Flush With Cash, More Asian Tourists Flock to Japan
SHIRETOKO NATIONAL PARK, Japan — Once prohibitively expensive, Japan is suddenly drawing soaring numbers of Asian tourists who splurge at the nation’s department stores, lounge in its hot spring resorts or explore remote corners, like this stretch of pristine mountains and forests on Japan’s northernmost tip.
While a boon for Japan’s faltering tourism industry, the new tourists are also a sign of larger economic changes in one of the world’s most dynamic regions.
Japan itself was once known for its free-spending tourists, who flocked to boutiques from Hong Kong to Fifth Avenue. But as Japan’s economy stalled for the last dozen or so years, rapid development in countries like China and South Korea raised living standards there.
Those countries are now catching up with slow-growing Japan, long the region’s dominant economic power. Indeed, Japan’s dwindling, but still potent, lead in technology is a major draw for Asian tourists, who are as likely to visit a Toyota car factory as a Zen temple.
At the same time, there has been a decline in the number of people going abroad from Japan. The number of Japanese traveling abroad has fallen 3 percent from the peak in 2000 of 17.8 million, the government-run Japan National Tourist Organization said.
The decline was particularly pronounced among Japanese in their 20s, whose trips abroad fell to 2.8 million last year, down 40 percent from a decade ago. Officials from the tourist group attributed the drop among the young Japanese to falling wages and more modest lifestyles.
By contrast, the number of visitors to Japan from South Korea, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong almost doubled last year from five years earlier, to 5.36 million, according to the tourist group. Those four regions alone accounted for nearly two-thirds of all foreign visitors to Japan last year, the organization said.
But far from being concerned about yet another sign of their nation’s declining status, many Japanese seem to embrace this change. The government helped open the gates five years ago by waiving visa requirements for tourists from Taiwan and South Korea.
Asian visitors are now regarded by a growing number of Japanese as a financial shot in the arm for Japan, whose vitality has been sapped by economic maturity and an aging population.
“Asia has closed the gap in economic power,” said Yukiko Fukagawa, an economics and politics professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “And Japan is slowly realizing that maybe this is not such a bad thing.”
In the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo, the excitement these days is all about the large numbers of rich Asian tourists, most from China. This has pushed stores to begin hiring Chinese-speaking clerks and keep stacks of Chinese bills by cash registers.
At the marble-columned Mitsukoshi department store, one of Tokyo’s fanciest stores, wealthy Chinese buy Japanese and European-brand clothes and handbags by the dozen, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, apparently on a whim, for a watch or painting in the store, said Shoji Saito, manager of overseas-related business.
Mr. Saito said the store had not experienced such big-spending shoppers since Japan’s own go-go era in the 1980s.
“Asian tourists are our new growth market,” he said.
Many Asian tourists interviewed said they liked to shop here because Japan has the latest fashions first, and at prices way below those in many other Asian countries, where tariffs are steep. They also said they liked visiting Japan because it was close, safe and cleaner than much of the rest of Asia.
But many also say they are drawn by a deep fascination for Japan. Now that they can afford to come, they say they want to see the country that has long been the region’s front-runner in high technology, fashion and other realms of popular culture. They said they felt envy and respect for Japan as the region’s only fully developed nation, even if they did not always see eye to eye on matters like the events of World War II.
“We feel very close to the Japanese culturally, but they are also still ahead,” said Kao Yu-jeng, a 50-year-old schoolteacher who was part of a Taiwanese tour group visiting Shiretoko park, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. “We want to know more about what makes them tick.”
According to the Taiwanese government’s Tourism Bureau, Japan passed Macao last year to become the second-most-popular overseas destination for Taiwanese going abroad, after Hong Kong.
“Japan used to be a very distant presence,” said Hsu Ya-shan, assistant director in the Tokyo office of the Taiwan Visitors Association, a Taiwanese government-run tourism promotion agency. “Now, it feels a lot closer.”
Officials at the Japan National Tourist Organization called the surge in Asian visitors an unexpected result of their Visit Japan program, a 2003 advertising campaign whose goal was to double foreign visitors to 10 million by 2010. While they initially envisioned planeloads of arriving Westerners, it was Asians who actually showed up, officials said.
During the 1980s, Americans were the largest group of overseas visitors to Japan, but have now fallen to fourth behind South Korea, Taiwan and China.
“Japan always had this huge, unnatural imbalance of sending out far more tourists than it took in,” said Daisuke Tonai, a senior assistant manager at the tourist group. “The situation is finally becoming more normal.”
Mr. Tonai said surveys also showed Asian tourists came to Japan for different reasons than Westerners. While Americans said they came to see cultural attractions like temples, Asians cited shopping, followed by hot springs and nature. Visits to factories are also popular, he said.
Recently, a top draw for Asian tourists is Hokkaido, Japan’s least developed major island, with open spaces and picturesque farms reminiscent of the American Midwest.
Mr. Kao, the Taiwanese teacher, called Hokkaido’s natural beauty a welcome change from pollution-choked cities in Taiwan, and China, where he has visited.
As the group’s bus wound along Shiretoko’s rugged coastline, the tour guide, Yu Li-fang, warned the travelers of the dangers of entering a true wilderness area.
“What do you do if you see a bear?” she said.
“Run,” one voice said.
“Kill it,” said another.
“Do you know how to kill a bear?” Ms. Yu asked, only half jokingly.
While the group did not encounter a bear, many members did experience a different kind of shock at a gift store, where the prices were far higher than in Taiwan.
“Taiwan is getting closer, but Japan is still ahead when it comes to prices,” Lin Hsiao-ching, a 44-year-old homemaker, said with a laugh. “We still have to keep an eye on every bill.”