WALK into the inn in the Hokkaido village of Akanko, and everything from the welcoming cry of "irasshaimase" to the taciturn old man grilling chicken on the fire seems quintessentially Japanese. Until, that is, you hear all the customers speaking Mandarin. The Chinese have flocked to this area since it provided some of the settings for a 2008 Chinese blockbuster comedy, "If You Are The One".
The local Japanese were shocked when the early arrivals used the onsen, or spas, to do the unthinkable: they washed their dirty clothes in the hot tubs. There is still some tut-tutting about Chinese customs—the elbows on the table, the lack of familiarity with flushing loos—but if it were not for these visitors, the tourist trade in the area would be half-dead. Before the Chinese fly out of Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital, they splurge on items like medicines and rice cookers. Tourism officials call it the "Hokkaido boom".
Japan is a country with immaculate service, good food, beautiful countryside and excellent beaches. As the domestic population shrinks and regional economies suffer, it makes sense to encourage increasingly affluent visitors from other parts of Asia. The Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) has at last understood this. It has set a goal of attracting 10m tourists this year, a big leap from last year's figure of 6.8m. To make this possible it has relaxed its stringent visa requirements, which used to allow in only the wealthiest Chinese. Figures up to September showed a 56% rise in tourist arrivals from China, a degree of success that has caught the Japanese off-guard.
日本的服务完美无瑕，食品美味可口，乡村景色秀美，沙滩出类拔萃。当其本国人口减少，而地区经济又境况糟糕时，鼓励越来越多来自亚洲其他地区的游客前来旅游实属明智之举。日本观光厅(the Japan Tourism Agency)最终明白了这一点。该部门已制定在今年吸引1000万名游客的目标，较之去年的680万，这可是一次飞跃。为了使这一目标有可能实现，该机构已放宽了严格的签证要求，以往只有最富有的中国人才被允许进入日本。截至9月份的数据显示，来自中国的游客数量增长了56%，措施之成功令日方大感意外。
However, in late September the JTA's plans went awry when the arrest of a Chinese trawlerman, fishing in what Japan considers its own waters, triggered the worst diplomatic incident between the two countries in half a decade. China loudly reasserted its rights to the disputed islands, administered by Japan, which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands but which in China are known as the Diaoyu Islands. China cancelled diplomatic and cultural exchanges. When Japanese officials discovered that imports of rare earths from China, vital for some of Japan’s technologies, were being held up, the fisherman was abruptly sent home. But not before all but five of 61 Chinese tour groups that had booked to visit a spa near Mount Fuji had cancelled their reservations.
Japan still carries a lot of old diplomatic baggage in Asia. It has festering territorial disputes not only with China but also with South and North Korea, Taiwan and Russia. Japanese history books sometimes disagree with those of its neighbours, and Japan's apologies for its treatment of them during the second world war have not fully allayed their suspicions. Many in Japan seem to believe that the war started with Pearl Harbour and ended with atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But for many Chinese, hostilities started in 1931 with Japan's invasion of Manchuria, and for South Korea 100 years ago with its annexation by Japan.
Uncle Sam's umbrella
Japan was able to turn its back on Asia for most of the post-war period because of a strong security alliance with America that has now been going for 50 years. In its neighbours' eyes, that helped avert the risk of resurgent Japanese militarism. It also meant that Japan was able to keep its defence spending at less than 1% of GDP, enabling it to concentrate more resources on becoming an industrial power. But Asia's rise since the end of the cold war has complicated Japan's external relations.
When the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power in 2009, ending 54 years of virtual one-party rule, one of its most controversial policy platforms was to establish a friendship with China that balanced the close post-war relationship with America—one of the hallmarks of the Liberal Democratic Party's rule. The DPJ's leaders dispatched hundreds of its MPs to pay court to Beijing. In a sign of its economic ambitions, the government later appointed a former captain of industry as its ambassador to China.
But the strategy was quickly blown off course, initially by a row with America. This was caused by a rash promise made by the DPJ's first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to the people of the island of Okinawa to scrap an agreement to move America's Futenma marine base from a crowded town to a more remote part of the island. Many locals resent the American bases, so they welcomed Mr Hatoyama's pledge to reduce the burden on the island. But he failed to find a better alternative, so when last May he was forced to proceed with the move more or less as planned, it cost him his job. All this meant that foreign policy in the DPJ's first year in office focused mainly on the strained relationship with America. Pro-American countries in Asia, such as South Korea, reacted nervously to the potential threat to a security alliance that has helped preserve peace in the region for decades and acts as a counterweight to a strong China.
Naoto Kan's government has reaffirmed its support for the alliance with America. But the Senkaku incident renewed fears within the Japanese government that China's rise—and especially its massive military spending—is a threat to Japan. DPJ politicians in the party's "realist" faction think that China must be made to understand that it cannot rattle its sabre with impunity. Others in the DPJ firmly believe in Japan's pacifist constitution. Others still insist that Japan can become increasingly independent of America's security umbrella, perhaps by building up its own forces, but at the same time remain doveish towards China.
Seiji Maehara, the new foreign minister in Mr Kan's government, is on the party's realist wing. He is convinced that if economic relations between the two countries were to cool it would be bad for both of them. But he adds: "I'm neither a shallow-minded rightist nor a nationalist. I'm a realist who believes in a win-win relationship with China."
That is where the relationship with America comes in. There was relief in Tokyo when Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, affirmed that the Senkaku Islands were covered by America's security treaty with Japan. Yet the Kan administration may not be able to hold up its side of the Futenma bargain with America. Okinawans still staunchly oppose relocation.
Japan, in a volatile neighbourhood, is trying to hedge its bets. Yet it is not fully secure in its relationship with either east or west. It needs America's security backing, but its industrial future increasingly depends on East Asia. In theory, the region should provide it with boundless opportunities to offset the decline in its population. METI estimates that within five years there will be more high earners living in other parts of Asia than in Japan itself. China is so big that just the increase in the number of cars sold there last year was roughly the same as the entire Japanese car market.
The business case
But if the opportunities are huge, so are the challenges, and they are not just diplomatic. According to METI's statistics, Japan's sales of intermediate goods to China have tripled in the past decade, but South Korea's have increased by a factor of 11. Over the same period Japan's exports of finished goods to America and Europe have risen by a mere 10%, whereas South Korea's have increased 6.5 times and China's 5.9 times. Japan still has a large trade surplus with South Korea, partly because it sells specialist high-tech components for companies such as Samsung to put into its own devices. South Korea is so bothered by this that its officials keep trying to lure the component-makers away with promises of lower tax rates.
Japanese firms that have expanded into China have sometimes failed to grasp how different it is. They have a lot to offer their neighbour, including an emphasis on quality, trusted products and a strong service culture. They were among the earliest investors in China after the two countries normalised their relations in 1972. Shanghai-based Yasuo Onishi of JETRO, Japan's export-promotion agency, notes that Japanese carmakers, for example, enjoy strong brand recognition, even though some of their cars are too expensive for middle-class Chinese. (The Prius, however, is considered not fancy enough for China's rich.)
Chinese executives complain that Japanese businessmen too often come to lecture them rather than to listen, and that they tend not to promote Chinese managers. There are some honorable exceptions. After a series of strikes this year at companies supplying goods to Toyota and Honda, Komatsu, a maker of heavy machinery, pledged to replace all the Japanese managers at its 16 sites in China with Chinese bosses by 2012.
Shiseido, a cosmetics-maker, has enjoyed a sevenfold increase in sales to China since 2000, says Shinzo Maeda, its chief executive. It has created brands exclusively for the Chinese market and promotes local talent, albeit with strict Japanese rules on how to serve customers.
Such companies have a long history in China and are likely to stay the course. But they are still vulnerable to strains in the relationship. After Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, enraged the Chinese by making repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, which honours some war criminals along with fallen soldiers, it was the business lobby that helped persuade his successor, Shinzo Abe, to break bread with the leaders in Beijing.
这类公司在华时日已久，并可能会继续经营下去。不过面对关系紧张局面，它们仍显脆弱。在2001年至2006年担任首相的小泉纯一郎(Junichiro Koizumi)因屡次参拜供奉阵亡士兵及部分战犯牌位的东京靖国神社而激怒中国人之后，正是商业游说团体帮助说服其继任者安倍晋三(Shinzo Abe)与中国领导人重归于好。
More tourism within the region may help ease some of the misgivings. Culture also plays a role: many young people in Asia were brought up on Japan's J-pop music scene and manga comics. The Japanese, for their part, are wowed by South Korea's girl bands and soap operas.
But there is another thing that some of these Asian countries have in common. South Korea is already getting older fast, and even China's working-age population is forecast to start declining from 2015. If Japan can find a way of dealing with an ageing and falling population, its neighbours will be all ears.