HONG KONG – As the orange and white bus closed its doors at Terminal 2 of Narita International Airport, the passengers settled down for the 100-minute drive to their various hotels while, outside, three employees of the bus company, in neat cream-colored shirts and black pants, executed a deep, respectful bow as the vehicle left the depot.
Welcome to Japan, perhaps the world’s most polite society, where everything is orderly and everyone seems helpful and respectful.
In this regard, Japan is perhaps the polar opposite of China, where people think nothing of pushing, shoving and shouting in public. Japan hopes to increase the number of visitors next year, when Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics, to 40 million. Last year, 31.2 million tourists arrived in Japan, with 27 percent of them hailing from China.
The impact of Chinese tourists is more than economic. The visitors to Japan are having a diplomatic impact as well, with many returning home with a much better image of Japan. This is people-to-people diplomacy in action.
Relations between China and Japan are noticeably warming. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid an official visit to China in October to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Japan-China peace and friendship treaty, marking the end of a seven-year deep freeze in bilateral relations.
While in Beijing, the Japanese leader invited China’s president, Xi Jinping, to visit Japan. There has been no public announcement of Xi’s response, but Japanese officials, speaking anonymously, indicated that Chinese officials have conveyed Xi’s acceptance.
Actually, the Chinese leader will be in Osaka this week for the Group of 20 summit, but that will not count as an official visit to Japan which, in all likelihood, won’t happen this year. Still, both countries have agreed to revive regular exchanges of top-level visits.
The warming of relations is taking place at a time when the United States is putting pressure on both China and Japan to make trade concessions, more or less pushing the two Asian countries toward each other.
While this is taking place at the governmental level, there is also noticeable change at the people-to-people level.
Since 2005, a joint study has been conducted each year as part of a track two dialogue by the Japanese think tank Genron NPO and China International Publishing Group to see how citizens of each country view the other.
For many years, these annual surveys showed that a big majority of Chinese had a bad impression of Japan while a large majority of Japanese held a similarly low opinion of China.
However, a few years ago things started to change. The latest study, conducted in 2018, showed that Chinese people’s impressions of Japan had improved substantially, with 42.2 percent of 1,548 respondents saying that they had a “favorable” impression of Japan, the highest since the surveys began 14 years ago. Those with an “unfavorable” impression of Japan dropped 11 points to 56.1 percent.
The change reflects a rise in personal contact with Japan, with respondents who had visited the country increasing each year from 2012 to 2018, when it reached 18.6 percent. Most had visited Japan within the last five years.
The same dramatic change hasn’t taken place in Japan. Of 1,000 Japanese surveyed, 86.3 percent had an “unfavorable” impression of China while only 13.1 percent had a “favorable” impression. Only 13.5 percent of Japanese respondents had visited China and most visits had occurred more than a decade previously.
Clearly, such unfavorable sentiments won’t sustain friendship. But tourism alone isn’t the answer. China needs to project a better image. It is significant that while some Chinese have voiced a desire to live in Japan, few if any Japanese have said the same of China.
While historical issues continue to bedevil the relationship, its impact is declining. In 2018, more than half the Chinese respondents still cited Japan’s “lack of a proper apology and remorse over its history of invasion into China,” but that number was 13 points below the previous year.
From time to time, China has used tourism as a weapon in its foreign policy. Last year, for example, it punished South Korea by suspending authorized group tours to that country after Seoul agreed, despite Chinese objections, to deploy a U.S. missile shield directed against a possible North Korean attack.
However, as Chinese become wealthier, fewer travel as part of tour groups. This means that the government’s ability to divert tourists from any particular country is declining.
That is to say, Chinese tourists will become a less potent weapon in China’s armory and the impact of people-to-people diplomacy will increasingly reflect genuine public sentiment. This is as it should be.
Frank Ching is a U.S. veteran journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. His email address is: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1