Less Yen for Foreign Travel In Aging, Risk-Averse Japan

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 30, 2008

TOKYO -- The phrase "hordes of Japanese tourists" appears hundreds of times in a Google search.

Since the 1970s, when the newly affluent Japanese began to travel overseas in groups led by flag-bearing guides, they have been scoffed at for overrunning the ancient temples of Angkor in Cambodia, crowding out the Northern Lights in Alaska and grabbing too much Gucci in the capitals of Europe.

Dyspeptic travel commentators, though, have increasingly fewer reasons to kick around the globe-trotting Japanese. They simply are not globe-trotting as they once did. A long slide in Japanese overseas travel is all but certain.

The primary engine of decades of sustained growth in foreign travel has been the Japanese woman, age 20 to 29. In tireless pursuit of the newest clothes, restaurants, hotels and beach resorts, she was more likely than anyone in this country -- including middle-age businessmen -- to jet out of Japan and spend money.

In the past five years, though, she has lost her will to roam.

"Going overseas is not something we casually do anymore," said Maki Suzuki, 22, a tall, single and elegantly attired woman who works part-time in Tokyo selling clothes. "I don't have the courage to go alone, and it is really hard to organize trips with my friends. With all this terrorism, our parents are worried about us."

Suzuki's last trip was to Hawaii with two friends. It lasted four days. She does not know when, or if, she will go overseas again.

She is part of a pattern that terrifies Japanese travel agents. In industry argot, the annual "departure ratio" of young women in their 20s has fallen from more than 30 percent in the late 1990s to about 23 percent last year. For young men, it has fallen from 18 percent to about 14 percent.

Making these figures more scary for travel agents is the relentless decline in the total number of young people here. For 27 consecutive years, the number of Japanese children has shrunk, part of a national demographic downturn that is without precedent anywhere in modern times.

Demographics alone do not explain why the number of trips abroad by Japanese in their 20s has plummeted in the past decade.

"I don't think they have a hungry spirit for travel anymore," said Tsuneo Nishiyama, chief executive officer of the Japan Tourism Marketing Co.

Relying on years of survey data, Nishiyama paints a portrait of young Japanese men and women as increasingly risk-averse, comfort-seeking, incurious about foreign lands and loath to strap on a backpack to travel rough.

"They are conservative and not adventurous, with a lot of fear of terrorism and disease," he said. "They have all the consumer products they want here in Japan. Big-screen LCD televisions give them clear images of distant places, so they feel they don't have to go see them.

"Rather than go see a different culture, their main objective is to spend quality time with their friends. They feel very comfortable at home. They feel they don't need to look for comfort outside the home."

Even when young people do hunger for overseas adventure, many can no longer afford it.

A major reason for that is the emergence in the past 15 years of a large part-time workforce, which now includes about a third of all employed Japanese. Part-time jobs, which are held disproportionately by people in their 20s, tend to pay less and offer less generous vacation benefits than the corporate positions that were widely on offer before the Japanese economy nose-dived in the 1990s.

The rising cost of jet fuel is also squeezing overseas travel. In three years, fuel surcharges have risen more than six-fold on flights to Europe and the United States.

Although the Japanese are not seeing the world as much as they used to, the world is seeing them, at home, more than ever. Visa restrictions for tourists have been eased, and the number of foreigners visiting Japan is expected to exceed 9 million this year, a record.

Most of the visitors -- who come to shop, eat, ski, sightsee and hang out in spas -- are from Japan's fast-growing Asian neighbors, China, South Korea and Taiwan. Prices here have risen little in the past decade, and the country has become something of a bargain, at least compared with Western Europe.

There has been little grumbling here about "hordes" of foreign visitors, some of whom travel in large groups with noisy guides. The Japanese know about group travel, and they welcome it. Their economy is growing much more slowly than those of their neighbors. They need the business.

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