During a recent visit to Kanazawa in the Hokuriku region of Japan, I happened upon a cozy ramen noodle stand with an impressively long line of patrons waiting for seats. Not having a specific destination in mind and beginning to feel a bit hungry myself, I thought the crowd must know more than I did about Kanazawa gourmet and took my place at the end of the line. It took me a moment to realize that the voices of all the other customers waiting in line actually were not speaking Japanese, but Chinese. In fact, I was the only non-Chinese patron in line. Chatting briefly with the senior gentleman in front of me, I learned that they were with a tour group from Shanghai (although not everyone in line was with the same tour group). They had heard about the restaurant through a Chinese travel blog website, and had decided to try it out themselves.
Tasty food, clean air, soothing hot springs and natural beauty (not to mention luxury shopping sprees). These are just a few of the attractions Japan has to offer the growing middle and upper class in China. The number of Chinese travelers setting their sights on Japan has steadily grown in recent years. Geographic convenience and strong cultural ties, as well as the recent devaluation of the Japanese yen and relaxing visa requirements have helped push the inbound travel rate up.
However, the increasingly tense political situation has led to widespread speculation regarding the future of trade and travel between the two neighbors. The 11% drop in Japan inbound visits from China in 2013 (while total international travel from China increased 18% during the same year) has been cited as proof of the impact tensions have had on Chinese consumer attitudes toward Japanese products and services.
But are the numbers really indicative of a significant negative impact on Chinese consumer attitudes towards Japan? Are Chinese consumer behavior and personal attitudes really tied so closely to the political environment and ideological beliefs? What can we learn from the current dispute as well as previous cases, about the relationship between the ideological and personal leisure identity of the Chinese consumer?
Needless to say, the atmosphere surrounding Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku islands, followed by the confrontation between the Japanese coastguard and a Chinese fishing boat in the vicinity of the islands, is by no means the first time tempers have flared between China and Japan in recent years. The relationship between the two neighbors has been extremely sensitive since the middle of the 20th century, heating up over such issues as the portrayal of events in Japanese history books, visits by prominent politicians to the Yasukuni shrine which honors the war fallen. Due in part to this consistently tense state, it is not uncommon to hear unprovoked comments regarding “the Japanese,” in China, often in graphic terms. However, it would not be uncommon for the same opinionated individuals to frequent favorite travel spots in Japan, express an affinity for Japanese branded products, have very close Japanese friends or, in some cases, even spouses.
A similar phenomenon was observed when in 2005, nationwide demonstrations in much the same style as those surrounding the islands incident, erupted across China as a result of textbooks that were perceived to whitewash the activities of Japan during the colonization of China. The demonstrations, supposedly organized through SNS platforms by students, were held throughout the country, turning mildly violent in some cases. In 中关村 (zhong guan cun, Beijing’s electric town) Brandishing banners with phrases such as抵抗日本 (di kang ri ben, “resist Japan”), and 抗日货 (kang ri huo, “boycott Japanese products,”) the participants, made up primarily of Chinese youth, chanted phrases of the same variety, occasionally smashing a Canon billboard or burning a Japanese flag. However, observers of the demonstrations became aware of a glaring contradiction among participants. Despite the energy and conviction of the crowd, upon closer inspection, many of the participants (including police officers) were there camera in hand… the vast majority of which were Canon, Casio, Sony, and other Japanese brands.
2005 demonstration in Zhong Guan Cun, Beijing’s electric town. (DOW)
Canon billboards in aftermath of 2005 demonstrations. Hai Dian District, Beijing. (DOW)
凑热闹 (cou re nao, “taking part in the merriment”)
One might interpret this observation as calling into question the conviction of the participants. Do they really feel outrage regarding the perceived slight by Japan, or are the demonstrations simply a convenient venue for the venting of pent-up frustration and stress from their rigorous university studies? In some cases the latter was most certainly true (with family pressure on top of the already overwhelming curricula, it should be understandable). However, this explanation fails to explain the direction of the outrage, as well as the apparent lack of concern crowd members had for the fairly obvious inconsistencies in their behavior.
To understand this phenomenon, a closer look at Chinese consumer behavior is necessary, as it relates to ideology, politics and nationalism. Specifically, Chinese consumers are particularly skilled at separating political or ideological views from their daily interactions and purchasing behavior. This dichotomy between the feelings Chinese have for Japan the political unit (and thus, categorically, “the Japanese,”) and their feelings regarding Japan or Japanese people at the personal/ individual level, results in what appears to be inconsistency between words and behavior. During the 2005 demonstrations, while each and every participant in the demonstrations may have sincerely supported the idea of boycotting Japanese products to demonstrate their agitation to the Japanese government, as consumers they still tend to use the same constructs in practice (quality, brand prestige, price, etc.) to define their realm of consideration and make their purchasing decisions for Japanese brands as they do for domestic or western brands. Thus, “animosity” as a country of origin construct fails to outweigh more practical considerations even during particularly heated conflicts.
But what does this mean for China – Japan travel?
Purchase of a Japanese-branded product admittedly has a much different level of involvement than immersing oneself in Japan through travel. While quality and prestige issues may trump attitudes regarding the brand country of origin for products such as electronics, in choosing Japan as a travel destination, consumers are essentially choosing “brand Japan,” thus much stronger COO effects can be expected in the travel industry. However, similar to the political/ ideological vs. practical Chinese consumer behavior regarding Japanese electronic brands, the recent political dispute has generally failed to make a proportional impact on Chinese travel plans. However, once again while consumers may feel animosity toward Japan the political/ ideological unit, the abstract Japan “ideology” does not necessarily have a direct impact even on Japan as a geographical location, as a travel location. More importantly, Chinese travelers are interested in the practical benefits Japan has to offer as a travel destination.
The self-fulfilling prophecy: Declining China – Japan Inbound Tourism
Even so, Chinese travel to Japan was observed to drop off by a significant percentage in 2013. The lower numbers have been cited as proof that, as the dispute over the islands grew increasingly heated, increasing animosity would drive Chinese travelers away from Japan, opting for other overseas destinations. But is this an accurate assumption? How much of the change can be attributed to factors external to individual consumer attitudes?
As the situation became increasingly serious, many official Japan travel promotional programs were put on hiatus, under the premise that the political situation would sour and there would be no point in promoting Japan travel to Chinese consumers (with the continual “doom and gloom” media broadcasts both in Japan and internationally regarding the dispute, it would be hard to blame anyone for coming to the same conclusion). However, the abandonment of promotional efforts targeting Chinese travelers itself is likely to have led in part to the ultimate decline in and of itself.
Japan was not alone in facilitating the situation that would inevitably cause a reduction in Chinese leisure travel to Japan. At the height of the recent dispute, Chinese tourism agencies such as Ctrip.com International Ltd. halted all Japan tour related advertising, while others such as China Comfort Group Ltd. went so far as to cancel all group tours to Japan at the height of the dispute. Although an anticipated drop in demand was cited as one of the reasons for the cancellations, “express[ing] our anger to the Japanese government” was also mentioned by company representatives as a deciding factor. Although restrictions on ownership of travel agencies have been relaxed since China’s entry into the WTO (Australia-based FCm actually holds a 95 percent stake in China Comfort), one has to wonder how direct an influence government entities had in the decision to forego a significant amount of travel revenue. “Almost all of our customers understand the situation.” Stephanie Liu, marketing manager for the China Comfort Travel Group Co. Sichuan province unit, said during a Bloomberg interview. However, “understanding” does not indicate that those potential travelers to Japan support the cancellation decision. In fact it indicates quite the opposite, that many would-be travelers to Japan were prevented from making their trip by forces outside their control rather than any personal feelings regarding Japan as it relates to the political atmosphere. Although there is a growing trend toward independent travel in China, however group travel still represents a major part of overall travel spending, particularly among senior travelers. The “preemptive strike” advertising campaign and travel cancellations alone could have put a significant dent in the overall China outbound travel to Japan. In light of the significant obstacles to China – Japan inbound travel in 2013, rather than the 11% decline in Chinese travel to Japan, it is remarkable that 89% surmounted the external obstacles and social pressures to make the trip to Japan. Should the decline have been the result of genuine popular discontent or animosity toward Japan, one would have expected a much more severe drop in travel.
The limited effect of China-Japan political disputes have been noted by others recently, with some coming to the conclusion that “Chinese today are not very concerned about politics.” However, the limited effect of the political environment on purchasing decisions is not necessarily an indication of lower political consciousness among Chinese consumers. Rather, it is the ability of Chinese consumers to distinguish between and separate politics and practice. This could be thought of as a by-product of China’s free market socialist society, but that topic merits its own discussion and goes beyond the scope of this article.
But whether based on obstacles and appearances, or a genuine apprehension for Japan, isn’t the effect on Chinese purchase behavior (or travel decisions) ultimately the same?
Not necessarily. Purchase decisions that are deterred due to public or political pressures are short-lived, and generally cease to be an issue once the outside barriers are removed (travel agencies resume Japan oriented advertising and group tour services) The level of impact of pressures of this nature on the Chinese consumer will also vary considerably based on the position that person holds both socially and professionally. Even in the case of government administrative employees, however, once the severity of the stigma dies down and the threat to their image is minimized, they are not likely to maintain long-term reticence towards Japan as a travel destination. In the case of genuine animosity or apprehension at a personal level, on the other hand, we would expect a more uniform and long-term effect spanning social and professional interests.
Tensions between China and Japan over historical and territorial issues show no signs of letting up in the near future. It is also true that many Chinese feel genuine anger with the frequent perceived slights perpetrated by Japan, and in some cases this anger may manifest itself with negative country of origin attitudes toward brand Japan. Anger and resentment surrounding political disputes will continue to erupt periodically in the future as well, but these events have a relatively low and short lived impact on Chinese consumer behavior.
Although the instinctive approach may be to reduce promotional efforts and presence during hostile periods, this method fails to take into account the nature of Chinese consumer behavior, effectively missing the opportunity to capitalize on the duality between the practical and the ideological. Minimizing promotional efforts and presence in China during such disputes serves only to handicap the brand Japan in the competition for the Chinese leisure dollar (or renminbi, as it were).
It is rather during the times when disputes erupt, that “brand Japan” promotion could in fact realize the strongest impact, effectively counterbalancing the negative associations with political Japan with the appeal of leisure Japan, the style of luxury Japan, and the flavor of gourmet Japan. This requires the ability of those active in the promotion of Japan tourism to see through the veneer of China-Japan animosity that has taken such a dominant role in politics and the media. With a clear understanding of the separation between Chinese ideological emotional energy and practical consumer behavior, brand Japan can learn to focus on practical attitudes to improve its promotional approach toward the Chinese traveler without becoming sidetracked by “words.”
After a short wait, we finally made it in the door and to our seats in the tiny Ramen restaurant As the gentleman from Shanghai gazed at the steaming bowl of Kanazawa ramen placed before him, I am fairly certain that the last thing on his mind was “who’s ship bumped into who’s boat near what islands.”