Why Japan has so many ‘never travelers’

TOKYO (CNN) :A surprisingly large number of Japanese say that travel is no longer a priority for them.

A survey done last year by global intelligence company Morning Consult showed that 35% of Japanese respondents said they were unwilling to travel again, the highest number of any country.

Tetsu Nakamura, a professor at Tamagawa University and a tourism behavior and psychology specialist, says the results are not at all surprising.

“In 2019, even before the pandemic, (Japanese) people who traveled abroad at least once a year made up about 10% of the population,” says Nakamura.

According a study Nakamura did back in 2016, there are what he calls “passivists,” those who say they want to travel abroad but won’t, and “denialists” – people who show no interest in traveling abroad and won’t.

Together, these two groups comprise around 70% of respondents in his pre-pandemic study, with “denialists” comprising roughly 30% of them.

Happy at home

Despite Japan having the world’s most powerful passport, fewer than 20% of Japanese people actually have passports in the first place, according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For some of these “never travelers,” domestic trips within Japan are enough.

“Many Japanese feel like overseas travel is time-consuming even before they step foot on foreign land, that it takes a lot of time, skill and planning,” says Nakamura.

Hiroo Ishida, 25, a caregiver from Chiba Prefecture and motorcycle enthusiast with a love for Harley Davidson bikes, says this resonates with him.

“I have some desire to go to the US, mostly because in Western media shown in Japan, that’s the place to go to for motorcyclists, but I most likely won’t go because just planning it is an inconvenience. Japan is abundant with destinations that motorcyclists find attractive,” says Ishida.

His last trip abroad was a field trip to Guam in high school; he’s never felt the urge to go overseas since, he adds.

Kotaro Toriumi, a Japanese aviation and travel analyst, says the thought of complicated travel procedures abroad due to the pandemic and the risk of infection hinders people from seeking overseas travel.

Further, he claims that the pandemic has altered the “Japanese mindset.”

“People who used to travel … are now afraid to go abroad because of the risk of infection, but are fine traveling domestically. I think they are realizing more and more that there are many attractive tourist spots within Japan and people can have fun without going abroad,” says Toriumi.

The analyst notes that people who say they “never want to travel again” may simply be reluctant to travel soon until the pandemic is fully over.

Less money, more problems

The cost of travel is also a consideration.

The yen is at its weakest in decades, and many Japanese workers haven’t had a raise in 30 years.

Less disposable income means young people may be more inclined to stay at home or explore nearby locations.

“Compared to the older generations, they are less likely to go abroad since they don’t have much money. Besides, many young people find online entertainment or smartphone games more enjoyable than traveling abroad,” explained Toriumi. “Many elderly people would like to travel abroad again after Covid settles down.”

Aki Fukuyama, 87, is a “half-retired” financial executive of a hospitality conglomerate. He has had many golf trips overseas and wishes to go again but cites his health and age as the main reasons why he isn’t likely to make another international trip.

“I frequently went (abroad) until about 15 or 20 years ago,” he said. “It doesn’t help that most of my friends have passed away. I plan on traveling domestically, maybe somewhere close by, if someone invites me.”

Conventions and conventionality

Nakamura’s studies show that positive attitudes win over external pressure to refrain from heading abroad, so people that have always liked to travel wouldn’t let social conformity get in the way.

“People who have always had positive views regarding overseas travel try to do so as soon as they get the chance,” says Nakamura. “This is true for both before and after the pandemic. Those we see going abroad now are those people…they can’t wait to go back (abroad).”

Yuma Kase, 25, is a Tokyo-based finance worker who says she loves visiting new countries and interacting with people from different backgrounds.

“Preparing to go to a foreign country is part of the journey and excitement, I feel. Knowing that I have to practice what to say when I get there or do some research about cultural differences is something that I look forward to,” Kase says.

But her love of exploring isn’t genetic. Her mother hates to travel and likes to stick to a fixed daily routine. “The farthest my mother has been to in 2022 was an outlet mall,” laughs Kase.

According to the latest data from the Japan National Tourism Organization, the number of Japanese overseas travelers was down 86.2% in 2022, with around 2.7 million people compared to the 20 million figure in 2019.

“Those who only used to go because it was cheap or don’t particularly like to travel…they are not traveling now,” says Toriumi.