Tokyo.

Although life in Okayama is relatively normal, several firefighters from the area were sent to Tokyo to assist in the recovery. Also, many evacuees are being sent to government-owned housing units in Okayama to stay up to a year, Kokaji said.

"I felt kind of bad coming on this trip," said Kokaji's wife, Hidemi. "But my husband is retired, and we have been planning this trip for a while, so we decided to come."

Toshikazu Kokaji said it's unlikely many other Japanese travelers would plan trips to Hawaii or elsewhere.

"Many of the more fun activities like festivals are being canceled in Japan," he said. "This earthquake is beyond our imagination. The damage is the largest Japan has seen since World War II."

Yoshio Kuriyama, 61, of Osaka said many other Japanese residents are donating money, and expressed doubts that Tokyo residents would travel.

"Especially in the east side of Tokyo and Japan, everything is becoming scarce," added his wife, Michiko Kuriyama. "They even have to limit use of electricity. We think people there would feel it's not the time to travel. They are probably more concerned about everyday needs than thinking about travel."


Interpreter Yuka Uchida contributed to this report.

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