Trends in Japan

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No End in Sight

May 9, 1997

Scenes like this are common throughout the country. (Photo: Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

Outdoor recreation has become wildly popular in Japan in recent years, and there's no sign of the trend letting up anytime soon. On weekends and holidays, campgrounds all over the country are packed with families and other groups. The market for outdoor sporting goods has exploded to 1.5 trillion yen a year (12 billion dollars at 125 yen to the dollar), and one of every three new automobiles sold is a sport utility vehicle or station wagon. And the popularity of outdoor activities can only be expected to keep on growing as people increasingly turn to nature for recreation, relaxation, and inner peace.

Barbecuing and Car Camping
Mizumoto Park, a city-run facility in eastern Tokyo's Katsushika Ward, is a weekend mecca for family barbecues. Mizumoto Park is just one of 76 metropolitan parks in Tokyo. Open fires were prohibited at all of these parks until two years ago, when the ban was lifted in prescribed areas of seven of the larger parks located in low-density neighborhoods. Previously, in 1991, the city had begun allowing people to camp along the shoreline at two parks on Tokyo Bay. Every year since, the spaces have been fully booked up to three months in advance for the weekend and holiday slots throughout the summer camping season. By opening city parks to barbecuers and campers, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is doing what it can to accommodate the ever-growing demand for easy access to outdoor recreation.

But outdoor excursions in the city are just the tip of the iceberg. The core of Japan's outdoor craze is car camping. More and more people are packing up their camping gear and their kids and heading for out-of-the-way places. Most of these campers are either families led by fathers in their 30s or early 40s, or groups of young people. According to the 1996 White Paper on Leisure, published by the Leisure Development Center, some 7.5 million people went car camping during 1995. This was almost four times the number who did so during 1985. And growth in the number of campgrounds with drive-up sites has hit double digits over the past several years. As of the end of March 1996, Japan had nearly 1,000 campgrounds designed expressly for car camping, out of a total number of about 3,000.

Camping, once largely a men's pastime, is now attracting more women and families too, and the whole camping experience is changing as a result. These days, even car campgrounds in the mountains can be expected to have lighting, flush toilets, and showers. Recently, campgrounds with hot springs, saunas, laundromats, tennis courts--all the comforts of resort hotels--have even been appearing. A growing number of people are combining camping with other outdoor sports such as canoeing, fishing, and off-road cycling.

Getting Back to Nature
With more and more people setting out for the wide-open spaces, the market for camping equipment, fishing gear, and other outdoor recreational goods is expanding with each passing year, with total annual sales now estimated at 1.5 trillion yen (12 billion dollars). Sales of sport utility vehicles and station wagons are also brisk. About 1.83 million were sold last year--a 34.2% increase over the previous year's figure. These vehicles now account for 37% of domestic automobiles sold in Japan.

The outdoor craze is also big business for the media. The original outdoors-oriented magazine, established in 1976 and a pioneer in the genre, stepped up its publication from quarterly to monthly in 1992 in response to the growing popularity of outdoor recreation. Both NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network, and privately owned stations offer a cornucopia of outdoor-oriented programming on weekends. These offerings include armchair trips to famous mountains; glimpses at well-known personalities engaged in hiking, scuba diving, canoeing, and other outdoor recreation; and seaside and riverside cooking tips for the camp gourmet.

Without a doubt, the long-running popularity of outdoor activities in Japan is being sustained by people who turn to nature to relieve the clutter of their minds. The leisure white paper included the findings of a survey on what people hoped to get from their leisure time. The most frequent response was social contact with friends and acquaintances. Other objectives cited by many respondents included soothing the mind, resting the body, getting closer to one's family, enhancing health or physical strength, and coming into contact with nature. The most prevalent responses were all sentiments that support the outdoor craze. The wide variety of responses also suggests that people nowadays are looking to nature to get a lot out of their leisure time.

This trend notwithstanding, the extent of the average Japanese person's encounter with the great outdoors is a one- or two-night stay at a resort hotel or other leisure facility that happens to be located in a natural setting. The Japanese version of "roughing it" might seem pretty tame to outdoor sports lovers in Europe or the United States. Americans and Europeans can take longer vacations than their Japanese counterparts, and many of them use this time for extended excursions to wilderness areas. But Japan's outdoor craze is no trifling matter. More Japanese families are taking vacations together these days because schools and companies, which generally operated six days a week in the past, are increasingly switching to a five-day schedule. Outdoor gear, including rentals, has become readily available. Campgrounds are not only multiplying, but getting fancier. The popularity of outdoor recreation among the Japanese isn't expected to die down any time in the near future.

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