TOKYO — High-tech toilet seats, diapers, cold medicine, rice cookers: These are some of the hottest items for a Chinese tourist on a shopping spree in Japan. The Japanese call this Bakugai or "explosive buying," and associate it with the Chinese travelers' impressive purchasing power. Bakugai even became 2015's Japanese Word of the Year.
As data from the National Tourism Organization shows, Chinese people comprised Japan's largest tourist group last year, followed by South Koreans and Taiwanese. The growing presence of Chinese travelers has raised mixed emotions among the Japanese public, even those in the tourist industry who would be bound to profit from the phenomenon.
Complaints range from Japanese business travelers who suddenly find it difficult to book hotel rooms in certain Japanese cities, to broader gripes about the "etiquette," or lack of it, among Chinese tourists. Chinese travelers have a reputation for cutting lines, being noisy and littering. Local governments in cities that are popular with Chinese tourists have taken measures, such as putting up posters in Chinese to remind them of the code of behavior.
Still, in my opinion, the real challenge concerning Chinese tourists has entered the next phase: how to deal with the effects of scale.
Undoubtedly, even though some Japanese exhibit resentment towards the Chinese tourists, the economic opportunity brought by their visits and explosive buying habits have "rebalanced" their feeling.
Mr. Inoue, who had been driving taxis in Tokyo for 30 years, says he likes picking up Chinese clients. "They'll take a taxi from Tokyo all the way to Haneda Airport, or even Narita Airport, which is further out," he says. "Japanese clients rarely do this."
Even if Chinese spending has dropped significantly since the country's economy has slowed, they still make up the largest consumer group in Japan during their tours, spending on average about $1,500, for a total of $3.83 billion in 2014.
Links to South China Sea
The opportunity that an ever more powerful China offers comes in the context of the Sino-Japan relationship. Japanese people, in general, believe that China has expansionist territorial ambitions, in its South China Sea strategy, for example. There is also the "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure trade initiative, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Ordinary Japanese and business leaders alike are alarmed by these moves, and this mindset winds up influencing their perception of Chinese tourists.
To better understand how Japanese people view Chinese tourists, I paid particularly close attention everywhere I went in Japan, when I went back home during the two weeks of the recent Chinese New Year.
One afternoon, I went to Tokyo's famous Akihabara district, nicknamed "Electronics Town," where everything basically revolves around the Chinese tourists who are busy with their "explosive buying."
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Tokyo's Akihabara Station — Photo: Brancacube
On the way there, several posters in Chinese remind tourists that they can use their UnionPay cards to draw cash at Family Mart. As far as I remembered, I had never seen such services and advertisements in Japan before.
Exiting the Akihabara Station, I immediately heard Chinese broadcast ads coming from Yamada Electric, a chain specializing in various electrical appliances. Two employees cheerfully held up signs introducing, in Chinese, brands with preferential prices, and ushering in clients who were virtually all Chinese tourists. It quickly felt like I was back in China.
I walked over to two Japanese boys near the shop, with puzzled expressions on their faces. "What do you think of this?" I asked. "I'd come here to buy some batteries," said one. "But with all these Chinese, it's going to take time." The other added, "We don't normally come here anymore."
The second floor of the five-story Yamada Electric compound specializes in duty-free services, where nearly all clients and half the clerks are Chinese. Again, posters promote the services of Alipay, a third-party online payment platform with no transaction fees. "It's like shopping back at home," one female shopper says with delight.
Chinese tourists have by now grown accustomed to the fact that they are able to shop in their own language, among their own countrymen. This can only happen thanks to China's scale effect, of both emigration and trade.
I overheard one particular conversation between a Chinese client and Chinese clerk at a drugs and cosmetics store. "How long have you lived in Japan? How do you feel about living here? Do the Japanese look down on you? How did you got a Japanese passport?" They had surely just met for the first time, yet neither hesitated to ask blunt questions about otherwise private and sensitive matters.
Suddenly, one term came to my mind: Chinese thinking. Many in Japan know this concept, which refers to Chinese people taught to believe that the world revolves around them.
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Akihabara by night — Photo: IQRemix
Most Japanese feel that Chinese people still operate with this mentality today. It helps to explain, more or less, the Chinese government's actions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, as well as "explosive buying."
Why do Japanese people so quickly come to such a conclusion? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in ancient times, Japan used to present tributes to China. Japanese learn in their history books that under the tributary system Chinese emperors developed a self-centered system to provide protection for bordering countries in return for loyalty. In other words, the Chinese tourists and their money remind Japanese people of the ancient history they learned about at school.
But it was a conversation with a Chinese female staff member at another Tokyo electronics store that may shed even more light. Mrs. Nishiguchi has lived in Japan for over 30 years, a naturalized citizen as her Japanese name shows. And her complaints are reserved for the visitors from her native China, many of whom question her for trying to sell products made in Japan. "These Chinese tourists' level is really appalling," she says. "They make a fuss over everything. To be rich is one thing. To have quality and morality is another. It will take another 50 years for China to be as advanced as Japan."
As a Japanese who deals with Chinese all the time, I fully understand her point of view. And yet, if it had been a Japanese clerk selling Japanese goods, a Chinese tourist probably wouldn't have reacted so impulsively. This is partly because of the language barrier. But even more important is that Chinese people are in general more polite with foreigners.
*The author is the former president of Beijing University's Japanese Association and a renowned critic on Sino-Japan relations.