Japan is expecting a surge in Chinese visitors during the lunar New Year holiday period, with tourists eager to snap up electronics and other goods in a welcome boost for retailers.
A record 9.44 million foreigners visited Japan last year, with inbound Chinese tourists rising over 34% to about 1.6 million, surprassing Taiwan to become no. 2 after South Korea, the nation with the most visitors to Japan.
Even before the start of the holiday on February 3, Chinese shoppers were piling off buses in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics shopping mecca, which some 40% of inbound Chinese are believed to visit.
"The number of Chinese customers in our store has increased a lot compared to last month because of the Chinese New Year holiday," said Chen Rui, a sales clerk at the Laox electronics shopping centre, who is originally from the Chinese city of Xian.
"Most of them buy electronics such as watches, rice cookers, cameras and camcorders."
To deal with the influx of Chinese shoppers, who surged after visa restrictions were eased last year, the shopping centre has Mandarin-speaking staff, uses signs written in Chinese, and accepts mainland credit card without additional processing fees.
Many customers said they were attracted by the high reputation of Japanese goods as well as a sense that better quality products might be found within Japan itself.
"Japanese products have good quality, and we don't have to worry about buying imitations because they are all genuine," said 50-year-old Li Tienan, who works for a Shanghai-based electronics company.
Chinese tourists spend an average of USD 1,300 per person, according to estimates by Japan's tourism agency, and are not put off even by the strength of the yen, which last year hit a record high against the yuan.
"I don't care. I would definitely buy some 'Made in Japan' goods since I'm in Japan now," said Liu Hailing, a 39-year-old visitor from Qingdao.
Though the number of Chinese visitors to Japan fell off in the last quarter of 2010 as a long-term territorial dispute between the two nations flared up, Japan's foreign ministry expects that inbound Chinese visitors will eventually reach 10 million a year.
To make visiting still easier, Japan plans to offer multiple-entry visas for frequent Chinese visitors from this summer.
Retail industry experts say inflation risks and a stronger yuan mean that Tokyo and other shopping hot spots, such as Hong Kong and Seoul, could all benefit more than last year.