Gosho Aoyama (right), author of the popular Japanese comic series "Case Closed" (previously known as "Detective Conan"), and Tottori Gov. Shinji Hirai strike a pose in front of a poster drawn by Aoyama for Tottori Airport. Photo by Kyodo
TOTTORI, Japan - Can a young boy playing the role of a detective lure more tourists from overseas to a small western Japan prefecture?
Shinji Hirai, governor of Tottori Prefecture, sure thinks so.
The boy, to whom Hirai has entrusted this dream to raise the profile of Tottori Airport and consequently Tottori, is named Conan Edogawa. But he is no ordinary boy: he is a genius teenage detective who shrank into a young boy because of a medicine he was forced to drink.
The catch, though, is that Conan, whose name comes from mystery writer Arthur Conan Doyle, does not exist and is the main character of the popular Japanese serial comic and animation, "Meitantei Conan (Detective Conan)," which has a strong fan base not only at home but outside Japan, especially in Asia.
"We want people from various countries to come visit Tottori because of Conan," Hirai told a group of Japanese and foreign media outlets when the prefecture held a ceremony on March 1 to commemorate the renaming of the airport.
Now known as Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport, in a bid to capitalize on Conan's popularity and showcase the prefecture's famed sand dunes, the gateway is filled with posters, illustrations and objects of Conan across 21 locations including the baggage claim area and lobby.
The airport is one of Tottori's two airports along with Yonago Kitaro Airport, which is named after "Gegege no Kitaro," another popular Japanese manga and anime about monsters. The authors of both Detective Conan and Gegege no Kitaro hail from Tottori.
Ever the ambassador for his prefecture, Hirai said, "Tottori is known for its manga, a symbol of Cool Japan," referring to the Japanese government's Cool Japan initiative to promote Japanese culture abroad.
The boy detective manga is available in 28 countries and territories in languages such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai, French, Italian, and Spanish, and in English, under the title "Case Closed".
Detective Conan, created by Gosho Aoyama, remains popular in Japan and abroad as a serial comic, which began in 1994, and as an animation, which started in 1996. The anime has also been aired outside Japan.
"There are more than 10 million visitors coming to Tottori (annually), and I want to particularly increase our foreign visitors," especially through the Conan airport, Hirai said, referring to the low-profile gateway to Tottori, which is the least populated prefecture in Japan with around 578,000 people living in its 3,507 square kilometers.
While Yonago Kitaro Airport sees 2 million passengers annually, Tottori airport attracts one-tenth of that, the governor said.
Japan Tourism Agency data shows that 46,850 foreign visitors stayed in Tottori in 2013. The number is up 18.6 percent from a year earlier but remains well below some of the neighboring prefectures which benefit from good accessibility to bigger international airports and well-connected transportation, including bullet trains, helping to lure tourists.
Prefectural officials said they want to capitalize on the Conan brand as it is rare for an airport to be named after a manga character. Elsewhere in the world there is the Venice Marco Polo International Airport in Italy and France has Lyon Saint Exupery Airport, both taking their names from historic figures, they said.
Among the challenges Tottori needs to address is flight demand. Five domestic flights operate daily from Tottori to Tokyo's Haneda airport, and there are only a handful of non-regular, chartered flights from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Russia.
With Conan being popular in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, one of the officials said the hope is to expand the number of chartered flights from other places as well.
Arriving at the newly named airport on March 1 on a chartered flight from Shanghai, Christina Liu could not hide her excitement over her first trip to Tottori.
A fan of Conan, she said, "Conan is very popular but not Tottori. Tottori is a new place to us. I hope that Conan will make more people visit this place."
Following the arrival of the Shanghai flight, the governor, dressed like Conan, gave a pitch to about 500 people at the naming ceremony about Tottori's tourist attractions.
"The number of foreign visitors to Japan is growing ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They are concentrated in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka partly because of Disneyland and Universal Studio Japan theme parks, but we also have our own," Hirai said, citing manga-themed areas such as Gosho Aoyama Manga Factory, a museum which opened in 2007 dedicated to Conan.
Looking ahead, prefectural officials said they plan to launch more Detective Conan-related events at the airport to make it more entertaining for visitors.
Delivering a video message at the ceremony, Aoyama was hopeful his work could be a boon to Tottori's economy.
"I wish that many people will come to Tottori because of the airport, make this place a livelier place and stimulate the Tottori economy," Aoyama said.
Witnessing the commemorative event, Ayumi Motoba, who lives in Tottori City, was among the local residents sharing the dreams of Hirai and Aoyama.
"I hope the change in the airport's name will raise the airport's profile as well as that of our prefecture," Motoba said.