China and the World

Better relations in store?

Japan now welcomes Chinese tourists – especially if they have big wallets

Forging ties, not just selling them

At Mitsukoshi, one of Tokyo’s fanciest department stores, the shopping habits of China’s nouveau riche have been impressing even the most experienced sales managers.

According to Shoji Saito, manager of Mitsukoshi’s overseas-related business, Chinese tourists are buying Japanese and European-brand clothes and handbags by the dozen, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on watches, apparently on a whim.

Saito told the New York Times that the store had not witnessed such spending since Japan’s own go-go era in the 1980s.

The Japanese tourist authorities are pulling out the stops to lure Chinese shoppers too. Since last July, the government has been issuing individual tourist visas to Chinese visitors earning at least Rmb250,000 ($36,600) a year, about eight times the average salary in Shanghai. Previously, the Chinese could only visit in tour groups.

The response so far has been mixed. Tour agencies around Shanghai said some would-be travellers were not happy with the apparent message that only the well-off are welcome in Japan, says the Shanghai Daily.

“Financial status is merely for reference,” Yoshiaki Hompo, Japan Tourism Agency commissioner, quickly clarifies. “In fact, Japan welcomes any Chinese individuals that are trustworthy” – an interesting choice of words in its own right.

But trustworthy or not, Hompo says the purchasing power of Chinese tourists is “amazing”. On average, they spend about ¥200,000 ($2,083) during a visit. If the Japan Times is right in forecasting a 250,000 increase in Chinese visitors by 2010 (to 1.25 million in total), this means an estimated ¥40 billion in tourism receipts.

A growing number of organisations are eager to cater to the inbound market. In the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo, for example, stores are beginning to hire Mandarin-speaking sales staff and keep Chinese currency in their cash registers. Many retailers now accept the Chinese UnionPay card, the largest bank card organisation in China, says Phoenix Weekly.

Perhaps the increase in tourism between the two countries will lead to closer ties in general.

The relationship between the two countries has, to put it mildly, often been a tense one. Despite efforts to look to the future (Chinese president Hu Jintao has visited Japan twice, for instance), most Chinese remain deeply sensitive to the Japanese occupation less than a century ago.

In trade terms, however, bilateral ties have never been closer; trade between the two countries in 2008 reached $266 billion, and China has surpassed the US as Japan’s largest trading partner.

This may bode well for warming relations. “The trend is basically decided by the increasing economic interdependence of the nations” says Feng Zhaokui, former deputy head of the Institute of Japan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

But attitudes at street level still have some catching up to do.

In a recent survey conducted by China Daily and Genro NPO, a leading Japanese think tank, 65.2% of Chinese respondent said they had a “slightly bad” or “bad impression” of Japan.

Meanwhile, in Japan 73.2% of respondents had a poor impression of China. Mutual dislike, apparently, runs deeper than the trade statistics imply – or perhaps it is a case of the two countries being better at trading than talking.

Maybe things will improve with Japan’s election of a new prime minister. In an effort to bolster ties with China, DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama has already pledged that he will not pay homage to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, the contentious memorial to Japanese war dead. Visits by previous leaders have always stirred up controversy.

Now, if the Japanese would only correct their history books…


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