Diaoyu Islands

Retailers in Tokyo's Ginza dealt blow by Chinese boycott in Diaoyus row

Tokyo's luxury shops a victim of wider Chinese boycott of Japan; few tourists have yet returned

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 4:09am

The sound of Putonghua-speaking tourists and the cash tills they set ringing have become rarer in Tokyo's upmarket Ginza district, retailers say, since a flare-up in a territorial row between China and Japan.

"Until September, we had many Chinese customers and you could hear Chinese spoken in our shop," said Mika Nakatsugawa, who trains clerks at cosmetic firm Shiseido's flagship outlet in Ginza, the Japanese capital's equivalent of Fifth Avenue in New York.

"Then they suddenly stopped coming. This month, some customers are coming back, but it's very slow and nothing like before."

The number of mainland Chinese tourists - one of Japan's biggest visitor groups behind South Koreans and Taiwanese - plunged 33 per cent in October from a year ago to 71,000 visitors, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation.

The figure from last year was already weak with tourism still reeling from the March earthquake and tsunami disaster and subsequent atomic crisis, which prompted a drop in overall visitor numbers.

As airlines cancelled thousands of flights between Japan and China when the long-standing diplomatic row flared in September, Ginza's upscale retailers soon found that once-jammed Chinese tour buses were nowhere to be seen.

To make matters worse, Chinese tourists are among the world's biggest-spenders in Japan, averaging US$2,100 on top of their air fares, according to Japan Tourism Agency data.

The flare-up in the decades-long row over the Diaoyu Islands, which Japanese call the Senkakus, sparked a consumer boycott of Japanese products in China and huge demonstrations that sometimes descended into mob violence, prompting Japanese firms operating there to temporarily close stores and factories.

Tokyo's unilateral nationalisation in September of the disputed islands - located in rich fishing grounds and believed to sit atop vast mineral reserves - came at a particularly bad time.

Ginza retailers were hoping for hordes of shoppers during the week-long Chinese holidays in October but the dispute kept them away. "Shops in Ginza have been hugely damaged by the diplomatic fight, as everyone had been preparing for shopping sprees," said Nakatsugawa at Shiseido. "I want the politicians to know the economic impact of this has been big."

The damage has rippled across Japan's economy and damaged a trade relationship with China worth more than US$340 billion a year.

Japan's carmakers and electronics firms have seen their China sales take a huge hit, with the country's two biggest airlines - Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways - reporting a steep dive in ticket sales.

And Japan's goal to boost tourist numbers to a record nine million this year has suddenly become a "very hard" target, said Norifumi Ide, head of the Japan Tourism Agency.

Not far from the Shiseido outlet, luggage store manager Koichi Miwa said: "The number of Chinese customers literally turned to zero at one point." She also suspects many Chinese travellers feared tit-for-tat violence after Japanese in China were attacked and businesses vandalised.

"Once Chinese people start coming here again, they will be relieved to find out they are not treated as badly as Japanese people in China have been," she said.