This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
A ban on photography has recently taken effect in the Gion geisha district in Kyoto, Japan, a place popularised by its rich cultural history and appearances in films like ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.
The ban comes after numerous complaints from aggravated residents about the boorish behaviour of tourists who flock to the area for a photo op. Offences include taking pictures on private property, sitting on inuyarai (a curved bamboo architectural feature unique to Kyoto), and taking selfies with the female entertainers known locally as geiko and maiko (qualified geisha and their apprentices) without first seeking their permission. Tourists who violate the ban can be fined up to 10,000 Japanese yen ($91).
Some horrifying anecdotes from Gion’s residents include tourists surrounding cabs shuttling geiko and chasing them down the street. MacIntosh, who has lived in Kyoto for 25 years told The Guardian, “I’ve seen maiko bursting into tears and fending off people who want to have their photo taken with them. They are not on display. This is a live, working environment.” Besides harm to humans, there have also been accounts of outright destruction to public property, such as tearing paper lanterns being sold at shops.
These spate of complaints come in view of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where the upturn of visitors to Japan is expected to last long after the final medal has been won. Japan already had a record 31.2 million people visiting in 2018, and it seems as though these complaints are only set to rise. Locals say the boom in tourist numbers has led to inconveniences like fully-booked restaurants, crowded public buses and a general din which spoils the city’s miyabi - peaceful and elegant atmosphere - which is ironically what draws tourists to Kyoto in the first place.
“Clamping down on tourism is not the answer. At the same time, there’s no question that unmanaged crowds can damage the experience, especially in a city like Kyoto where so much of the essence of the culture was about the quiet and meditative atmosphere.” said Alex Kerr, a Kyoto resident via The Guardian.
Overtourism is a prevalent problem that’s been plaguing not just Japan, but Asia in general. Thailand’s Maya Bay and Philippines’ Boracay Island were formerly pristine beach destinations which have had their ecosystems suffer the onslaught of ‘globe-trampling’. In a more extreme but necessary measure, authorities resorted to closing these beaches and surrounding waters to rehabilitate their reefs and ecosystems.
Gion is a busy neighbourhood where people live and work, so it would be impossible to shut visitors out. But a minor ban on photography seems like a tiny solution to a larger fundamental problem – that many tourists are behaving irresponsibly and ignorantly.
Caught up in the liberation and anonymity that travelling affords, it seems some tourists have forgotten some basic manners. Instead of treating geisha going about their daily lives as tourist attractions, we need to remember some basic rules of being human, like always treating others with respect, and not inconveniencing those around us. Only then will we truly deserve to experience the natural and cultural wonders of the world.
Conversion: 100 Japanese yen = $0.9145