Foreign travelers visiting Japan often speak of how different the country is from any other country they have ever visited. “It is as if they live on another planet,” travelers might say, referring to idiosyncratic habits and mentalities that they have not encountered elsewhere.
If outbound travel is any indication, the youth population of Japan seems to agree with these foreigners when it comes to such a feeling of Japanese exceptionalism.
Outbound travel data show that the number of Japanese in their 20s traveling abroad in 2017 is some 50 percent lower than the peak reached back in 1996, with no notable increase in recent years. An accompanying survey found that more than half of Japanese in their 20s have never been abroad, with many having no particular desire to go.
The situation is just as bad for Japanese youths studying abroad. After reaching peak of some 80,000 in 2004, the number of study abroad students has dropped 36 percent in 10 years to less than 50,000, with no clear sign of a rebound.
As fewer Japanese youths head abroad, there has been some serious soul-searching in Japanese media as to why foreign travel has become so undesirable to so many. Expert analyses have pointed out issues ranging from the language barrier and lack of communication skills to stagnant wages for a busy and declining population.
But in their analyses, experts may have forgotten about a simpler, more straightforward reason.
To find that reason, one only needs to open a Japanese travel guidebook.
Chikyu no arukikata (“How to Walk the Earth”) has been the best-selling Japanese travel guide for the past 35 years, with 8 million copies published. While the series is often called the “Japanese Lonely Planet,” there is an interesting difference between how the two write about certain locales. Simply put, the greater lengths that Chikyu no arukikata devotes to potential crimes in travel destinations serve as a psychological deterrent for potential Japanese travelers and entrench an already present belief among Japanese youths about foreign countries being significantly more dangerous than Japan, with Japanese travelers targeted by criminals.
A comparison of the coverage on East Africa by Lonely Planet and Chikyu no arukikata is illustrative.
Chikyu no arukikata devotes enormous space to emphasizing the danger of traveling in the region. A 2013 article helpfully summarizes Chikyu no arukikata’s coverage. From the beginning, the guide emphasizes that the entire region is full of danger and the most important thing about traveling there is to be aware of crimes. It further lists city parks, downtown areas, and, contradictorily, any suburbs as no-go zones. The specific dangers of Japanese tourists being targeted by armed robberies both in urban areas and during safaris are covered in extensive detail, illustrated by concrete examples of actual episodes faced by Japanese travelers in the past.
Such crime-focused coverage contrasts greatly with Lonely Planet. Its East Africa guide sets a positive tone from the get-go by introducing, at equal length, the allure of the region’s beauty and the prospect of lingering violence, while firmly declaring that potential dangers should not deter travelers from visiting. Even the region’s cities, a focus for crime descriptions in Chikyu no arukikata, are primarily described as a major appeal in Lonely Planet, with emphasis on colorful street culture and energetic vibrancy that outweigh any fears of crime and danger. Of course, Lonely Planet also covers possible crimes, but does so in the dedicated “Dangers and Annoyances” sections and does not let the potential of personal harm affect the overall positive tone associated with its general introductions to various destinations.
The difference between the two guides’ contents is by no means unique to their coverage of East Africa. Across different travel destinations, Chikyu no arukikata consistently makes the potential of Japanese tourists being targeted for crimes a dominant theme of the writing, inadvertently making readers more hesitant about visiting foreign destinations. By focusing so much on crime, Chikyu no arukikata creates a psychological barrier for many Japanese youth to travel abroad and reinforces the narrative that the world outside Japan is a dangerous place. Lonely Planet, by downplaying the cost of crime against much larger gains in seeing different cultures and beautiful sights, does not introduce a similar mental hurdle to its largely non-Japanese audience.
For Japanese youth with little firsthand exposure to the outside world, Chikyu no arukikata, along with Japanese news reports, serve as the primary media vehicles to shape perceptions of foreign societies and peoples. It is unfortunate that those Japanese media outlets are mostly introducing fear about stepping into supposedly crime-ridden foreign lands. Until these media outlets can come up with alternative narratives that do not squarely cast Japanese travelers in the role of potential victim, it is difficult to see how more Japanese youths can be convinced to venture abroad for frequent travels and short-term residence.
Xiaochen Su is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.