Hundreds of thousands of people celebrated the New Year holidays abroad despite the weaker yen. The annual scenes of family travelers crowding major international airports are an incredible contrast with the heavy restrictions on overseas travel only 50 years ago. It is time to consider anew the value of travel abroad.

Before World War II, it was not so uncommon for Japanese to travel abroad. There were not only luxury trips for the wealthy, but also those ostensibly meant to enable people to observe and learn the ways of other countries but in fact were focused on sightseeing. Overseas travel was particularly popular in the early part of the Showa Era (1926-1989), and people from different professions and backgrounds wrote a variety of records of their experiences traveling in foreign lands.

People-level exchanges ground to a halt during the war years, and even after the war ended, overseas travel was restricted to only those deemed necessary by the government. It was considered unthinkable to waste precious, hard-earned foreign currencies on tourism overseas.

It was only in 1964 — the year the Summer Olympic Games were held in Tokyo — that overseas travel was liberalized. Even though each person was allowed to carry only $500, the doors were finally opened for ordinary Japanese to resume trips abroad.

Newspaper ads at that time likened this development to the opening up of Japan in the late 19th century after more than 200 years of closed-door policy during the Edo Period.

Of course, overseas travel was initially out of reach for ordinary Japanese because of the costs, but the number of people traveling abroad sharply rose in the 1970s, and increased again in the ’80s and ’90s as the yen’s rise against other major currencies sometimes made trips abroad even less expensive than domestic travel.

Today overseas tours are routine for many people, as the total number of Japanese traveling abroad reached a record 18.5 million in 2012 — compared with 660,000 in 1970, 3.9 million in 1980 and 11 million in 1990.

More newsworthy is the fact that young Japanese don’t take trips overseas as much as their elders do. There are a myriad of reasons to explain why this is so, including two decades of tough economic times that took a toll on job security for many youths. But one thing hasn’t changed: Travel remains one of the best ways to learn about different cultures.

Travel is also a symbol of peace, because people don’t make trips in wartime. In addition, prejudices about people of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds often stem from a lack of knowledge about them. Half a century after Japan “reopened” to the rest of the world, it remains worthwhile to consider the value of overseas travel.

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