Diplomatic ties between China and Japan have been heavily strained for over a year now, but there’s one group which surprisingly doesn’t seem to care: Chinese tourists.
Yesterday, the Japan National Tourism Organization released statistics finding that Chinese tourist arrivals to Japan rose by a massive 80.1 percent to a total of 184,200 during the month of March. The uptick is part of a resurgence in Chinese visitor levels that began in January this year before the Chinese New Year holiday. During that time period, Japan issued 79,000 Chinese group visas and 30,000 individual Chinese visas, the highest number since Shinzo Abe took office as Japan’s prime minister in 2012.
This increase marks a significant change in Chinese willingness to visit Japan. China-Japan bookings plunged in the wake of violent Chinese anti-Japan riots and boycotts that began in August 2012 as a result of a dispute between the two countries over the Senkaku Islands, a controversial grouping of islands claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands. The small islands have been a matter of contention for decades, but Japan’s announcement that the Tokyo Municipality would be purchasing one of the islands from a private owner sparked an outcry from China. In addition to the tourism industry, Japanese brands also took a China sales beating thanks to the controversy as Chinese consumers refused to buy Japanese products out of anger—or fear that a fellow citizen would destroy them.
Despite strong nationalist feelings among Chinese citizens about the topic, several factors have been a draw for Chinese travelers. First, Japan’s world-famous cherry blossoms appeared to overshadow more militaristic sentiments last month. Traditional hanami festivals celebrating the beauty of the blooming flowers attracted a large number of Chinese tourists in March, thanks in part to China promotional efforts by Japan’s tourism authority ahead of time. In February, the Japan Tourism Agency opened a Shanghai cherry blossom exhibition as part of a bid to draw Chinese tourists to Japan for the festivals. Another main factor was the resumption of large-ship cruises that had been suspended last year as a result of tensions.
This renewed influx may be one of several signs of a thaw in the countries’ frosty relations. Earlier this month, a Chinese confidant of Xi Jinping met with Shinzo Abe in secret to try to patch up ties. In addition, Japan’s prime minister played a prominent role in the Boao Forum that took place from April 8 to 11 in Hainan, and Abe recently referred to China as an “inseparable” trade partner. However, the worst is not necessarily over yet: Japan also announced several days ago that it has begun construction on a military radar station near the Senkaku Islands, a move which renewed anger in Beijing. Not long after, China released documents regarding Japanese soldiers’ abuse of “comfort women” during World War II, a topic likely to spark anger among Chinese citizens.
However, cosmopolitan Chinese travelers may become sick of the countries’ heated rhetoric. “I just don’t think that most Chinese people care about the political issues anymore,” said Masaki Hirata, executive director of the Japan National Tourism Organisation office in Hong Kong, to the South China Morning Post. “They have got used to the political tensions and are tired of the disputes. They just want to travel.”