Gearoid Reidy

Japanese Isn’t a Good Look in China Anymore

It’s a bad time to be a Japanese brand in China. Even a fake one.

Miniso Group Holding Ltd., a Chinese retailer of cheap household goods with around 3,000 stores in the mainland, made it big off an aesthetic that could charitably be described as an homage to modern Japanese branding.

While not a direct knockoff of any one Japanese brand, Miniso’s look is nonetheless familiar: The logo bears more than a passing resemblance to Uniqlo’s, and uses Japanese katakana characters. Its store interior, products and English name are reminiscent of Daiso, the Hiroshima-based retailer that defined the 100-yen (73 cents) store, while the Chinese characters used in its native name are evocative of Muji’s.

But facing an online backlash, Miniso has now decided the look that catapulted it to fame was “wrong,” and it’s ditching the branding in a process of de-Japanification.

Miniso’s image is no coincidence: It unashamedly rode on the coattails of Japanese brands’ reputation for quality and value. For years, Chinese consumers couldn’t get enough of Fast Retailing Co.’s Uniqlo or Ryohin Keikaku Co.’s Muji — but in an increasingly isolated and nationalist China, looking Japanese now seems to be more of a risk.

Muji is itself facing issues in China amid declining sales, with the hashtag “Why Chinese people don’t like to buy Muji anymore” recently trending on the microblogging website, Weibo. Earlier in August, a woman was detained by police in the Chinese city of Suzhou for nothing more than wearing a Japanese kimono. The message was clear: looking Japanese isn’t good for you.

While isolated, the episodes have echoes of the periodic flareups of anti-Japanese sentiment in the country’s recent past. Demonstrations erupted in the early 2000s over historical grievances; In 2012, riots broke out in multiple cities protesting Japan’s purchase (from a private owner) of the Senkaku Islands, which Tokyo controls but China also claims. Japanese businesses and factories were attacked and burned; a man was beaten nearly to death, his only crime seemingly driving a Toyota.

Perhaps not coincidentally, rising nationalism in 2012 preceded the key Communist Party Congress which brought Xi Jinping to power. The five-yearly meeting is happening this year too, with Xi expected to secure a third term.

The other obvious element in the background is the continued souring of bilateral relations, most recently over Taiwan. Chinese missiles fired over the island during Beijing’s military drills in response to the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. China has declared the Taiwan issue the “foundation” of relations with Japan — its former occupier — with Beijing and Tokyo next month set to mark 50 years since the normalization of relations.

The issue of Taiwan — as well as how China uses such international flareups for domestic purposes — is important, of course. But there’s something else here too: The relative lull in anti-Japanese sentiment over the past decade also coincided with a mass exchange between the two nations on a unprecedented scale, as increasingly wealthy Chinese flocked to a Japan that was building itself into a tourism paradise.

Chinese tourists to Japan surged 10-fold in the decade before the pandemic struck, with nearly 10 million Chinese visiting in 2019. All told, some 44 million Chinese went to Japan between 2013 and 2019. Surveys show that Chinese attitudes toward Japan also improved to record levels during this time. A yearly poll by think-tank Genron NPO saw those in China holding a positive impression of Japan surge, from just 5.2% in 2013 to 46% in 2019 (though the boom did little to improve Japanese attitudes towards China).

It’s harder to sell a narrative of Japanese-ness being “wrong” when millions are exposed first-hand to the country’s famed omotenashi tradition of hospitality— and snapping up Japanese rice cookers, heated toilet seats and baby formula to take back home. Respondents to the Genron survey regularly cited the quality of Japanese goods and the people’s high level of manners as reasons for holding a positive impression. Little wonder Miniso also capitalized on the fondness in this period.

Today, that pipeline for mutual relations has been shut. China is pursuing its Covid-Zero strategy, still mandating a weeklong stay at an isolation facility for anyone entering the country. Japan, for its part, shows little enthusiasm to return to the mass-tourism of 2019 — a decision that is growing increasingly difficult to justify with cases in the country already at record levels.

Without these on-the-ground interactions, Chinese attitudes to Japan seem to be reverting to the mean. The most recent Genron survey in 2021 found favorable impressions of Japan had plummeted back to 32%, with the next results due later this year likely to show a further decline.

Japan will eventually resume full-scale tourism, with the country soon to scrap a pre-departure PCR test requirement and politicians suggesting visa waivers will return next. But even when it does, there’s little hope that Chinese tourists, who made up a third of annual visitors, will be among those returning. Miniso’s about-face might only be the first sign that Asia’s two largest economies risk drifting further apart.