Whether as tourists, businessmen, or explorers, the Japanese have penetrated to every corner of the globe. Currently drifting aimlessly in the Pacific Ocean are six Japanese in a triangular- masted catamaran seeking to prove that this wanderlust is no late 20 th century phenomenon, but a proud tradition dating back more than 2,000 years.
At stake is an archaeological theory that when the first settlers from the Asian mainland reached Japan during the Jomon era (8000 to 200 BC), some hardy souls ultimately drifted on to found colonies on the Pacific coast of South America.
Experts say relics of pottery found particularly in Chile are remarkably similar to the type of earthenware archaeologists have confirmed was typical of the late Jomon era.
These latest explorers are typical of the new breed of young Japanese seeking dangerous challenges apparently as a protest against the dull, workaholic atmosphere of modern Japanese society.
Their hero is Naomi Uemura, who looks like a mild-mannered bank clerk but has scaled mountains on every continent, sailed down the Amazon, and twice traversed the Arctic between Greenland and Canada alone by dog sled, the second time via the North Pole, defeating frostbite, falls into crevasses, attacks from polar bears, and desertion by some of his husky dogs.
All this, however, is merely preparation for a future plan to cross the Antarctic continent via the South Pole by dog sled if the countries operating there can be persuaded to relent in their opposition to such a project.
There are so many Japanese expeditions scaling peaks in the Himalayas these days that even Everest has taken on the crowded appearance of a Tokyo shopping street.
In recent years the world's highest mountain has been conquered by Japanese men and one woman by both conventional and previously unclimbed routes.
One Japanese even skied down Everest, with only a parachute strapped to his back to slow his breakneck speed.
The Pacific Ocean has become a mere pond for Japanese male and female sailors who crisscross it alone or in small groups in all manners of flimsy craft.
Polar traveler Uemura explains the phenomenon by saying: "I think many young Japanese feel frustrated at the lack of challenge in society today. They have been spoon-fed in childhood, and once they become adults they are locked into a dull working routine that offers them little freedom.
"Many teen-agers react by risking their lives in reckless high-speed driving on powerful motorcycles. When they get a bit older, the desire to take risks seems to be channeled into ocean voyages and the like.
"The opportunities for adventure in the world are shrinking, and so many Japanese now are seeking to create their own challenge -- to test themselves to the limit."
This is precisely what the six Japanese sailors are setting out to do. They put to sea May 8 in a double-hulled canoe, Yasei Go III (the wild one), in the hopes of drifting across the Pacific to San Francisco to pick up coastal currents and winds that will carry them down to Chile -- a voyage of some 10,000 miles.
The ultimate destination, the Chilean port of Arica, is supposed to be reached in the early part of October.
The project, however, is off to a slow start.
Since leaving the central Japanese port of Shimoda -- where Commodore Matthew Perry of "black ships" fame landed in the mid-19th century -- the Yasei Go has encountered nothing but flat seas and virtually no wind.
"Their last report indicates that at present they have drifted about 120 miles to the south of their intended course," a spokesman for the sponsoring Society of Ancient Pacific Cultures explained in Tokyo.
"At this stage, however, it's not a serious problem."
Apart from an aluminum mast, the double-hulled canoe is made of Japanese pine and cypress, following as closely as possible traditional boat-building techniques.
The boat, which is approximately 42 feet by 23 feet, has a small windowless wooden cabin perched precariously between the two canoes.
A small pedal-operated generator provides just enough electricity for cooking and the radio set.
The crew took along enough food to last them 80 days, but they planned to supplement this by catching fish.