The Japanese passport is the best in the world, but few go abroad

The Japanese passport was once again named the “most powerful in the world” by a British consultancy this year, but the Japanese themselves seem reluctant to take advantage of it, with only 23% holding passports, a sign that the nation has become increasingly more inward in the era of globalization.

In the United States, the proportion of people with passports has increased 17 percentage points in the last 12 years, to about 44% in 2019, according to data from the Census Bureau and the US Department of State. Meanwhile, the proportion of Japanese with passports is the lowest among the Group of Seven industrialized nations.

The Japanese passport was rated the most powerful in the world for the second year in a row, according to an annual survey conducted by Henley & Partners, a global residency and citizenship advisor. Singapore tied with Japan for first place, followed by South Korea, whose passport holders can visit 188 countries and territories without a visa. The United States and the United Kingdom ranked 15. Countries in Europe, North America and East Asia topped the list.

Henley & Partners examined passports issued by 199 countries and regions and classified them according to the number of foreign destinations to which their holders can travel without a visa. Starting in October, Japanese passport holders can visit 190 countries and regions without a visa, or apply for one on arrival.

However, the Japanese have shown relatively little interest in traveling abroad. The number of Japanese students studying abroad has fallen from its peak, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And relatively few Japanese work for international organizations, given the size of their economy and population, observers say.

But while many Japanese seem to be home beings, those who venture abroad find the benefits of a Japanese passport legion.

When visas are required to enter, the traveler must have the document issued in advance by the embassy or consulate of the destination country. But in many cases, Japanese passport holders can skip this preliminary examination. And because Japanese passports are generally reliable, holders can often complete immigration procedures more easily than people from elsewhere.

Countries often grant visa waivers because cutting red tape can attract more tourists. Increased flows of people bring economic benefits, and receiving visitors helps improve a country’s position with its peers.

But there is also a downside. Waiving visa requirements makes it easier for undesirable people, such as criminals, to enter. Therefore, when determining whether to grant exemptions to people from specific locations, the host country takes into account a number of factors: crime prevalence in the sending country, refugee flows, economic situation, proximity of diplomatic ties.

Japan scores well on these criteria: it has a low crime rate; few Japanese seek refugee status; and the country is economically and politically stable. Additionally, many countries see the benefits of deeper trade and investment ties with Japan, and their tourists have deep pockets.

These factors contribute to the perception that the Japanese are “safe” and welcome visitors.

Japanese can visit 190 countries and territories without a visa, but Japan has a visa waiver program with just 68, including the US, UK, Germany, France, and South Korea. Citizens of countries like China, India and the Philippines need a visa to visit Japan. Waivers are usually offered on a reciprocal basis, but some countries waive visa requirements unilaterally to boost tourism.

A visa waiver program is evidence of goodwill towards the partner country. People in many places seem eager to visit Japan for business or pleasure, and many countries that require a visa have relaxed or streamlined approval procedures. The Japanese can be warmly welcomed in some parts of the world simply by showing their travel documents, a clear benefit of owning the “world’s most powerful passport.” It just seems that not many Japanese are excited about the prospect of an overseas excursion.