SHANGHAI – There’s no lack of ill will in China toward Japan. The chilly diplomatic relationship between Beijing and Tokyo is matched by occasional expressions of antagonism by the Chinese public.
In September, the tenth Japan-China Public Opinion Poll (a joint effort by Chinese and Japanese organizations) showed that only 11.3 percent of Chinese had a favorable opinion of Japan, with 57.3 percent claiming that their impression had worsened over the last year. (Grievances about World War II and ongoing territorial disputes were among the top reasons cited.)
Yet, despite this apparent disdain, Chinese tourists can’t seem to get enough of Japan. In 2014, 2.4 million Chinese visited Japan, an 83 percent increase on the previous year. And last week the Japanese government announced that it was increasing Chinese consular staff to handle a surge of Chinese visa applications.
Why haven’t China’s travel plans seemingly been affected by its political views? It comes down to shopping — specifically, to the Chinese public’s penchant for shopping overseas. Given China’s frequent product safety scandals and the rampant forgeries of designer goods that flood its markets, Chinese often schedule shopping sprees when they’re outside the country. In 2014 alone, Chinese spent $164 billion abroad, making them the world’s biggest vacation spenders.
And Japan is increasingly China’s favored shopping destination. In 2014, spending by Chinese tourists was up 10.3 percent over the previous year — amounting to almost $2,000 per visitor.
During this past February’s Chinese New Year, Chinese tourists spent around $1 billion in Japan. Business has been so good that Laox, a Chinese-owned duty free chain that caters to Chinese tourists in Japan, has seen its stock rise 1,400 percent since 2012.
There are a number of reasons for the flood of tourist spending in Japan, including the weakening yen; Tokyo’s relaxing of visa requirements over the past year; and China’s persistently high taxes on luxury goods.
But the biggest factor is the outsized cachet that Japanese products — especially household appliances — enjoy in China. Take, for example, this year’s must-have souvenir for Chinese tourists visiting Japan: expensive, feature-laden high-tech toilet seats (complete with bidets, heat, and even speakers to play pre-recorded music).
According to Chinese media reports, Chinese tourists have been buying up the devices in duty-free shops across Japan — often in bulk.
The fact that China makes high-tech toilet seats of its own — including some of those sold in Japan and re-exported to China — doesn’t deter these shoppers: the fact that they’re Japanese merchandise is precisely why they’re desirable for Chinese consumers. Indeed, one refrain in Chinese media coverage of the country’s foreign shopping sprees is a dutiful explanation — contrary to any actual evidence — that Japanese rice cookers simply prepare better rice than Chinese ones due to their superior materials.
Increased tourism and trade between China and Japan can’t hurt relations between the two countries. But so far, at least, there’s little evidence that increased fraternization between Chinese tourists and Japanese duty-free cashiers has contributed to a broader diplomatic or cultural thaw.
Nor should anyone expect it to. Only 5 percent of Chinese citizens have passports, and they’re probably not representative of the country as a whole.
By contrast, the vast majority of the Chinese population — including the working class students who have populated China’s sporadic anti-Japanese riots over the years — is unlikely to have immediate plans to travel out of the country at all. It’s worth considering that when the Japan-China Opinion Poll asked Chinese if they’d like to visit Japan, 72.6 percent said that they’d pass; there’s little reason to believe that a substantial portion of them will change their minds anytime soon.
Still, judging from the experience of Chinese tourists who have already been in Japan, nationalism can sometimes be tempered by the experience of a good bargain. That’s no guarantee of peace. But it is reason to hope that China’s growing wave of outbound tourists will serve as a force for openness and tolerance — if only so they’ll have somewhere good to shop.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.