The rate of cruise penetration in Japan is among the lowest of any developed country, notwithstanding efforts of some international cruise lines, such as Princess Cruises, to further the market.
About 0.18% of the Japanese population cruises each year, according to Cruise Japan. Even in France, not a country that embraces cruising, the penetration rate is 0.9%, more than four times higher.
Nevertheless, Japan has made two contributions to the cruise industry — entertainment choices that are available to a broad range of cruisers. One is the concept of karaoke, and the other is the teppanyaki grill.
Both are highly social activities, which is one clue as to why cruise lines promote them. Cruise directors since the dawn of cruising have been hired to throw passengers together and break the ice among what is mostly a group of strangers.
That's increasingly important as ships grow in size to 4,000 passengers and beyond. No longer can a group of passengers be expected to bond organically, as in the past when small ships and long itineraries were the rule.
Karaoke and teppanyaki are both lively, engaging activities that help passengers let their hair down and get comfortable with fellow guests.
By now, every Westerner has been exposed to karaoke, which comes from the Japanese for "empty orchestra." In the version popular on cruise ships, guests get up in a lounge to perform a song with a recorded version, minus the lead vocal, playing in the background.
While Westerners sing before strangers, in Japan karaoke is more of a friends and family activity done in the privacy of a sound-insulated karaoke box. Although Japan had a tradition of music being played at dinners or parties, it required the rise of multitrack recording before the karaoke machine was invented in Kobe, Japan, in 1971.
The word teppanyaki is an amalgam of two Japanese words, one for "iron plate" and one for "grilled."
In teppanyaki cooking, a knife-wielding chef stands behind a hot griddle cooking shrimp, chicken, vegetables and other items, and performing tricks, such as flipping the cooked shrimp from the griddle into the mouths of diners, who are arrayed around the edge of the grill.
Teppanyaki was created in Japan in 1945, when a Japanese chef began cooking Western-influenced foods on a teppan. It soon proved more popular with tourists than with resident Japanese. In the U.S., teppanyaki was popularized starting in the mid-1960s by the Benihana restaurant chain.
The latest ships from the three biggest brands — Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line — all have teppanyaki tables.
Another Japanese invention I would love to see on a ship is rotation sushi, where a conveyor belt snakes through a small restaurant delivering sushi plates from a central station to customers at counters or tables.
Who knows, it might be a natural pairing with the Bionic Bar on the next Royal Caribbean ship!