While shuffling his family aboard the 16-deck Quantum of the Seas in Shanghai, Yu Zhihong admitted he’s often told his kids that Japan is no good.
That didn’t stop the 45-year-old salesman from booking a trip across the East China Sea to his country’s longtime rival. “Japanese people are nice and have some good qualities,” Yu said ahead of his cruise last month. “I’m only upset with the Japanese government because we need to respect the history between us.”
Four million of Yu’s countrymen are expected to head to Japan this year to eat sushi and snap up rice cookers and electronic toilet seats, a two-thirds increase from last year. More than 40 percent were from the greater Shanghai area last year, according the local Japanese consulate, while Beijing accounted for about a quarter of Japanese visas granted.
The surge in Chinese holidaymakers is due to reasons such as a weaker yen cutting travel costs and an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome making South Korea less desirable. Diplomatic ties have also thawed, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe holding meetings almost three years after Japan’s purchase of disputed East China Sea islands set off anti-Japanese protests across China.
Less clear is why so many are coming from Shanghai. Su Zhiliang, a Shanghai Normal University history professor who focuses on Japan, attributes the trend to the eastern commercial hub’s pragmatic and cosmopolitan nature. As a center of colonialism during the previous century -- including Japan’s -- Shanghai has deep overseas ties, Su said.
“It was the earliest and probably most important locale for the intersection of Japan’s power, culture and settlement in China,” he said, crediting student exchanges in the late-1980s with continuing the relationship. “The trend has not really discontinued and weathered all political tensions.”
Among the most visible signs of the local enthusiasm for Japanese holidays are the ocean liners streaming from Shanghai Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal. Ships like the 347-meter (1,140-foot) Quantum of the Seas and the SkySea Golden Era will make about 250 Shanghai-Japan trips this year, more than double last year’s 110, the consulate said.
The ships -- operated by companies such as Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and its SkySea venture with Ctrip.com International Ltd. -- offload thousands in places such as subtropical Okinawa and Nagasaki, a port that handled trade with China during Japan’s nearly two centuries of isolation from the mid-1600s. The Chinese tourists spend between 200,000 yen ($1,600) and 400,000 yen per trip, according to a March survey by advertising firm Hakuhodo DY Holdings Inc.
Japan saw 2.7 million Chinese arrivals last year, rising 47 percent from a year earlier and boosting a trade relationship battered by the island dispute. Two-way trade stalled at $344 billion last year, after falling 6 percent in 2013.
Tourism is booming even as the upcoming 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat dredges up old animosity. China, which lost more than 20 million people in the conflict, has expressed concern over Abe’s suggestions he won’t reiterate the apologies of his predecessors in a statement to mark the event.
The influx of Chinese shows there’s hope for a better rapport between the two countries, said Liu Jiangyong, a Tsinghua University professor who specializes in Sino-Japanese relations. More than 85 percent of people in each country hold negative opinions of the other, according to a joint survey released in September by Genron NPO and the China Daily newspaper.
“Frequent people-to-people exchanges can de-demonize China and Japan in each other’s eyes,” Liu said. “As more and more Chinese people get to know Japan and Japanese people, the perception will shift. And vice versa.”
The number of Japanese tourists to China continues to fall, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. About 2.7 million visited last year, down 26 percent from 2011.
The two countries continue to tussle over control of the disputed Senkaku Islands -- known as the Diaoyus by the Chinese -- with Japan on Sunday saying three Chinese ships entered the surrounding waters.
Chinese tourists have benefited from monetary easing policies in Japan. The yen has depreciated 17 percent against the yuan over the past 12 months. Visitors have also been enticed by more relaxed visa procedures and Japan’s decision to exempt foreign visitors from its sales tax.
Wang Hua, 33, who works in finance in Wuxi city, west of Shanghai, said diplomatic tensions with Japan didn’t factor in her decision to take her son aboard the SkySea Golden Era. She wanted to experience the country for itself.
“Politics is something for the government to worry about,” Wang said. “There’s a lot in Japan that we can borrow and learn from. So, I’m going this time to check out its people and culture.”
— With assistance by Ting Shi, and Amanda Wang