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Japan: Many say they will never travel again

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
March 14, 2023

More than 35% of Japanese people say they have no intention of traveling abroad again. Many have been deterred from overseas travel by heightened security and health fears and a falling yen.

Tourists dressed in traditional Japanese outfits pose for photographs in front of the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Japan
Many Japanese would prefer to enjoy sights closer to home, without the stress of overseas travelImage: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In previous decades, many Japanese with extra cash chose to spend their money on vacations to far-flung destinations. From Honolulu to Venice and London to Australia's Gold Coast, the Japanese were welcomed as big spenders who enjoyed exploring different cultures. 

But not anymore.

A survey conducted last year by global intelligence company Morning Consult showed that over 35% of Japanese people had no intention of taking a holiday again, either at home or abroad. That figure far outweighs the answers given by respondents in the 15 other nations included in the survey, with 15% of South Koreans saying they would never travel again.

Some 14% of US residents said they would not be taking a holiday in the future, followed by just 8% of Britons, 6% of Germans, and 4% of Spaniards and Italians offering the same answer.

Indications that demand for overseas travel is tumbling in Japan have been backed up by domestic travel giant JTB Corp, which in its 2023 outlook predicted that 8.4 million Japanese people will vacation abroad this year, roughly 40% of the estimated figure in 2019.

Fears over a weak yen

The study identified key reasons why far fewer people in Japan will be packing their suitcases for overseas destinations this year, with the weak yen the biggest factor for around 22% of respondents. The currency particularly impacts popular dollar destinations such as Hawaii and the Pacific resort islands of Guam and Saipan.

Others said they might not be able to take a long amount of time off from work, making a foreign holiday more difficult, while even more said they were still worried about the lingering effects of the COVID pandemic in different countries. 

Babies help out in a nursing home

Many have also been deterred from a number of destinations due to geopolitical concerns, with much of Central and Eastern Europe, along with Taiwan and mainland China, becoming less popular with travelers.

"Taking a holiday has never been really important to me, especially going on a foreign vacation," said Tomoko Oono, a housewife from Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, who has only left Japan once in her life when she traveled to Singapore for her honeymoon in 1980.

"My husband travels for work and some of my friends go overseas with their families, but it always just seems to be so much trouble," Oono told DW. "There is all the packing and deciding what to take, traveling by plane, using different money and staying in a place where you do not know where anything is. It is very stressful."

"I have lots of other hobbies — I like to cook and do crafts — so the longest I like to be away from home is one night or so," she added.

Few have passports

Ashley Harvey, a travel marketing analyst who has worked in Japan's travel sector for more than 15 years, told DW that that attitude is common in Japan, where just 23% of the people have a passport, the lowest figure of all the G-7 nations.

"Even before the pandemic, Japan only eked out around 20 million outbound travelers a year, which is a pathetic figure for a nation of 126 million," he said.

"Right now, we are seeing a lot of small factors that are effectively making it harder for Japanese to travel, including stagnant wages making travel more expensive and the yen losing ground against other currencies.

"But, at the same time, I have some sympathy for this aversion to foreign holidays because Japan is a great destination in its own right," he said. "There's world-class skiing in Hokkaido and some superb beaches on the islands of Okinawa in the south. There's all the excitement of Tokyo and Osaka, plus the ancient history of Kyoto."

"Japanese people don't need a passport for that," he added. "On the other hand, staying in Japan means they are not broadening their minds or effectively promoting Japanese 'soft power,' and I think that's unfortunate."

In his New Year address to the industry, Hiroyuki Takahashi, chairman of both JTB Corp and the Japan Association of Travel Agents, declared, "The most important theme for 2023 will be how to achieve a recovery in overseas travel."

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"There are external factors, such as the weak yen and rising travel costs, but the fundamental issue is the mindset of customers," he said. Key to this, he said, is guaranteeing travelers' safety and health, and also convincing them of the value of overseas travel.

Industry bright spot

Perhaps the brightest spot on the industry's rather bleak outlook is younger generations of travelers, or those who have effectively been unable to go abroad for the last three years but are now itching to travel. The JTB Corp study said: "Both men and women in their 20s are highly motivated to travel abroad."

Emily Izawa, a 20-year-old university student who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture, booked a flight to London for later this month to see friends in the UK and says she cannot wait to travel again.

"It has been more than five years since I was last able to go abroad, and I'm really looking forward to being in another country, speaking in English, going shopping and seeing new things," she said. "I've traveled in Japan over the last few years and that was fun, but going to a different country is really traveling."

Edited by: Leah Carter

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea