They are quietly confident that a spat over disputed islands will not seriously impact the growing number of relatively wealthy Chinese visiting Japan for its high quality treatment, therefore keeping the lifeblood pumping in an industry that analysts say could one day be worth US$7 billion a year.
And for a tourism industry that was battered by the tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster of last year – visitor numbers were down by around a quarter – that might be just what the doctor ordered.
“I came here because Japanese medicine has a very good reputation in China,” 30-year-old Zhang Lan said, two translators in tow, as staff welcomed her to a well-equipped hospital in Asahikawa in Hokkaido.
Treatments there range from head-to-toe check-ups, with a focus on cancer screening and neurological diseases, to anti-ageing and cosmetic surgery, including breast enhancements and liposuction.
Getting a clean bill of health was at the top of Zhang’s agenda, but she also liked the idea of breathing fresh air in a region known for skiing and nature tourism – a big change from her hometown of Shenyang, an industrial city in northeastern China.
“I’m here this time for a follow-up to the last check-up as the doctor said I needed careful observation of my stomach,” she said of her US$2,400 trip, which took place before the current tensions erupted.
“But I really liked the hot springs, the food and the sea the last time I visited. I’m not interested in big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, because China has many big cities.
“Hokkaido is placid and pastoral. The air is fresh and you can relax here,” she added.
Of the several hundred thousands of foreign tourists who visit Hokkaido annually, the lion’s share are from East Asia, with many keen to see the dramatic mountains, extensive pastures and rich woodlands.
That image is a key selling point for Zhang’s tour operator, Medical Tourism Japan, which last year brought about 270 Chinese customers to northern Japan, a number it hopes will grow.
Most clients chose Hokkaido because it “has the image of being an ‘Asian Switzerland’ to the Chinese,” said company president Katsuya Sakagami.
“I was originally selling medical equipment and came to realise the potential of medical tourism for Chinese people,” he said.
A long-running dispute over the sovereignty of Tokyo-administered islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, is a worry for the industry, said Kayo Uemura, researcher at the Development Bank of Japan.
Sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests shook a number of Chinese cities in September after Tokyo nationalised the islands, and airlines linking the two countries reported a fall-off in demand.
Japanese exports to China, its biggest trading partner, tumbled 14.1 per cent that month as a result of the row and the impact of a broader slowdown.
“The territorial row could last longer than most Japanese had expected, so we have to watch how many Chinese tourists will come back to Japan, say, by the start of next year,” said Uemura.
Cho Shosho, a senior official and a medical translator at Medical Tourism Japan, said the company had noticed some impact from the spat, including cancellations during the Chinese holiday at the start of October. AFP