By Martina Bofulin and Jamie Coates
Editors’ note: This is the third piece of the series “In and Out of Japan.”
Chinese mobile subjects and their practices occupy an ambivalent role in contemporary Japanese society. They are the saviors of Japan’s sluggish economy but seen as the instigators of social problems: mass tourism, intensive shopping and crime. Chinese “newcomer” migrants are the largest minority in Japan (since 2006), and as tourists are the most numerous visitors (4.2 million in 2015). The complex intertwining of these various types of mobilities—human, material, financial—between China and Japan increasingly point to the emergence of a transnational field that blurs the distinction between migration, tourism, and trade. This trend is exemplified in the recent phenomena of “explosive buying” (bakugai/baomai) and “shopping through intermediaries” (daigou).
The neologism bakugai emerged in the Japanese media as a response to reports of intensive shopping by Chinese tourists. It has since filtered into Chinese as baomai and spurred the employment of native Chinese speakers in all large department and drug stores throughout Japan. Chinese consumers spent roughly 12.2 billion USD, or around 41 % of all international tourism consumption, in Japan in 2015 (JTA). The most desirable items were cosmetics and health products (baby formula, skin whitening products), followed by electronics (washlet toilets, rice cookers), and high-end designer brands. Many of these products are not bought for personal consumption, but as gifts or personal favors.
The popularity of bakugai/baomai has given rise to Japanese media reports about unruly Chinese tourists and their excessive shopping habits, fueling the ongoing global image of the “ugly Chinese tourist.” Representations range from concerns about over-crowding to worries there will be no stock left for domestic customers (e.g., a particular concern in relation to milk formula). Tourist behavior has also caught the attention of the Japanese media, such as in September 2015 when a pair of Chinese honeymooners assaulted a convenience store worker in Hokkaido.
Migrants living in Japan with excellent knowledge of Japanese products and brands have increasingly acted as informal tour guides for bakugai, as well as buying items as “intermediate shoppers” through networks on social media and then shipping them to customers (daigou). Ling, for example, a Chinese student at one of Japan’s prestigious universities, is always running around department stores, comparing prices, taking product photos and uploading them onto her Wechat account. Ling knew that her success depended on the authenticity she derives from studying in Japan—her contacts trust that she has access to original products and is familiar with new Japanese trends.
Despite the presence of strong anti-Japanese sentiments in China, products from Japan are in high demand, and Japan is still seen as a desirable and modern location. Cross-border trade relies heavily on favorable currency and taxation rates, the price politics of international brands, consumer trust in foreign goods, and media images. These everyday mobilities generate new cultural forms, such as bakugai and daigou, and discursive trends, such as media panics, suggesting new levels of connectivity, simultaneity, and volatility in the Sino-Japanese context.
Martina Bofulin has been interested in different types of mobilities from PRC through the lens of family life and everyday practices and has done extensive fieldwork in southeast Europe and Japan. She is currently a researcher at Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
Jamie Coates works on Sino-Japanese mobilities and their effect on young Chinese identities. In particular he is interested in the role migration and media play in young Chinese efforts to re-imagine co-ethnic and regional ideas of commonality. He is currently a visiting fellow at Sophia University.