Island Japan’s pleasure boaters few but winds of change are a-blowin’

by Shinichi Tokuda

Despite its long maritime tradition, Japan lags far behind Scandinavia and the United States in terms of recreational yachting.

Only one in some 300 Japanese owns what is classified as a leisure boat, compared with one out of six to seven Scandinavians and one in 16 Americans, according to the Japan Boating Industry Association.

The volume of domestic shipments last year totaled 19.6 billion yen, or less than half the amount posted during the free-spending days of the asset-inflated bubble economy in the late 1980s, the association says.

However, moves are afoot among boating industry and public administration officials to encourage citizens to take up marine sports. Building more moorages for pleasure craft, setting up training and rental programs and opening up fishing ports for such activities to spur regional development top the list.

The former fish market of Misaki port in Kanagawa Prefecture now offers a mooring service for pleasure craft. The port, located at the tip of the Miura Peninsula, is a leading port in Japan for unloading tuna.

The old market vacated by its operators, who have relocated, is also a site where fishery and marina facilities called Misaki Fisherina Wharf are under construction.

“Fishing ports were once considered only for fisheries people,” Miura Mayor Ryusaku Kuno said. “However, the fishery industry is on the skids due to the depletion of resources and a shortage of successors (to currently active fishermen). In order to jump-start the city, it is necessary (for the municipality) to explore coexistence and coprosperity with pleasure boats.”

The Fisheries Agency has revamped its policy to beef up facilities to keep pleasure boats from hampering fishing activity to address the problem created by the unauthorized mooring of boats at around 3,000 fishing ports in the country.

A dearth of places to keep pleasure boats is the main reason preventing more people from taking to the sea for leisure. Industry organizations estimate the number of privately owned pleasure boats, including recreational craft such as jet skis, at about 450,000, far outstripping the some 70,000 facilities available for them to be kept.

Many of them are left unattended, a fact that officials of relevant organizations singled out as a major factor preventing “marine leisure” from coming of age in this country.

The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry is reinforcing regulations on such boats by revising a harbor law. However, at the same time, the ministry is offering subsidies to handy mooring facilities.

An official of the Ports and Harbors Bureau said the ministry is treating the measures as “two wheels” of the same cart so that “pleasure boats will be able to gain a foothold as citizens’ boats.”

JBIA Secretary General Yasuo Katayama said, “Most domestically shipped pleasure boats are available at the price of compact cars. They will come within the reach of middle-income earners once the environment for storing them improves.”

Yamaha Motor Co., Japan’s biggest boat maker, launched a “rental boat club” four years ago in a tieup with the owners of marinas across the country to offer people hands-on training.

In the wake of a steady increase in the number of those enjoying the marine leisure program provided by Yamaha, the company will inaugurate this month a “My Marine Captain System,” in which four people share a boat with each having the right to use it one week a month.

They will have to sign a three-year contract in order to ride a boat worth several million yen at a cost of just several hundred thousand yen a year.

“At present, there are about 2.7 million people with boat licenses,” said Ko Hashimoto of Yamaha’s marine business headquarters.

“Lately, many ordinary salary earners are getting the license. We must first of all offer them the ‘software’ for hands-on training and let them familiarize themselves with marine leisure,” he said.