Sunflowers are seen in the tsunami hit field in in Natori, in Miyagi prefecture, and were planted by local elemenary school children on July 15, 2011. Japan has a campaign to grow sunflowers to help decontaminate radioactive soil. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In March, a huge earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan and drove tourists away. In June, the country saw a 36.8 percent decline in the number of foreign travelers compared with the same period last year. Now the Japanese government is trying to lure tourists back, even enlisting Lady Gaga to sing the country’s praises. Hotels and tour operators are offering discounts on trips, and tourism officials are declaring Tokyo, Hokkaido, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa, among others, safe for travel. The government has reported progress in stabilizing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was severely damaged after the March 11 tsunami. Travel’s Nancy Trejos sat down recently with Shigeki Takizaki, the minister for public affairs for the Embassy of Japan, to find out what tourists need to know about returning to Japan. Excerpts:

Please update us on recovery efforts and how they are affecting tourism.

We have to correct the misunderstanding that Americans and other people have about Japan. Most parts of Japan have not been damaged by the earthquake at all. Japan’s a small country compared to the U.S., but it’s not that small. And the Japanese people have been working very hard after the earthquake to revive their lives. Most highways, railroads and airports have been reconstructed, so you don’t have difficulty traveling in Japan. Even in damaged areas you can travel, with a few exceptions.

How has the disaster affected tourism?

Visitors have been declining dramatically. It is very serious now, and the Japanese government is committed to a kind of campaign in which we’re insisting that Japan is open for business and travel. In autumn, the season in Japan is the best. Most of Japan is quite safe, and even surrounding areas, except for 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) around nuclear facilities, are now safe. We’d like as many foreigners as possible to go to Tohoku (the region where Fukushima is located). It has a lot of nice scenery and hot springs and people are very kind.

Are there any specific precautions that travelers should take if they visit Japan?

The Japanese government asks people not to enter a 20 kilometer (12.4 mile) zone [around nuclear facilities]. The American government issues a different warning. The U.S. government asks citizens not to enter a 50-mile zone.

How should travelers reconcile those two differing warnings?

Most areas that are attractive to Americans are quite far away [from these zones]. If any person is very concerned with the situation, they can check with the Japanese government.

Every government has a responsibility to its citizens. The U.S. stance is understandable. The Japanese government warning is based on scientific figures and research, while the U.S. government warning is based on their data and research.

What is your ultimate message to the American people?

Japan is now as normal as before the earthquake and is open for business and travelers. Please visit Japan and see that Japan is as normal as it used to be. Next year is the centennial of the gifting of the cherry blossom trees from Japan to the U.S. It’s a very good time for Americans to visit Japan.