TOKYO — Snapping up four Japanese luxury Seiko watches as if they were cheap chocolate souvenirs, a 36-year-old Chinese tourist plunks down $4,500 in cash at a glitzy store in downtown Tokyo.
"One is for me, and the other is for my father. The rest are for my friends," says Li Jun, a computer businessman from Shanghai.
No Buddhist temples or tranquil rock gardens for him. Li and his wife are in Japan on a single-minded mission: shopping.
"We want to buy Japanese products because they are known for very good quality," Li says. "We are here for shopping, not for tourist activities."
For years, Japanese auto and electronics companies have been expanding in China as its economy boomed to offset slow growth at home.
But now, Japan's languishing economy is getting a lift from hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists who are eager to purchase brand name goods, from Canon digital cameras to Shiseido cosmetics.
Last year, a record 481,696 Chinese tourists visited Japan, up nearly 20 percent from 2007, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. While it's difficult to measure the precise impact of Chinese tourist spending, it is warmly welcomed by Japan's struggling retailers.
"Chinese are the saviors for us. I've never seen any foreign tourists spend as much as Chinese," says Takeshi Araki, a salesman at electronics retailer Yodobashi Camera Co Ltd in Tokyo's bustling Akihabara electronics district, where thousands of neon signs blink and stores blast songs from outdoor speakers.
As Japan's population ages and declines, the world's No 2 economy will become increasingly dependent on such consumer spending from those who live outside the country — and Tokyo knows it.
Japan will ease tourist visa restrictions on July 1 for Chinese mainland citizens, hoping to draw more visitors — and their big wallets.
"The Chinese economy is booming, and China's demand for overseas travel, especially among wealthy people, is about to explode," says Kouichi Ueno, chief official of the international tourism promotion division at the government-run Japan Tourism Agency.
Thanks to years of rapid growth, China now has the world's fourth largest population of millionaires after the United States, Japan and Germany, according to a Merrill Lynch Wealth Management/Capgemini survey.