Western culture has spread far and wide in Japan, but one element of it has yet to take root here: the camper.

In the West, campers come in many shapes and sizes and are often self-contained units that have water and electricity. They usually include a kitchen, living and sleeping quarters, toilet and shower. Some come in the form of motor homes, others as units placed in the beds of pickup trucks. And then there are trailers.

The camper industry in Japan seeks to win over baby boomers who will soon retire and have loads of spare time, but the road to success is lined with many hurdles — the main one perhaps being a lack of infrastructure to accommodate such vehicles, which often have a high retail price.

“Senior couples have shown increasing interest in campers over the past few years,” said Rikio Tanaka of the Japan Recreational Vehicle Association, which groups 130 companies engaged in camper-related businesses.

Yoshio Tamaki, 68, and his wife, Chieko, 65, purchased their first camper after he retired five years ago.

“We now have plenty of time, so we can travel whenever we want,” Tamaki said, adding that when he and his wife were younger, they couldn’t afford to pay the price for an RV.

Tamaki used to camp in a tent with his family when his four children were little, but now that they are grown up, he wants to engage in outdoor activities in a more comfortable manner, just with his wife, and at their own pace, he said.

Some major camper manufacturers are trying to attract seniors by tailoring their products to couples like the Tamakis.

Vantech Co., for example, plans to start producing motor homes targeting senior couples next year.

Vantech’s conventional vehicles are designed for families with children, with popular models featuring bunk beds for six.

Vantech President Koichi Masuda said the company’s new vehicles will feature more interior space and no bunk beds.

“Elderly couples don’t want bunks. It’s hard for them to climb up to the upper deck,” Masuda said.

Although more seniors appear interested in campers, the market is not expected to see a huge expansion anytime soon.

Some 1,900 domestically made campers were sold in Japan in 2003, according to Toyota Motor Corp. This compares with some 400,000 sold annually in the United States, said Tanaka of the RV association.

Camper makers in Japan produce bodies that go on chassis made by automakers. Popular models include those built on truck and van chassis, including Toyota’s Dyna truck and Hiace van.

Toyota, the nation’s top carmaker, said it provides between 70 percent and 80 percent of the chassis for campers.

Camper prices range from 2 million yen to more than 10 million yen, with popular models costing about 5 million yen, which is comparable with the $30,000 to $40,000 for popular RVs sold in the U.S., the RV association’s Tanaka said.

Tanaka believes the lack of a camper infrastructure, not the price, is the main reason the domestic market remains small.

“Although the prices seem reachable, the question is how often you can use your camper?” asked Haruki Saito, chief editor of Auto Camper magazine, adding that people believe it will not pay unless they can take long vacations.

Satoru Miura, a camper owner from Yokohama, noted other factors that keep prospective buyers away, including that many campers are too big for ordinary parking spaces.

Miura, 43, nevertheless felt it was worth taking the plunge because he enjoys camping with his wife and two daughters.

He also said Japan’s vehicle campsites are too expensive, costing 5,000 yen to 7,000 yen per night, whereas they usually cost less than $10 in the U.S.

Toyota, the only automaker to aggressively market its van and truck chassis for campers, also does not expect the domestic market to see a huge expansion in the near future.

“We think the size of the market will remain at the same level rather than expand rapidly,” Toyota spokesman Kazuhiko Ohora said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.