For hundreds of thousands of Chinese travelers visiting Japan during the Chinese New Year holiday, the top item on their souvenir lists was headed straight for their bottoms.
Chinese tourists flooded Japan last week, spending an estimated $959 million in Japan’s shopping malls and department stores, according to Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times. While many splurged on luxury goods, the hot item this season was Japanese toilet seats.
The electric seats, known for being dizzyingly complicated, feature add-ons such as automatic disinfection, bidet services, warmers, perfumes and “masking noises” that can cover up any indiscreet sounds while one is using the loo. Some Chinese buyers didn’t even ask the price for the toilet seats when purchasing them, according to the Beijing Youth Daily. They sell for $300 and up.
On his social media account, Chinese finance writer Wu Xiaobo recently penned a post titled, “Go to Japan to buy a Toilet Seat,” in which he praised the accessories, calling them easy to install.
While the interest of Chinese consumers was a boon for Japanese businesses, the state-run Chinese media was a bit disturbed by the phenomenon.
The Global Times even found it necessary to pen an editorial on the trend, chiding Chinese buyers.
“That Chinese tourists swamp Japanese stores at a time when [China] is facing a sluggish domestic demand is certainly not something to be proud of,” the paper opined. China’s economic growth rate has been slowing, though it still far outpaces Japan’s.
The editorial acknowledged a disparity between the quality of Japanese and Chinese goods, saying that the popularity of Japanese toilet seats can be explained by the fact that “they explicitly show the human touch, intelligent design and sophistication of Japanese goods.”
But the newspaper, known for its vitriolic nationalism, also used the opportunity to take a dig at Japan while saying that Chinese-made goods have been narrowing the gap.
“Japan used to dominate the global household electrical appliance market, but now consumers only recognize its toilet seats or rice cookers, which demonstrates the regression of its industry,” the editorial said.
The toilet seat affair comes amid chilly relations between the two East Asian countries, which have become colder since Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in 2012. The two nations have been locked in a dispute over a set of barren islands near Taiwan, as well as how to acknowledge and commemorate World War II-era atrocities.
The Chongqing Evening News criticized Chinese shoppers’ embrace of the Japanese bathroom products, noting that similarly fancy toilet seats are already produced in China at comparable prices. Differences in voltages between the two countries make installing ones made for the Japanese market inconvenient in China, the paper said.
The Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily even chimed in, urging Chinese to buy local, and asking, “Do Japanese toilet seats really smell better?”
Despite an official meeting between Xi and Abe late last year that seemingly promised a warming between the two countries, tension at an official level remains high and anti-Japanese sentiment is common in Chinese state media.
In one recent sign of the continued frostiness, the common name of the China-Japanese Friendship Hospital in Beijing was changed this month to remove the word “friendship.”
Silbert is a special correspondent.