The Social Side Of Japanese Diving
The Japanese Diving Circuit
Japanese diving culture is not only found in Japan itself.
Japanese divers love to travel – at least to certain places outside Japan’s borders.
There is something of an circuit of either Japanese-run diving operations, or employing Japanese staff.
These operators concentrate the majority of Japanese visitors overseas, mostly for practical linguistic / organisational reasons, since these operators not only offer on-site Japanese diving service, but will also handle your booking in Japanese and help with planning, accommodation and sometimes even flights,
We’ve encountered this situation in different areas, either working in a Japanese structure (Thailand) or being the on-site Japanese-speaking instructor-guides (Indonesia, Mexico…).
There are numerous exceptions, of course, including local Japanese “expatriate” communities, more adventurous Japanese students or people simply comfortable enough to book in English (some divers might occasionally seek to avoid Japanese-style service found back home) or returning customers.
And yet the vast majority of diving reservations will done through Japanese booking agents.
This is also quite common in non-Japanese contexts as well, especially since the advent of online-booking agents such as liveaboard.com, which now concentrate the majority of bookings from certain areas such as the USA, the diving world’s answer to booking.com and other agoda.com…
Yet in Japan, this situation largely predates the Internet age, with dedicated travel agents specialised in diving and dive travel – which somewhat mirrors the offer of European countries like France or Germany.
This is probably for similar linguistic and cultural reasons – though this is changing fast, French divers, for instance, were until very recently notorious for speaking only French, and wanting to dive in a French environment.
And as in Europe, agents advertise their services in major diving publications, and also through national diving and travel fairs and events.
This situation still prevails, although most of the booking business is now done online.
Overseas dive centre / plans showcased in Japanese diving magazines
This means that a dive centre aiming to welcome Japanese divers abroad will need to work with these agents.
Agents will usually send their staff on site to inspect operations, and evaluate different the dive operator’s offer before the collaboration begins.
In some places we worked at, including Mexico, the Japanese diver market was actually divided between 2 dive operators, each working with one of the major Japanese agents, which avoided direct competition.
It’s fairly simple. Customers books through the agent, and the agent contacts the operator’s booking manager, which can be someone off-site, who will then relay the information to the dive centre, or actual on-site dive staff.
When it’s the on-site dive staff handling agent bookings, it’s usually more direct and smooth, as they know the operation from the inside, which usually helps anticipate problems and avoid confusion.
But it is also a heavy workload, especially if there is no dedicated Japanese-speaking office staff.
Handling agent booking means not only planning and management duties, but also long daily email exchanges with the agent and or guests, to iron out all the details, deal with changes and eventual issues – which is quite demanding, especially if one is also guiding/teaching every day.
These agents centralise the vast majority of international Japanese diver bookings, and are involved in active collaborations with diving publications and diving events.
As such, the agent network forms the basis of the Japanese diver circuit, focusing both offer and attention on certain areas, and directing bookings to collaborating dive centres offering some form of Japanese service.
The Japanese diver circuit overseas
Let’s start with places where you’ll currently rarely encounter Japanese divers.
Major diving destinations include the Egypt’s Red Sea for instance, which has been off-limits for some years, or Central to South American destinations other than Mexico, Costa Rica and Galapagos.
Safety is a concern, as is general accessibility (reliability of connections, crucial for divers with very limited time, as is often the case with non-retired Japanese divers)
Outside of the island of Bali (which has numerous Japanese operators and offers easy access from Japan), and a few liveaboard charters on the Komodo/Raja Ampat route, Japanese divers are also surprisingly rare in Indonesia – this is most likely due to time/practical constraints, since Indonesia is a large archipelago, implying domestic flights which are often unreliable.
But this will most likely change in the future, given how good the diving is.
A major Japanese agent has been centralising bookings for years, and other smaller structures cater mostly to Jakarta-based Japanese “expat” community.
We worked for a dive centre located inside a major luxury hotel on Flores Island’s Labuan Bajo, that offered speedboat daytrips to Komodo National Park, and roughly 30% of customers were Japanese, tough the flight connections from Bali to LBJ-Komodo airport sometimes complicated things.
Major destinations catering to Japanese divers include:
- The Maldives, both on the area’s numerous resort islands and also dedicated Japanese liveaboard cruises
- Australia, especially Cairns / the Great Barrier Reef
- French Polynesia, including world diving highlights of the Tuamotu Archipelago (Fakarava and Rangiroa), but also destinations also on the Japanese “honeymoon” circuit (Bora-Bora, Tahiti)
- Palau, Guam, Saipan, Yap, Chuuk and other areas in Micronesia
- Mexico, especially La Paz for the incredibly cute sea lion dives, Cabo Pulmo, Cabo San Lucas, the Socorro / Revillagigedo island cruises, but also the great white sharks of Guadalupe, and Quintana Roo destinations of Cozumel and the Cenotes
- Hawaii (which is also the quintessential destination on the Japanese “honeymoon circuit”) Oahu and neighbouring islands
- New Caledonia (also on the “honeymoon” circuit), Tonga (for the whales)
- Thailand (Koh Tao for courses, but also Koh Samui or Phuket and Khao Lak based liveaboard and daytrips on the Andaman Sea)
- Indonesia (primarily Bali, Komodo/Raja Ampat cruises),
- The Philippines (Anilao, Bohol etc)
- Slightly less common destinations include Malaysia’s Sipadan, Indonesia’s Bunaken or Sangalaki, East Timor, Vietnam or Caribbean islands (Bahamas, Grand Cayman) and Belize or the Galapagos…
The Japanese “honeymoon circuit” includes popular honeymoon (shinkon-ryokō 新婚旅行）destinations, often in tropical locations, which tend to attract entry-level divers.
Hawaii, for instance, has strong historical links with Japan, due to the presence of a large Japanese-American, community established in the area after large economic migrations in the early 20th century.
As such, it has been marketed by Japanese travel agents since the 1950/60s, and is still to this day one of the most popular destinations for all-inclusive honeymoon trips.
Other honeymoon destinations such as Tahiti, Bora Bora or New Caledonia are slightly more recent, appearing in the late 1970s to mid-1980s, and also offer good diving, which helped setup a solid Japanese-focused diving industry in the area.
Some South Pacific destinations have strong historical links with Japan, especially the islands of Micronesia which were once administered by Japan under the South Seas Mandate (officially the Mandate for the German Possessions in the Pacific Ocean lying North of the Equator, 南洋諸島 nan’yō shotō in Japanese).
One shilling note issued by the Japanese Governement during the South Seas Mandate
Diving destinations do mirror, to a certain extent, the tastes of general Japanese travellers for general overseas travel destinations (more on this here), largely influenced by practical considerations and time constraints, but also by cultural and historical links.
However, as is the case elsewhere around the world, people travelling for scuba diving purposes are generally a little more adventurous in their choices, and often willing to sacrifice a little comfort if the diving is worth it (which it usually always is!)
Making the most of it
Japanese society offers few consecutive holidays, and long working hours, which means that Japanese divers, unless retired, generally have very tight schedules, but are also generally highly motivated to make the most of whatever time they have.
As previously mentioned, we guided Japanese guests in Mexico, who had braved a 24-hour transit from Tōkyō (and massive trans-Pacific jetlag) to dive with us for 3 days in La Paz!
Needless to say, we were doing three dives a day (even though the standard was 2) and we really did our best to show them all the Espiritu Santo National Park had to offer!
Diving speedboat, Andaman Sea, Thailand
Another example that comes to mind is a few years back, in central Raja Ampat.
A Bali-based Japanese operator we know was coming with 4 Japanese guests for a few days.
Phone/internet communication options were limited in Raja at the time (things have improved…), and they had dive-staff to accompany them, so while it wasn’t much of a concern, we were wondering what the guest’s profile would be, coming up to such a remote place on a short notice.
We concluded it would probably Japanese expatriates from Jakarta, or maybe more adventure-seeking university students…
Kri Island, central Raja Ampat, Indonesia
When the speedboat finally arrived from Waisai, to our surprise, the Japanese guests turned out to be highly energetic grannies (the youngest being in her 70s…), who had flown over to Indonesia (Bali, then Raja Ampat) as a group, while their respective husbands where on a golf trip in Japan…
Theses ladies turned out to be avid divers (one had over 800 dives), with incredible flowery wetsuits and matching flowery booties, who gave out lollies to everyone and did not miss a single one of their 3 dives a day!
Speaking of age, with Japan’s aging population, senior diving is definitely becoming a thing, as elsewhere. Which is great, if it’s approached seriously.
This page by the Midsummer dive centre (that we had the pleasure of collaborating with abroad), presents their senior oriented diving activities.
Midsummer has a dedicated trainer, with adapted training sessions to keep divers safely in the water. Their current oldest diver is over 80, and their aim is to get centenarians to dive.
While some Japanese divers can be a little shy when it comes to diving in a non-Japanese environment, the motivation to dive is usually always there!
On a slightly less positive note, the limited time Japanese divers have abroad, and a strong desire to make the most of it, can unfortunately lead to some divers pushing their limits and taking undeniable safety risks.
We’ve seen some rather extreme examples of diver exhaustion that we won’t detail here, but as an example, an Indonesian liveaboard catering largely to Japanese charter groups was (in)famous amongst dive guides for having a 5-dive-a-day schedule with the night dive, sometimes going up to 6 dives a day, which is ridiculous given the nitrogen load….
And when it comes to land-based diving, 5 to 6 dives-a-day schedules are, unfortunately, not to that difficult to find, whether overseas, or in Japan itself…
Diving speedboat, Komodo National Park, Indonesia