Cherry Blossoms, Hot Springs, and Blue Movies: Chinese Tourism and Japan’s Image Gap

Society Culture


The lavish spending of Chinese tourists in Japan has remained a hot media topic, and it is one that can be expected to stay in the headlines for the foreseeable future as the number of visitors from China is forecast to keep growing.

Several factors can be cited to explain this rise in Chinese tourism, including the greater affluence of Chinese as a result of economic growth, the quality and affordability of Japanese products, Japan’s relaxation of visa requirements for Chinese tourists, and an upsurge in interest about Japan brought on by social media growth.

After spending time talking with people in China, I found there is often a gap between what visitors expect to find in Japan and reality. I feel that this image gap may actually be hiding a hint as to how Japan can forge a closer relationship with its “near yet distant” neighbor.

National Symbols

A 60-year-old housewife from Shanghai shared her disappointment in missing the cherry blossom season during her first trip to Japan. “Nothing is more Japanese than cherry blossoms,” she told me. While thwarted in her initial attempt, the woman is determined to take in the seasonal event next year.

Her understanding of the custom of hanami(cherry blossom viewing) included images of people sitting under the trees and enjoying boxed lunches, but she was unaware of the gradual progression of the “cherry blossom front,” erroneously thinking that cherry trees bloom across Japan simultaneously. This misconception appears to be a product of a difference in geographic size. As Japan, geographically speaking, is a mere fraction the size of China, the woman failed to consider that spring unfolds in the same fashion.

Japan receives considerable attention in the Chinese media. If asked about traveling in Japan, the average Chinese citizen may point to such Japanese icons as cherry blossoms, hot springs, ramen, Mount Fuji, Shinkansen bullet trains, and anime. While familiar in both countries, though, the difference in Chinese notions of these symbols would likely leave many Japanese scratching their heads.

Falling Snow

Take hot springs, for example. Much of China, especially the north, has a drier climate than Japan and has developed very different traditions of bathing. While many in the country have been enchanted by media images of Japanese clad in casual summer robes (yukata) and wooden clogs (geta) leisurely strolling the streets of a hot spring resort, few have ever enjoyed a dip in an onsen. In lieu of personal experience, people picture romantic scenes, such as winter bathers soaking in an outdoor bath as snow softly falls around them.

The coupling of hot springs and snow was largly influenced by the 2008 blockbuster Chinese film Feicheng Wurao (If You Are the One). Set in Hokkaidō, a Japanese prefecture famous for its heavy winters, the movie sparked dreams of soaking in an outdoor hot spring bath amid the falling snow. When I explained how such an experience is rare even for Japanese, I was met with looks of mild disappointment. Again, I was faced with a gap between impressions and reality.

I found the situation to be the same with ramen. While China has a similar noodle dish called lamien, few Chinese are familiar with the taste of Japanese ramen, with its different soups and toppings.

In giving these examples I want to show some common impressions that Chinese have of Japan. There are of course many in China who have forged more realistic notions from living or traveling in Japan. Even as images of Japan have spread in China, however, they do not always provide precise portrayals.

Awash in “Pink”

Such icons as cherry blossoms and hot springs represent the outward face of Japan. But pull the curtain back, and there is a wholly different impression to be found. Talk with someone from China long enough, and almost without fail you will be asked about adult movies. While Japan certainly produces its share of blue films, many in China have developed an exaggerated impression of the size of the market.

I asked a man in his early thirties living in Wuhan what his impression of Japan had been prior to visiting, and without missing a beat he answered “adult videos.” This man spent three months in Japan on a training course, and before leaving he had been convinced that Japanese neighborhoods would be overflowing with erotica.

Driving this misconception is the Internet. Much of the information available to the public about Japan has been provided by official outlets, and Chinese looking for a fresh take have no recourse but to turn to the web. In the last few years the country has seen a deluge of diverse online content about Japan, including pornography. Such material is strictly controlled in China, and there are no openly accessible sites. However, users can download special software to access web pages carrying adult content. This has propagated a somewhat unrealistic image of Japan.

I spoke with a Shanghai office worker in her thirties who had spent time studying in Japan. She told me that her coworkers endlessly peppered her with questions about adult movies, such as whether Japanese men are just as kinky as those in films, if pornography is easy to buy, and if actresses appear on regular television. According to the woman, their curiosity is insatiable.

The cultural influences of Confucianism and Communism have made Chinese less open about sex compared to Japanese. Many look to their Asian neighbor to help fulfill their curiosity, and interest spans generational lines. Japanese adult movie actress Aoi Sora is immensely popular among young Chinese, with her Weibo account boasting around 15 million followers. Older men tend to be less inclined to use the Internet, but many still fondly recall movie love scenes between such couples as Takakura Ken and Nakano Ryōko.

Skewed Images

While Chinese take risks in illegally accessing sites portraying misguided images of Japan, Japanese are taking few opportunities to stem the tide by understanding and correcting information available online.

The case of Aoi Sora shows how misconceptions can have wider implications. There is no adult film industry to speak of in China, so lacking a reference point, fans of the actress may wonder how other Japanese women or society as a whole view her profession.

Many Chinese, particularly men, interested in the topic of sex harbor hopes of making a trip to Tokyo’s infamous red-light district of Kabuki-chō. If this was the sole spot in Japan they visited, they could certainly be forgiven for heading home with a distorted view of the country. But one hopes during their journey they would develop a more balanced view of sex in Japan and work to propagate a correct representation once back in China.

With the growth of social media, the Chinese appetite for information on Japan has grown exponentially over the last few years. The accuracy of what is being shared has improved, but stereotypes and preconceptions continue to persist.

Despite Chinese governmental control over the flow of information, interest in Japan grows unabated. Chinese citizens residing in Japan are helping provide a balanced view of the country. And as more visitors come and experience Japanese culture firsthand, a more accurate view will undoubtedly begin to prevail. Hopefully this will lead to a positive cycle and boost Japan’s image throughout China. Japanese should play a part in this process by being aware of misconceptions and working to portray an accurate picture of their country.

(Original Japanese article posted on May 5, 2015. Banner photo: Chinese tourists shopping in Tokyo’s Ginza district; © Jiji.)

Cherry Blossoms shopping Chinese tourists Visit Japan tourists Aoi Sora Japanese image Hot Springs