Japan Has The World’s Strongest Passport (That Few People Use)

Japan Has The World’s Strongest Passport (That Few People Use)

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Japan's passport is one of the strongest in the world. So why do only one in four Japanese citizens have one?

At the beginning of the year, Japan made headlines when the 2019 Henley Passport Index released. According to Henley, Japan’s passport dominates all others in the world, giving its citizens visa-free access to up to 190 countries.

The rating is impressive, especially when you consider modern history. In the 1930s during World War II, Japanese citizens’ ability to travel abroad was greatly limited. After World War II, the Japanese government lost all of its diplomatic rights under the Allied occupation – including the ability to issue passports. With a handful of exceptions, most Japanese citizens lost their right to travel anywhere, for any reason. Talk about an impressive improvement.

This news came and went. I shared the link, and then promptly forgot about it. But I found myself thinking about it again when I saw this tweet from HongMyong Kim, who was berating Japanese citizens who simply spouted off facts about foreign countries without traveling themselves. It seems that, despite having the world’s strongest passport, less than 25% of the Japanese population possesses one. And of those, only around 20% or so travel overseas.

Tweet from @UnseenJapanSite: "ポストする
Unseen Japan
Noting that only 25% of Japanese have passports, and only 20% have been overseas, HongMyong Kim berates people who talk about the "knowledge" they glean from talk shows. "First get a passport, and see the outside world with your own eyes. This is no time to wallow in ignorance.""
Source: X (formerly Twitter)

Flight From Japan?

When I posted about this on Twitter, at least one person speculated that this is due to the aging of Japan’s population. Passports, he said, are something the young are more likely to acquire as opposed to the older generation. And indeed, there’s some data to bear this out. When broken down by age, we see that over 53% of current passport holders are in their 20s, while 35% of people in their 30s have one. The numbers cave off precipitously after that; only 1% of people 80 years and older possess passports.

What’s interesting is that the number of Japanese who hold passports isn’t going up dramatically. 2018’s posting of 23.4% passport ownership, in fact, represents the first time in four years ownership has gone up. That seems to confirm the theory that it’s the young who are getting passports. Such statistics have experts concerned that Japan is seeing a 日本離れ (nihon-banare), or flight from Japan, among those under 30.

These numbers represent a marked contrast with other countries. Back in 1990, only four percent of Americans had passports. However, the number now stands at 42%, and almost a third of Americans traveled abroad in 2018. Even the US, however, falls behind other developed nations: 67% of Canadians have passports, and England and Wales come in in the high 70s. Compared to other developed countries, Japan’s travel numbers are quite low.

Do Language Barriers and “Feelings of Safety” Factor In?

So what other factors, besides the aging population, might be keeping Japanese at home?


An article by writer Haruna for online site Tabizine speculates on a few reasons. One of the more positive reasons is that Japan is just so damn interesting in its own right. As a sprawling island country with thousands of years of history and breathtaking landscapes spread throughout, it’s possible to spend years of vacations traveling just to interesting locations within one’s own country.

Another reason could be typical tourist behavior and…let’s be nice and call it “cultural comfort.” It’s not odd in any country for tourists to travel in packs, keep themselves in foreigner bubbles, and stay as insulated from the local populace as possible. Americans are notorious for this behavior. (You see the same stubbornness even in Western immigrants who’ve lived in Japan for decades, yet refuse to learn the language or local culture.) And you can see the same behavior from other country’s tourists (Chinese tour groups, anyone?).

However, Americans benefit from English being the world’s default lingua franca (sorry, Esperanto – I was rooting for you). And English education among the educated in China is fairly solid. By contrast, Japan’s continued struggle to improve its overall English ability leaves its citizens linguistically isolated when they travel abroad. Writes Haruna:


People worried about their language skills can participate in guides tours, use translator apps, or employ some other methods. But people who are acutely aware of their awkwardness with foreign languages may have a strong resistance go going abroad at all, and may have a hard time thinking, ‘Let’s fine some way to overcome the language barrier and enjoy ourselves.’

Haruna also cites the “feeling of safety” people have in Japan and says that the notion that “overseas = danger” has been cemented so hard in people’s heads that it’s actively discouraging travel. Indeed, an interview with a Japanese woman returning from South Korea gathered attention recently when she told the report how “scary” South Korea was:

Unseen Japan on Twitter: “Screenshot from a news program interviewing a Japanese woman who just returned from a trip to South Korea. Her impression? “It was really scary because there were hardly any Japanese people there.” 🤦‍♀️ https://t.co/obFbSN4BTz / Twitter”

Screenshot from a news program interviewing a Japanese woman who just returned from a trip to South Korea. Her impression? “It was really scary because there were hardly any Japanese people there.” 🤦‍♀️ https://t.co/obFbSN4BTz

To give her the benefit of the doubt, the increasing tensions between Japan and South Korea have potentially impacted Japanese travel. So one is less likely to stumble upon fellow tourists. Still, it also explains why some Japanese citizens would choose to stay home instead of venturing into the outside world.

Travel is Expensive – and Japan’s Economy is Still Hurting

When I first started writing about this issue on Twitter, I did so from the unconscious perspective of a fairly privileged white American male. However, as some users pointed out, not everyone can travel easily.

This is especially relevant to Japan, which is still struggling to find its economic footing in the post-bubble economy. Despite the economy showing signs of growth, when polled, most Japanese citizens say they don’t feel that life has improved economically for them in the past 10 years. So cost and current economic conditions in Japan could also be a significant factor in keeping many Japanese citizens from heading abroad.

Most of us who like travel tend to see this as a Bad Thing. travel, after all, broadens your horizons and gets you out of your box. But travel abroad isn’t a cure-all for nationalism.

That said, I still see travel abroad as a great opportunity to expand one’s horizons. (Whether an individual takes advantage of it is, of course, up to them.) And it’s clear that, while Japan is heavily promoting inbound tourism (sometimes with less-than-welcome consequences), it’s doing little to encourage its citizens to see the world. I worry that the result will be the further “Galapagos-ization” of Japan, where the country continues to function as an island unto itself.


世界最強なのに所持率は6人に1人。日本人がパスポートを持たない理由. Tabizine

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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