The number of visitors from Thailand soared 67.8 percent in May from the same month last year, while the increase was 39.3 percent for Indonesians and 24.5 percent for Singaporeans, according to a report released June 19 by the Japan National Tourism Organization.
Tourist numbers from Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also rose by double digits, the report showed.
Overall, 875,400 tourists visited Japan in May, up 31.2 percent from the previous year. The number is a record for May and the third largest monthly total.
Tourists from South Korea and Taiwan--the largest and the second largest groups--were also higher than last year. Visitors from South Korea, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong still account for 65 percent of all foreign travelers to Japan.
However, the number of tourists from China has drastically fallen since the Japanese government bought three of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from private ownership in September 2012. The acquisition triggered anti-Japan protests across China, which also claims sovereignty over the uninhabited isles.
With no end in sight to the dispute, the Japanese government plans to raise visitor numbers from Southeast Asia and lower its dependence on tourists from East Asian countries.
Specifically, it wants to attract 1 million Southeast Asian tourists this year, and 2 million in 2016. The number was 780,000 last year.
To achieve these goals, the Japan Tourism Agency plans to lower conditions for Southeast Asians to obtain tourist visas to the same level as those for South Koreans. The eased requirements will allow Thai and Malaysian tourists to enter Japan without visas by this summer.
Another thing working in the favor of Japanese tourism officials is the weakened yen.
Nazerah Mohamed, 44, a Singaporean elementary school teacher, and her husband joined a six-day, five-night tour to Hokkaido and Tokyo. They ended up at the Takeya discount store in Tokyo’s Taito Ward on June 19 to buy chocolates and other souvenirs.
“The mesh-grilled scallops we had near Lake Toyako were delicious,” Nazerah said.
An official of a Tokyo-based company involved in arrangements for the tour said, “Buoyed by the weakening yen, the demand for tours that cater to Southeast Asians has been rising since the end of last year.”
The influx of Southeast Asian tourists is also evident at department stores.
The increase in Thai shoppers in May was largely behind the highest monthly duty-free goods sales at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward since 2008, store officials said.
Thippawan Yongsiriwit, 56, a Thai civil-service worker, bought three Issey Miyake brand bags at the store.
“Due to the weakening yen, they are about 30 percent less expensive in Japan,” said Thippawan, who added that Issei Miyake brand goods have gained in popularity in Thailand because they are the favorites of the Thai queen.
Japan’s tourism companies have also taken measures to increase visitor numbers from Southeast Asia.
In April, a record 12,500 foreign group tourists visited the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum in Yokohama, a facility featuring ramen noodle specialties from across Japan. Thai tourists accounted for 60 percent of the total.