Special report The Japanese quit hold of their passports: Four million Japanese people have not applied for renewal of passport for five years

This article covers the declining number of Japanese passport holders and the flagging overseas tourism.

Masahiro Isogai

Masahiro Isogai

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Forecast of trends in Japanese overseas tourism for 2010

Overseas tourism remains stagnant in Japan. There are several presumed causes, one of which is that overseas travel is too common in Japan to enhance people’s motivation for going abroad. In particular, the young generation shows this tendency so strong that some argue that young people should be educated to appreciate the significance of overseas travel and find the pleasure in it. In this way, the cause of sluggish overseas travel has come to be discussed from an educational point of view.

Other assumed factors are the structural change in society and the subsequent uncertainties over the future. Japan is now experiencing the structural shift represented by the growing economic disparities, which include workers’ conditions concerning day-off and the falling birthrate and aging population in society.

There is some sound logic behind each factor. Probably the combination of those multiple factors may cause the sluggish overseas tourism.

At the end of last year, the forecasts of overseas tourism for 2010 were issued by Japan Travel Bureau Foundation and JTB Corp. The former predicted that the number of Japanese traveling abroad would be 16.6 million and the latter 16.8 million, both of which substantially would exceed that of 2009. These estimations were made based on some presumed factors. As a positive factor, more Japanese are expected to go abroad in May and June of 2010 over the same period of last year, when people reacted strongly to new influenza. In addition, 2010 will see the continuation of the strong yen, the recovery of corporate earnings, the increase in arrival and departure slots at two airports in the capital sphere and big events including the 2010 Shanghai Expo. On the other hand, there are also negative factors such as a still high level of unemployment and declining incomes of workers. Prediction may vary depending on how researchers interpret those factors as well as uncertain elements including the outcome of efforts to rehabilitate Japan Airlines.

What is indicated by the number of newly issued passports.

Such a difference can be seen in the prediction between JTB Foundation and JTB Corp. What is very interesting is that JTB Foundation has a unique perspective in making a forecast. It predicts that Japanese overseas tourism is back on a path toward recovery based on the fact that the number of passports issued in 2009 exceeded that of the previous year.

Indeed, what JTB Foundation points out is only partly true. For one thing, the number of passports issued in Kyushu, which flourishes in the tourist traffic to South Korea, considerably exceeded that of the previous year. The figure led JTB Foundation to come to the conclusion that the weakening of the won against the yen, which started at the end of 2008, has stimulated the potential demand of the Japanese people for visiting Korea. It is a legitimate conclusion.

In the meanwhile, a close examination of statistics on passports, which was compiled by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, leads us to doubt if the Japanese overseas market is recovering in terms of volume. The trend can be proved by taking a closer look at the number of valid passports, which the Foreign Ministry has publicized on its website since 2005.

The number of valid passports has declined by about four million during five years since 2005

According to the Foreign Ministry’s statistics, the number of valid passports of Japanese people was 34,934,463 at the end of 2005 and decreased by about three million to 31,935,917 at the end of 2008. During the period of January to October 2009, 4,438,661 passports expired while 3,503,633 passports were newly issued. That means the number of Japanese passport holders declined by 935,028 in ten months. The figure is expected to reach one million at the end of 2009.

Why will the number of passports newly issued in 2009 exceed that of 2008 under these circumstances? In order to answer the question, a comparison between 2008 and 2009 was made. In 2008, the number of expired passports was 4,466,873 and that of issued was 3,800,523.(3,298,351 passports were issued in January-October of 2008.)Meanwhile, the number of passports expiring in 2009 is estimated to increase by 14.6% from 2008 figure to 5,118,360. The number of passports issued from January to October of 2009 was 3,503,633, up by 6.2% over the same period of last year.

The ratio of those who apply for new passports just before or after the expiration date may not be the same every year, it is very likely that the number of issued passports increases in 2009 simply because more passports will expire this year.

The number of expiring passports exceeded that of newly issued. This situation has continued for years to bring about as many as four million expired passports for five years since MOFA started to publicize the statistics.

Over the last five years, the number of Japanese who went abroad was: 17,403,565 in 2005, 17,534,565 in 2006, 17,294,935 in 2007, 15,987,250 in 2008 and 15,445,684 in 2009. While the departure figure remained stable at the level of 17 million during three years from 2005 to 2007, the number of valid passports continued to decline: 34,934,463 in 2005, 33,547,168 in 2006 and 32,576,539 in 2007.

The Japanese overseas travel market had managed to maintain a balance because the growing number of repeaters who go abroad for leisure, sightseeing or business made up for the shrinking total number of international travelers. Unfortunately, however, the balance was abruptly upset by the financial crisis triggered by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. When will the overseas travel market recover? If it does not recover or it only partly recovers in 2010, the number of Japanese overseas departure this year is likely to hover around the level of 16 million.

The Japanese overseas travel industry is expected to face an uphill battle in terms of business volume for the time being.