What's with the herds of Japanese tourists?

I’ve spent the last five weeks wandering around Western Europe and the one thing I simply can’t understand is the mindnumbingly huge number of Japanese people clustering together to see the sights.

But I don’t see them walking. Always in a bus. Is there some sort of company in Japan that offers to let you sit in a bus and be driven around Europe with fifty of your neighbors? Why only Japan?

They’re all over Niagara Falls too (pun intended). I chalk it up to group discount rates. What percentage of the population of the world is Japanese/Chinese anyhow…you’re bound to see them.

It’s also to do with being uncomfortable in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. Most English-speaking visitors to Japan would be more comfortable in a guided tour than going about on their own able to speak little or no Japanese.

They’re also a bit pushy at breakfast buffets.

I saw them all over Yellowstone Park this summer, too. I think it must be a sign that Japan’s economy is improving. I remember seeing Japanese tourists quite frequently in the 1980’s, especially when my family took a trip to Banff National Park in Canada in 1985. I believe that the recession in Japan in the 1990’s put a huge damper on such international tours, so you didn’t see them for a while. Now that times are better, those tour buses are back.

OK, I know I’m going to sound like a racist, but I am 100% of Japanese descent (well, I hope to send my DNA to National Geographic just to make sure). Japanese people seem to very much wedded to convention. And certainly, when traveling, it is way easier to speak exclusively English than Japanese. I think the Japanese culture rewards foreign travel, but the social status is conferred by showing a picture of oneself next to a landmark. An employee of mine was Vietnamese of Chinese descent and she showed me a set of photos. EVERY GOD DAMN PHOTO was a picture of her. OK, I’m really not trying to conflate Japanese tourists with Chinese-Vietnamese tourists, but I get the feeling that the most important thing is to have proof that you have been there. They’re really not much into hanging out with the locals, as far as I can tell.

Japanese people love travelling. Given money and time, most will travel to a foreign country. The really strange part though is that many never travel far in Japan. I was spending time in Kyoto when I called some Tokyo friends on the phone and asked if they could come over for a visit. The response: “Umm…sorry but Kyoto is just too far away for me this weekend.” You know, it’s only 3 hours on the shinkansen, and these were not finance-strapped people! How can you be comfortable spending 18 hours on a plane and then bussing around the US, but think 3 hours in your own country is too far?! Shit, I’ve gotten the same reaction from Nara to Kyoto, which is about an hour tops.

Maybe I just smell bad.

More of a sign that the US dollar is tanking:

When I was a teenager (ten years ago) a friend of mine was asked to take pictures of a Japanese tourist couple who were sitting on “A REAl Canadian park bench!”. They were very excited about it.
My Japanese Dad (born in Canada) sometimes pretends he doesn’t speak English when on vacation. And he carries a huge camera around his neck, and wears a flat-brimmed plastic-net-backed baseball cap.

One: English ability (and foreign languages in general) is the big bogeyman in Japan. Everyone wants to travel, but almost nobody has any confidence in their English; it’s almost like it’s a point of national pride for some folks. I don’t know how many times my co-workers and I have had to book business flights with JAL instead of much cheaper (and much more comfortable, IMO) non-Japanese airlines because the Japanese managers were terrified at the thought of being on a flight where they might have to communicate in English. Package tours with native-speaker guides that keep everyone in an airtight culture bubble are a way around this.

Two: package tours are also significantly cheaper than regular flights and hotels. When my wife and I were going to Taiwan, the packaged flight-hotel deals were cheaper than anything else we could find, even though we were staying at a friend’s house for free. The reason they’re so cheap is that the tour company receives payments from restaurants, shops and other services, and in return the tourists are all brought to those places to experience The Best of Taiwanese (Canadian/French/Italian/whatever) cuisine and recreation, and to do all their very expensive souvenir shopping.

My co-worker reading over my shoulder just added #3: the Japanese tour books are terrible quality, since they’re all written by companies with a vested interest in getting people to the most ‘touristy’ places. Rather than guiding people to out-the-way ‘cheap-but-good’ spots that aren’t well known, all they list is “the Louis Vuitton shop is here. The Gucci shop is here. The tourist attraction that everyone immediately identifies with this locale is over here, and the restaurant that every tourist from Japan eats at is right here.” They don’t encourage much in the way of striking out on your own. Whether this is cause or effect, I don’t know.

Re: the photos. I went to college at a school that got a lot of tourists from all over the world, so I’d been asked plenty of times to take people’s pictures. One day a pair of Japanese tourists came over while I was reading outside and did the usual ‘camera-us-ok?’ pantomime. When I reached for the camera, however, they started trying to explain that they wanted me to stay where I was so one of them could pose next to a real college student.

Tour buses definitely don’t carry Japanese tourists exclusively. There are many companies that bus American tourists through Europe and European tourists through America. (And, for that matter, American tourists through America and European tourists through Europe.)

Koreans do this a lot as well. I agree with the points made about the language problem and the desire to have photos saying “I was here.” My travel plans for Europe were very, very different from those of my Korean-Korean friends - I booked hostels and stayed in each city for at least 5 days, while my friends books Korean B&Bs (which exist in every major city) and stayed no longer than 2-3 days per city. I always expressed exasperation at this - why bother to whisk through a city and only socialize with people from your own country? but my friends always retorted that I wouldn’t understand since I had the advantage of being fluent in English. I suppose they had a point,

Also regarding pictures of yourself… Koreans (at least my family and all their friends) take a lot of self pictures (셀카/sel-ka, or self-camera). I personally would rather have many pictures of other people and things and a just a few of myself, but hey, different upbringings.
Regarding packs of Asian tourists, I’d like to echo what somebody else said about how much cheaper it is to do package deals. For Americans it’s relatively cheap to fly to Europe, but for people in East Asian countries, it’s pretty expensive. Package deals offer a convenient (if annoying at times because you’re always on a schedule), cheaper way to explore other countries without the risk of spending a lot of cash only to feel isolated the whole time you’re there.

Re: shopping. I used to work at the Universal theme park, which naturally attracted a lot of tourists. Japanese tourists would regularly buy armloads of t-shirts, dozens of keychains, everything all the same. My guess is, everyone back home said “Bring me a souvenir!” So they would buy in bulk, to get it over with, and avoid having anyone feel snubbed, like “Why did she get a t-shirt, and I only got a keychain?”

Actually, it’s one of the unwritten social codes that you have to bring souvenirs for everyone when you travel. The biggest headache about traveling with my wife is her need to waste half the vacation shopping for things to give to her friends, classmates and co-workers. The second biggest headache is preparing for the trip itself, because she insists on getting Japanese souvenirs to bring to everyone in America that I know.

Yeah, I don’t really understand that observation either. The older American tourists usually fit many of the same stereotypes: stick close to the group, buy lots of souvenirs, take a lot of photos.

OTOH, I have seen double-decker tour buses used by Japanese tour companies in Europe. They have to pull a trailer with the luggage. If one of those rolled up, that could easily be 80-90 tourists at once, which is quite a lot.

Sublight has it explained well, as usual. A few points of addition.

First, the average Japanese does not have the language ability to operate on his or her own, especially men. One of my American business acquaintances told me his survival tip, which was when he would ask strangers for directions, he’d chose younger women instead of younger men, since the younger women were more likely to speak some English. It may just be that he likes talking to young women, but there is truth spoken.

A few years back, the used to talk a lot about “Narita Divorces” where women would come back from their honeymoons abroad and break up with their husbands at the airport. One of the reasons was how poorly their husbands performed in foreigner counties. (And stop your snickering, this isn’t about their bedtime behaviors.) Since younger women are much more likely to have gone abroad, they’re more experienced than the men, and will have been abroad several times previously.

In addition to the language issues, there are several factors for the bus experiences.

Japanese have fairly rigid rules in society, and tend to have anxiety if they don’t understand what the rules are. There are more formalized intermediaries in Japanese society, so having coordinators and intermediaries handle arrangements happens within Japan as well. The expectation of the happening in a foreign country is an extension of their cultural expectations.

However, perhaps the biggest reason that you see a lot of Japanese tourists in busses throughout the world is that is how many Japanese take vacations in Japan as well. Japanese often like to be spoiled on their vacations, and have someone else so all the arrangements, etc. They don’t seem to mind being managed, and where a lot of Westerners (including myself) would feel they are being treated as children, they enjoy the “groupness” of it all.

I think there is more of a tendency of Western people to see going abroad as an adventure, so sharing the experience with 50 people in a yellow bus takes away from the uniqueness of it, where Japanese often prefer to be with others.

(Obviously we’re talking stereotypes here, and there are good numbers of solo travelers as well.)

This happened to me once, except I was a tourist, too. It was in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. My friends and I had a baffling conversation with this Japanese girls until we finally figured out that they wanted to take a picture with us.

My friend and I still talk about that sometimes. We’ve never figured that one out. (BTW, I’m pretty sure we were obviously tourists…speaking English, pointing and ooohing over details.)

“Look, here we are in St. Peter’s! And these are some real American tourists we met there!”
“Wow, American tourists in Italy? That’s incredible!”

I’m glad I’m not the only one to say it. How are Americans any different?

Or, in my case, Canadians? My parents want to go on a bus tour of New York City, where they’ll spend half the time on a bus with a bunch of other old Canadians. My father will doubtlessly take about 587 photos. When my wife and I went to New York for the first time - I’d been there but never with her - we took a thousand photos, one of which was my wife posing with an obviously amused member of NY’s Finest.

I realize it’s generally true that “package tours” are more the norm in Japan, but it’s something you’ll find elsewhere, too.

Yes, a package tour is attractive when you know you want to go somewhere but don’t know what sort of language and logistical barriers face you when you get there. Europe and America are a lot different than Japan.

I went with my family about 10 years ago on a tour of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. We rode around in big red buses and got to see a lot of cool stuff. It was a great worry-free intro to Europe. My step-father and I did take one side trip, we rented a car in Munich and went to see Castle Newschwenstein (not spelled right but Google didn’t suggest anything). Based on what we saw on the tour and our experience on the side-trip, I am ready to go back on my own.