Mr. Zhang, a businessman from Wuxi with a passing resemblance to Steve McQueen, is what his countrymen refer to as “a proud Chinese.” Kicking pebbles outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, where our tour bus has dropped us for a 30-minute wander, he announces, “Japan is a small country. We Chinese are coming to save the Japanese economy.”
Zhang is one of my 27 fellow travelers on the Hato Bus full-day Chinese-language Tokyo sightseeing tour, which has been made to coincide with the three Chinese public holidays at the beginning of October that commemorate the formation of the People’s Republic of China.
I have joined them to get the lowdown on one of the Japanese government’s most publicized, and apparently most successful, pet projects: attracting more international visitors to this country, particularly from China. I want to know why the Chinese choose to come to Japan, what they think of it now they are here, and what role, if any, the troubled history between this country and theirs plays in their choice of destination.
The tour starts from Hamamatsucho, and, having paid my ¥8,500 fee, I try my first question on the young Ms. Zhang (no relation to the McQueen look-alike I will meet later). “All Chinese have heard about Japan for a long time — in relation to the war, or that the Japanese are cruel, or that they’re proud, or that their country is really developed. The Chinese want to see it for themselves,” she explains.
“Also, China’s economy has gradually improved, and people have got more money now, so they want to get out of China and have a look around.”
We take our seats on the bus and, while we wait for our smiling tour guide Ms. Hirose to deal with latecomers, I review some statistics from the Japanese National Tourist Organization. The number of Chinese visitors to Japan has increased by over 20 percent almost every year since 2003, when the national government’s Visit Japan campaign began. In 2003, of Japan’s 5.21 million visitors, about 449,000, or just under 9 percent, were Chinese. By 2010, when the grand total is expected to reach the goal of 10 million (it is on target, having hit 7.33 million last year), 1.99 million are expected to be Chinese. China’s share will have more than doubled to about 20 percent in just seven years — making it second only to Korea, whose share of 27 percent will have remained more or less stable since 2003.
“Ni hao (‘How are you’ in Mandarin),” says Hirose, as the bus engine starts up. “Ni hao,” we reply, as the bus pulls away and heads down Hibiya Dori for our first stop: the Imperial Palace. Hirose begins her tours by explaining why Tokyo appears to look so new — something that often surprises the Chinese. “I explain that it’s because much of the city was destroyed during the Great Earthquake and the Second World War, and also because a lot of it is on reclaimed land, including Hibiya.”
The Emperor’s abode gets mixed reactions, and no one seems particularly concerned about being in such close proximity to the seat of 1930s Imperialist power — least of all the pebble-kicking Mr. Zhang.
“They like to hear about the succession problem, because they’ve all heard about it on Chinese TV,” explains Hirose later.
I notice two young sisters talking to each other in English, and ask them what they like about Japan.
“We like sleeping on the floor!” they yell.
“They mean tatami mats,” explains their mother, Ms. Jiang, who also speaks English. When I ask about their language she explains that they all lived in the States until last year, for her husband’s work.
With their international perspective, were they not concerned about the “history problem” when they chose to come to Japan?
“When you read history, it’s kind of like the Japanese are a different people now,” Jiang says. “You wonder how come that kind of thing could have happened. Now they seem to be so nice, so polite, so helpful.”
While her American experience and residence in Shanghai’s ritzy Pudong district place her family in the ranks of the nouveau riche, it is surprising to learn they are staying with friends in working-class Matsudo City, Chiba Prefecture.
Leaving the Imperial Palace behind, we head to Asakusa, passing through Akihabara along the way.
“That’s a special treat for the Chinese groups,” Hirose explains. “Akihabara is so famous, they are all happy to see it.”
Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple always inspires one question from Chinese visitors.
“It’s a Buddhist temple, dedicated to the goddess Kannon, right, so I explain that on the bus,” says Hirose. “But when we get there, there’s no depiction of Kannon herself. They always ask why there’s no Kannon inside!”
So why isn’t there, asks your slightly blushing correspondent.
“It is in there, you just can’t see it. In Japanese temples, they keep the most sacred things locked away,” says Hirose. “In China, you can see them.”
Hirose also makes an interesting comparison between Chinese and Western visitors: “When Westerners think ‘Japan’ they think ‘Orient.’ The Chinese think of technological advancements or advanced urbanism.”
Our lunch is a set meal of maze gohan (steamed rice and autumn vegetables), udon (thick noodles) and tempura at a restaurant near the temple. I sit next to Ms. Li, an accountant from Beijing, who had her hair cut the day before in Harajuku. We discuss her shopping plans (clothes and suits in Shibuya) and the fact that she is not going to have time to visit her dream destination: Sanrio Puroland in Tama City.
So did it not bother her that Sanrio’s Hello Kitty hails from the same country that once invaded China?
“Actually, I think that is not a very big problem,” she says. “Young people don’t mind history — it’s history.”
She does, however, bemoan visa difficulties.
“It’s very hard for Chinese to get a visa for personal travel,” she says, hence the fact that many of our fellow travelers — the feisty Mr. Zhang included — were actually here on business, with one day of sightseeing tacked on the end.
After lunch we walk over to the Sumida River to catch the waterbus down to Hinode. The young Ms. Zhang, who has been AWOL for about an hour, reappears.
“I just went to meet my husband — he’s Japanese and works in Asakusa,” she says, thus explaining why she can speak Japanese. “We’re in business together. He deals with the customers in Japan, and I deal with the factories in China.”
So what’s she doing on a Hato Bus tour?
“I’m with my mother and father,” she says, pointing at a cheerful chap who had just usurped our leader’s group-tour flag from Hirose.
Intrigued by her and her family, I sit next to them on the boat. Did they often travel abroad together?
“First time,” says the daughter. “My father used to believe that the members of our family should not all travel together, because if something happened to us there’d be no one to make the funeral arrangements.”
Noticing my jaw drop in surprise, she quickly adds: “He has a very old, conservative way of thinking. He’s an official in the local government (in Suzhou).”
So, what does he think of Japan?
“It’s important for Chinese to see other countries and study them,” he says.
Sensing that his thirst for knowledge spreads beyond the Land of the Rising Sun, I ask where in the world he would most like to go.
“America,” he says, which is echoed by all the members of his family and the other Mr. Zhang, who has also edged his way into the conversation. “America’s period of development is long, so in all areas they have progressed a lot. In everything they are number one. We want to know what it feels like to be No. 1,” he continues.
By the time we reach Tokyo Tower, four hours into our eight-hour tour, eyes are starting to glaze over. Looking at the Chinese it is hard to avoid the feeling that for them, Japan — the No. 2, perhaps, in their books — is a curiosity at best, and one that is quite quickly satisfied at that.
At our last destination, Odaiba, the women mostly window-shop at Venus Fort, while the men saunter into Mega Web, taking in the Chinese language signs (often more prominent than the Japanese) and photographing each other in front of the new model cars on display.
On the way out we have a view over the parking area, where 17 buses are lined up like planes taxiing on a runway: “Over half those buses would be Chinese groups,” says Hirose, with a wave of her hand.
It’s easy to see why the Japanese government is talking up the potential for attracting millions of visitors in the future — after all, China has its fabled population of 1 billion, and it would seem that all the talk of the two countries’ terrible history is actually stoking their curiosity. But, with the passing of time, and the possibility that the United States may ease its visa restrictions for Chinese tourists in the future, it seems likely that in their eyes, Japan will take a back seat to the “No. 1″ across the Pacific.