According to a report by the Japan Times, the word “Bakugai” won the grand prize for the most memorable Japanese buzzword of 2015. Bakugai literally means “explosive buying.” It refers to the astonishing shopping spree carried out by Chinese tourists travelling to Japan. The Japan Times explains the popularity of the term as due largely to the record-level shopping sprees of Chinese tourists. I thus attempt to analyze this phenomenon from a sociological perspective.
The social factors that contribute to the occurrence of Bakugai include the following: i) the rise of the Chinese nouveau riche class; ii) the quality of Japanese commodities and services; iii) the complicated Chinese tax system; iv) the devaluation of the Japanese yen; and v) the relaxed visa policies towards Chinese tourists.
The striking economic achievements of the Chinese government have prompted the creation of a new upper and middle class in China. From a sociological perspective, social closure in Chinese society today is relatively weak. The pursuit of a market economy and support by the government has led to greater social mobility between and within social classes. These financial, economic, and social changes have carved out spaces for the rise of a new upper and middle class.
In order to enhance their cultural capital and distinguish themselves from the lower classes, those who belong to the “nouveau riche” have pursued a lifestyle that befits their new social status and that flaunts the class to which they belong. The purchase of high quality products is part of this lifestyle as many of them have lost their trust in Chinese commodities after a series of safety scandals in their home country. However, the size of the domestic economy and the market in China remains limited and is, to some extent, unable to satisfy the needs of the nouveau riche. That is why many of them choose to go shopping in a seemingly crazy way while traveling to developed countries such as the U.K., the U.S., Japan, France, and Italy.
In addition, the complicated Chinese tax system also plays an important role in this phenomenon. The Chinese government built a relatively complex tax system with regards to imports and exports. Importing goods to China involves three major types of taxes: the value-added tax, consumption tax, and customs duties. Consider the example given by the Xinhua News Agency: The prices of a medium-sized Louis Vuitton Neverfull handbag in France, America, and Japan are (in U.S. dollars): $972; $1260; and $1197 respectively. That same bag sold in China is priced at $1464, 1.5 times that of France and 1.2 times that of Japan. Thus, if a person buys the bag in France, he or she will save at least one third of their money than if he or she were to buy it in China. So why then does the Bakugai happen in Japan?
As mentioned earlier, the nouveau riche have become accustomed to shopping abroad because of the high taxes imposed on imported goods by the Chinese government. They have chosen Japan partly because of the push of a weaker Japanese yen and a more relaxed visa policy towards Chinese tourists. Chinese tourists are also drawn by the cultural similarity between China and Japan and the geographical proximity of the two countries. These have resulted in the occurrence of the Bakugai in, and the boom of Chinese tourists travelling to, Japan. However, with the ability of a greater number of Chinese to travel abroad, the Bakugai phenomenon is now starting to take place all over the world, gradually changing the image of China and the Chinese globally.
What do these Chinese tourists buy abroad? According to an analysis published by the South China Morning Post, cosmetics and perfume, spirits and cigarettes, medicine and toiletries are at the top of the Chinese tourists’ must-buy lists. How can this piece of information be interpreted? On the one hand, the Bakugai phenomenon can be regarded as a kind of deviance, a behavior that “violates expected rules or norms.” There is currently a serious political tension between China and Japan and an apparent aversion to the Chinese because of the way they conduct themselves abroad. Some Japanese media outlets have even suggested that in order to get rid of the Chinese tourists’ disturbance and make sure that Japanese customers have a pleasant shopping environment, department stores can gather all the goods that Chinese tourists tend to purchase and arrange them at a specified location, staffed by shopping guides who can speak Chinese.
On the other hand, the deviant shopping behavior of Chinese tourists can also be functional for Chinese society, given the knowledge of what these tourists buy abroad. The functionalist perspective states that “deviance and crime are normal parts of the social structure and can be both functional and dysfunctional.” One possible advantage, or a positive function, of such deviance is to serve as an impetus for the Chinese government to initiate reforms and to readjust the structures of service and industry in order to respond to competition from its neighbors and to the choices of its people.
In his theory of social strain, Merton suggests that “people engage in deviance when there is a strain or conflict between goals and means.” In the case of the Bakugai, the deviance has resulted from a conflict between the growth of the middle and upper classes, with new wants and needs, and the limited market realities in Chinese society. The Japanese term Bakugai does not only describe a socioeconomic phenomenon; it also reveals the sharp contrast between the people’s needs and an insufficient supply created by an outdated Chinese market system. It warns those in power that the free market and the existing economic system are in desperate need of reform – one that can secure the stable and rapid growth of China’s economy in the following decades. Authorities should never forget the saying that “in times of trouble, people vote with their feet.”
Featured image taken from this site.
Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective, 8th edition, by Joel M. Charon (2013)
“Import-Export Taxes and Duties in China” taken from China Briefing. URL: http://www.china-briefing.com/news/2013/03/11/import-export-taxes-and-duties-in-china.html. 11 March 2013.
“Bakugai! Japan’s new term for ‘explosive’ Chinese shoppers,” taken from South China Morning Post. URL: http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/1886280/bakugai-japans-new-term-explosive-chinese-shoppers. 02 December 2015.
“Chinese Bakugai on spending craze in Japan” taken from The World of Chinese. URL: http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2015/08/chinese-bakugai-on-spending-craze-in-japan/. 25 August 2015.
“揭秘进口商品为什么贵：高关税逼国人海外代购” taken from Finance.Sina. URL: http://finance.sina.com.cn/chanjing/cyxw/20150302/170821624797.shtml. 2015.
“国庆假期中国游客访日“爆买”的质变” taken from BBC China. URL: http://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/world/2015/10/151008_china_tourists_japan. 2015.