Japan’s Watatsumi Shrine bans foreigners after vandalism and alleged death threat against priest

Julian Ryall

Japan’s popular Watatsumi Shrine has taken the unprecedented step of banning all foreign tourists after a spate of vandalism, thefts and an alleged death threat against the head priest by a South Korean tour guide.

“Let me say that if you think this is [due to] hate or a violation of human rights, then please discuss the matter with me directly,” the priest, identified as Negitama, wrote on Twitter. “We cannot put up with the destruction of a site of worship.”

The priest described foreign tourists eating picnics in the grounds of the shrine – on the island of Tsushima, off Nagasaki Prefecture in southwest Japan – and a YouTuber filming without permission.

The priest said tour guides ignored his repeated requests to avoid stepping on places of worship, instead using the steps to shrine buildings to address their groups. He also posted images of Korean graffiti carved into a board to hold ema prayer plaques and said amulets had been stolen. The priest also described how a “Korean guide” threatened him and told him to die.

The tourism industry in Tsushima relies heavily on Korean visitors. Photo: Handout

The priest’s post attracted hundreds of messages, mostly supportive and suggesting perpetrators be reported to police. Others, however, said it was wrong to discriminate against foreigners, most of whom are well-behaved and respectful.

The tourism industry in Tsushima, located halfway between Japan and Korea, depends heavily on Korean visitors, whose numbers have slumped dramatically in the past year as a rift between the countries over historical and territorial disputes escalated into a trade row.

“The shrine is one of the most popular places on the island to visit but we have heard that there have been problems with foreign tourists,” said Saki Yamashita, a spokesperson for the Tsushima Tourism Association who said South Korean arrivals dropped 80-90 per cent since ties between the two countries soured.

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“I guess that things got so bad that the shrine had no choice but to do this, but it is likely to make things harder for the tourism industry here.”

Hirokazu Kusu operates vessels out of the island’s Hitakatsu Ferry Terminal and used to complete nine round trips from Busan every day bringing in around 2,000 people.

Now, he has three ferries bringing in “200 people a day, if we’re lucky, but usually closer to 100 arrivals”, he said. “It’s a problem between the two countries, but it is causing a huge problem for the tourism industry here.”

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