Diaoyus row threatens to turn Chinese wedding firm to marriage from hell

Okinawa a dream wedding setting for many Chinese, but Diaoyus friction threatens to turn a Sino-Japanese joint venture into a marriage from hell

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 9:37am

Sino-Japanese tension has spilled over into anger and street protests on both sides.

But the dispute, which centres on the Diaoyu Islands, administered by Tokyo, which calls them the Senkakus, but fervently claimed by Beijing as well as Taipei, threatens the chances of a joint venture between Chinese and Japanese wedding firms having a fairy-tale ending.

Dream Studio had hoped to cash in by bringing Chinese couples to the picturesque southern Japanese island of Okinawa either for their wedding or their honeymoon, but tensions over the East China Sea have threatened to turn the joint venture into a marriage from hell.

The company saw as many as 60 per cent of reservations by mainland Chinese clients cancelled last summer as tensions escalated between Beijing and Tokyo. While business is slowly picking up, it is far from certain that this will prove to be a case of happily ever after.

Co-owner Zhang Mengya, a native of Suzhou , Jiangsu province, said the setback had forced the company to rethink its global strategy. If relations between the two countries soured again, she said, the only Okinawa-based wedding company that targets mainland Chinese would have no choice but to cast its net somewhere else.

"We are thinking about opening offices in Hawaii and Guam," she said. "And we will go after people who will be less likely to be influenced by Chinese politics."

Launched in June last year, Dream Studio serves Japan's domestic market and Chinese speakers on the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is a joint venture of Zhang's Suzhou wedding service and Watabe Wedding, an industry heavyweight in Japan.

Destination weddings are growing increasingly popular among China's couples, with spending on weddings reaching 600 billion yuan (HK$758 billion) a year, said Yang Se, chief executive of the Beijing-based IdoIdo wedding service.

While there are no statistics on the amount they spend on overseas weddings, many believe the figure is high.

Zhang hoped to tap into China's booming wedding tourism industry by partnering with Watabe, her business plan took an unexpected turn last summer, when anti-Japan protests swept China and Japan's government nationalised three of the disputed islets after buying them from their private owners.

The row escalated after a Hong Kong-based group of activists sailed to the resource-rich islands in defiance of Japanese coastguard patrols.

The escalation of the row prompted often violent protests in mainland China and a shift against Japanese products. Japanese lawmakers and nationalists responded with their own voyage to the islands, and Japanese and Chinese patrol ships later came face to face near the islands.

Nationalistic coverage in the mainland media did little to ease the concerns of Dream Studio's customers. "The Chinese were scared and worried about their safety if they travel to Japan," Zhang said. Many even asked her if she herself had been attacked by Japanese during the tumultuous months of August and September. "I told them residents of the island lived a peaceful life despite disputes with China, and physical attacks against Chinese nationals were a hard thing even to imagine," Zhang said.

But Chinese media reports on the Diaoyu Islands dispute, some more inflammatory than others, had convinced many that Japan was no longer a safe destination.

In fact, Okinawa island, controlled by the US until it was returned to Japan in 1972, remains a controversial topic for China. The Communist Party's mouthpiece, People's Daily, recently ran an article in which two Chinese academics challenged Japan's sovereignty over the Ryukyu chain of islands, which includes Okinawa.

Besides the territorial dispute, many believe Japan's complicated visa requirements might also have thwarted Chinese couples. Even if couples were able to obtain visas, the application process could be a hassle for relatives and guests, Yang said.

Phuket and Bali ranked higher than Okinawa as wedding destinations for Chinese nationals because they were allowed to apply for visas on arrival, Yang said. Domestically, couples have been flocking to Sanya on tropical Hainan Island , where Taiwanese actress Barbie Hsu and Wang Xiaofei, heir to a restaurant empire on the mainland, famously tied the knot in 2011.

For Zhang, business may have dropped among mainland clients, but a steady stream of customers from Hong Kong and Taiwan has helped keep Dream Studio afloat. Many who went to Okinawa for wedding photos and honeymoons told Zhang that it was cheaper to get married on Okinawa than at home.

Ashley Chan, a Hong Kong native, signed up with Dream Studio for a four-day resort wedding in July last year. She was immediately impressed by the customised photo shoot and wedding service. The couple had also paid about the same - HK$20,000 - to have another set of wedding photos taken in Hong Kong. But Chan said the Okinawa photos came out better because of the beautiful scenery and the photographers' refined techniques.

"It's just better value for the money," Chan said.

A basic package offered by Dream Studio started at HK$10,000 and went up to HK$20,000 or more, Zhang said.

With better business, Dream Studio now employs four Chinese and two Japanese photographers. But it wasn't always that way.

During difficult times last year, Okinawa's community helped out.

Zhang said officials who had invited her to the island three years ago referred much-needed business to her stagnant operation. The government even asked the studio to produce a tourism promotion video for Okinawa, which aired in Hong Kong and other cities. US soldiers on the nearby Marine Corps base also sought out Zhang after learning of her wedding photo services.

Dream Studio has also built a reputation among Japanese couples, who now make up 50 per cent of its business, boosting Zhang's confidence about surviving another crisis.

With business from mainland China finally starting to look up this year, Zhang urged compatriots to consult travel warnings from the government, instead of relying on rumours and newspaper reports.

Believing the worst was over, Zhang said she was optimistic that Dream Studio would thrive happily ever after.



Land area: 2,271 sq km across hundreds of islands

Population: 1.4 million

History: Was the prosperous, independent Ryukyu Kingdom until annexed by Japan in 1872. A quarter of the population was killed in the 1945 battle of Okinawa. Spent 27 years under US administration after the war

Culture: Okinawa's Gusuku Castle sites are recognised as a world heritage site by the UN cultural organisation Unesco; karate had its origins in Okinawa; the island's people are the longest-lived in the world

Economy: Highly dependent on tourism. US military bases, which take up almost 20 per cent of the main island, now generate 4 to 5 per cent of economic activity