For the past two years, Yusuke Nakagawa’s Japanese herbal tea company has been reeling from the devastation of international tourism, a sector the southern prefecture of Okinawa relies on. Around 9.6 million Chinese visitors landed in Japan in 2019, the year before the global pandemic started to wreak havoc throughout the global travel industry. That figure was a record high for a single year and accounted for fully one-third of all foreign tourists visiting Japan. “International visitors to Okinawa were hugely important to the economy of the prefecture before the coronavirus outbreak, in particular arrivals from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Things have been very difficult for the brand and the travel industry in Okinawa in general for the last two years,” said Nakagawa, the president and CEO of S-Life Co, Ltd, which produces the Okinawa Herb Garden range of herbal teas and gift sets. But a lifeline recently appeared for the firm, as Japan Airlines (JAL) launches a new e-commerce channel on WeChat, the social media app owned by Chinese telecoms giant Tencent, to connect Chinese consumers with high-end, niche products that were popular with tourists before borders shut. “I was pleased when JAL contacted me about this plan,” Nakagawa said. “It’s clear that JAL is having its own problems and is looking for new business opportunities.” Japan’s borders remain closed to all but Japanese nationals and foreigners with permanent residency, although the government has announced it will gradually open up to more students and businesspeople from next month. Demand for Japanese products and foodstuffs remains high with Chinese consumers, however. On the new JAL Youxuan channel, Chinese consumers can access a range of items offered by beauty brands, artisans, and niche food manufacturers including specialist “udon” noodle-makers and an agricultural cooperative in the Hokkaido town of Furano selling vegetable-based sauces. Nakagawa said an e-commerce venture on this scale was not something he thought would have been possible without the support of JAL. “It is really difficult to sell to a foreign market as there is a lot of paperwork and other requirements and procedures,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and many steps to be successful. But through this system, JAL does all that for me.” Mainland China overtakes Hong Kong, US as top market for Japanese food exports Nakagawa said all he had to do was deliver products to the JAL facility at Naha Airport, from where it would be either sent directly to China or transferred to the airline’s facilities in Tokyo, depending on the final destination for the order. The only fees to the manufacturer come from a registration to take part, and the cost of customs procedures, transport and warehousing at airports. “That means it’s not expensive for me, the procedures are easy and I am really hopeful that more people will start to use the service,” Nakagawa said. “If the brand becomes well-known in China, then the market there is huge and it could bring more Chinese tourists to us when travel starts up again.” We are a very small organisation with no way to promote our products in another country Nakazato Taroemon Pottery The Nakazato Taroemon Pottery Co Ltd is another firm that joined the scheme, with its traditional glazed tea cups on offer. “Before the coronavirus, we used to have a lot of foreign visitors, including from China, but that has all stopped for now,” said Junko Kosugi, a spokeswoman for the company, which is based in the rural city of Karatsu in Saga Prefecture, Kyushu. “Right now, we are depending on domestic tourists, but that is much harder,” she said. “We are happy to join the JAL system because we are a very small organisation with no way to promote our products in another country and then deliver them to that country, so this is a big help to us.” As well as tourists purchasing items of pottery, the company has also been selling larger collections to high-end restaurants and bars, she said. China-Japan ties ‘may rest on trade alone’ after Tokyo human rights vote JAL Youxuan launched on January 27, with Chinese online trading firm Youzan acting as the local promoter in China. Items ordered on the e-commerce system will be delivered aboard JAL aircraft that are presently carrying more cargo than passengers. The airline sees the scheme as being promotional as well as the most appropriate use of aircraft that would otherwise be idle due to the lack of passengers, even as it begins to see the first indications of a return in passenger travel. As the government begins to lift travel bans, JAL will this year resume hiring new graduates for mechanics and flight attendant positions for the first time in two years.