Today’s Young Japanese Have A Different Take on Travel Abroad


Young Japanese backpackers traveling the world on a shoestring are probably in the minority today. Low-cost carriers, online travel agencies, and social media have changed how this demographic travels abroad.

Foreign Travel Then and Now

Since the Visit Japan Campaign kicked off in 2003 and the government created the Japan Tourism Agency in 2008, strenuous efforts have been made to stimulate inbound tourism, defined as travel to Japan by foreign visitors. In 2016, the number of inbound travelers topped 20 million for the first time; this number is expected to reach 30 million by the end of 2018. Conversely, outbound travel—trips to overseas destinations by Japanese—has attracted much less attention over the past few years, and the decline in outbound travel by young Japanese has been especially noticeable since the mid-2000s. In this article, I will focus on overseas travel among young Japanese.

Four major trends in the travel habits of this demographic have emerged since the 1980s. The first was the emergence of backpacker travel, stimulated by people like Sawaki Kōtarō, who wrote a series of travel diaries between 1986 and 1992. Travel guides like Chikyū no arukikata (the Globe-Trotter Travel Guidebook series), first published in 1979, also helped ignite the backpacker travel boom among young people interested in extended travel abroad.

The second trend was the “graduation trip,” travel with friends to Europe or the United States to experience a different culture before assuming adult responsibilities in the working world. Starting in the early 1980s, going on a graduation trip became the “in” thing among college students, who would travel immediately before graduating or before starting their first job. Their desire to travel at this time in their lives was motivated by the notion that once they started full-time work they would have little time for long trips abroad thereafter. In the early days of this trend, such trips were often three to four weeks long, but shorter trips of less than two weeks become more common beginning in the 1990s.

Third was the shopping enthusiast trip, which saw mainly young female office workers travel to destinations like Hong Kong, Hawaii, or Europe with a view to buying designer goods as inexpensively as possible. This type of travel started in the mid-1980s and continued into the 1990s.

The fourth trend was taking a no-frills package tour, usually a short jaunt of about three nights that included return airfare and local accommodation only, with no tour guide. Such package tours were marketed by travel agencies at a lower price than when booking on an individual basis. Travelers on these stripped-down tours often went to their destination with Japanese-language travel magazines like Rurubu or Mapple in hand, intent on shopping or restaurant-hopping and with little intention to take in local history or culture.

There are young people who still take trips that loosely fit into these categories, but their travel habits have changed. For example, many students still go on graduation trips, but nowadays some of them take multiple short trips to different destinations, and usually with different travel partners each time.

Do It-Yourself Travel: LCCs and the Internet

It’s true that fewer people in their twenties have been traveling abroad since the mid-2000s, but in the past five years there has been a slight uptick in their numbers. At the same time, these people have adopted new ways of traveling. I identified five patterns among college students, the young folks I am most frequently in contact with.

The first pattern is that young people are bypassing traditional travel agents and making foreign travel arrangements on their own. A number of factors make it possible for young people to travel cheaply without going on a no-frills tour. One is the emergence of low-cost carriers. LCCs began flying out of Japan to overseas destinations in the mid-2000s, and traveling to Asia or Oceania aboard an LCC has become commonplace. Since few package tours include LCC air transportation, travelers who opt for these cheaper flights must make their own arrangements for the other components of their trip.

Another factor behind this trend is the presence of online travel agents. Do-it-yourself travelers use sites like Expedia or to book accommodations abroad, relying on customer reviews to select a place to stay. Some young people will also book through Airbnb or other peer-to-peer accommodation sites. They also often compare airfares on a meta-search engine like Skyscanner, an efficient way of searching for the most economical airfare.

Guidebook-Free, Thanks to Social Media

The second pattern is that youth travelers nowadays tend not to buy once-popular travel guidebooks when going abroad. Up to the mid-2000s, people bought guidebooks as a matter of course, perusing them to decide where to go and what to do at their destination. But the ubiquity of social-media services and other online information sources nowadays has fundamentally changed the student travel decision-making process.

A case in point is Instagram. When a young person decides to take a trip overseas and zeroes in on a destination, he or she will use a hashtag to search for photos uploaded to Instagram and search for insuta-bae (Instagram-worthy) spots. Next, they search online for reviews and find out how to get to that particular place. It’s been said that in past years, people used to travel in order to see the places mentioned in guidebooks, but nowadays travel has turned into an expedition to go and see photogenic locations featured on Instagram—or a trip to appear in those places themselves, uploading photos of what they have seen to wow their followers.

Third is the “repeater travel” pattern, where young travelers return multiple times to the same destination. Travel to Korea is a good example of this. The “Korean wave,” a boom in popularity sparked by the airing of Korean films and TV dramas in Japan, began in the 2000s. This was followed, starting around 2010, by the growing popularity of K-Pop. This youth-oriented Korean music attracted an avid fan base, especially Japanese female college students, who greatly enjoy Korea and have traveled there several times to immerse themselves in its culture.

No Trips with Friends

The fourth pattern is that young people tend not to go abroad with their close friends. Some choose to travel by themselves, in some cases because their friends can’t arrange to take time off to travel or can’t afford it. More recently, some young people prefer to travel alone because they are looking for a hassle-free experience, in the sense of not having to accommodate their travel companions’ preferences or because they want to avoid potential disagreements while on the road. Others look to SNS to meet new young people through match-up sites like Trippiece, forming spontaneous groups and enjoying a treasured once-in-a-lifetime experience with complete strangers.

Finally, the fifth pattern is young people’s travel occasioned by a study trip abroad. Since around 2010, some Japanese universities have added a “study abroad” requirement to their curriculum, ranging from a few months to one year in duration. In the past, overseas study was a voluntary, independent enterprise, but nowadays these trips have become commonplace: many students are going abroad because it’s a compulsory part of their studies. Spending several months in a foreign country, Japanese students are also apt to meet foreign students from many other countries. Keeping in touch with them through Facebook after returning to Japan in turn motivates the young Japanese people to travel abroad again to meet their friends.

Polarization: Catching the Travel Bug, or Not

Thus far, I’ve discussed how young people travel abroad, but it’s important to note that not everyone in this demographic is interested in foreign travel.

For example, a 2016 study among Japanese singles aged 18 to 29 that I conducted with colleagues (see table below) revealed that 51.8% of the surveyed people had never gone overseas and that only 14.7% had traveled abroad more than once in 2015. In other words, about 85% of respondents had not traveled overseas even once during the calendar year. Examining responses on the basis of personal characteristics, the study indicated that among students, 44% had never gone abroad, while 17.7% of them had departed Japan one or more times in 2015. On the other hand, among young people working part-time or not employed, 71.7% had never gone abroad and only 6.0% had departed Japan in 2015.

Up till now, tourism studies had identified a number of constraints on overseas travel among young Japanese, including the intrapersonal (anxiety about the language barrier and about staying in a foreign land); the interpersonal (no one to travel with); and the structural (lack of time and money). It was believed that removing these barriers would stimulate travel.

But research in the past 10 years has shown that even when barriers are removed, a certain proportion of young people have little interest in foreign travel. Those people do not think of travel abroad as a leisure time option to begin with, either because they are not interested in travel at all, they see foreign countries as having nothing to do with them, or they believe that travel abroad fails to offer good cost performance.

But foreign travel trends among young Japanese that existed 30 years ago are still in evidence. At the same time, new trends have emerged in this decade—and especially in the last five years—as a result of globalization, the pervasive presence of the internet and social media, new travel tools like LCCs and OTAs, and changes in attitudes toward personal relations. The ways in which Japanese perceive foreign travel have changed in tune with the times. Meanwhile, some young people are just not interested in going abroad, so there is polarization within this demographic between those showing little or no interest in traveling overseas and enthusiastic repeater travelers.

In July 2018, the Japan Tourism Agency issued a report summarizing ways of stimulating outbound travel among young Japanese. The agency is trying to expose young people to foreign experiences through travel, but it remains to be seen how this strategy will play out.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 20, 2018.)

tourism demographics travel