TOKYO — Head to the winding streets of Tokyo’s trendy Omotesando district on any given day, and you’ll see young South Korean women taking selfies in front of popular cafes or snapping photos of their logo-emblazoned coffee cups.
But behind that familiar scene, employees at those cafes have seen a different picture in recent months — dwindling numbers of visitors from Japan’s neighbor amid a spiraling bilateral dispute that has as yet no end in sight.
Operating out of a plain wooden building, the peaceful, rustic ambiance of Shozo Coffee’s Commune 246 store reflects its origin in the rural town of Nasu near Tokyo. Along with drip coffee, its specialty is a variety of scones.
South Koreans have usually accounted for around 40 percent of customers, said Noriko Kogure, a staff member, making them the biggest group of foreign visitors.
They started flocking there after Blue Bottle Coffee, a high-end coffee retailer headquartered in California, opened a branch next door, she said. The cafe’s quirky appearance then helped make it an “Instagrammable” spot, with word of mouth spreading digitally among South Korean visitors.
In 2018, South Koreans made up almost a quarter of all foreign tourists in Japan, spending a total of 588 billion yen ($5.5 billion). They were second only to visitors from mainland China, who accounted for 27 percent of the total.
But bilateral relations have deteriorated sharply since the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies last year to pay compensation for wartime labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The row, which has developed into an ongoing tit-for-tat trade dispute, has led to cancellations or reductions of flights linking cities in the two countries, with negative sentiment also affecting tourism to Japan.
For Shozo Coffee, which used to get around 50 groups of South Korean customers per day, the decline has been significant at times.
“There were days where we would only get one group of South Korean customers,” Kogure said.
In an online survey of around 530 South Korean travelers conducted between Aug. 23 to Sept. 2 by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, a government think tank based in Seoul, 69.3 percent reported that they had canceled trips to Japan. Amongst those, 93.2 percent cited strained relations as the reason, with 36.1 percent saying they would like to travel to Japan if relations improve.
Outside of Tokyo, the impact has been even more significant in regions where South Koreans make up the lion’s share of tourism numbers.
Tsushima Island, located halfway between the Japanese main island of Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula, has been particularly hard hit.
With the island, a part of Nagasaki Prefecture, accessible via high-speed ferry from Busan in around an hour, travelers from the neighbor across the sea have accounted for 75 percent of all visitors.
The island, which has a population of 30,000, saw around 410,000 Korean tourists visiting last year, spending an estimated 7.94 billion yen in 2017.
But almost half of the 25 main accommodation facilities on the island have reported occupancy rates for July dropping 50 to 90 percent compared to the same time last year. Figures for August were also down, with ferry services cancelled or reduced due to the drop in passengers.
A hotel located around five minutes’ walk from Hitakatsu port, where the majority of South Korean tourists enter the island, said they received around 170 cancellations in July.
“We still get individual tourists but bookings by tour groups are almost zero, and half our rooms are empty. Who knows how long this will go on for?” lamented a 29-year-old South Korean staff member.
Facing the port, a cafe targeting South Korean tourists is filled with empty seats. “In the three years since this cafe opened, this is the first time I’ve been so free every day,” said staff member Hiromi Hara, 46.
Earlier this month, the Japan Tourism Agency released figures showing that the number of South Korean visitors to Japan had tumbled 48.0 percent in August from a year earlier to 308,700. This was despite overall tourism figures dropping only by 2.2 percent.
“It’s a bit lonely. It’s a political issue, so ordinary Koreans don’t hate Japan. They just can’t come because there are fewer flights or just due to the general atmosphere,” said Keisuke Maehara, owner of Number Sugar, an all-natural caramel store in Tokyo’s Omotesando.
With South Korean customers making up around 20 percent of the store’s overall customers, and around 70 percent of foreign customers, there has been a noticeable decrease over the past two months, he said.
The store has drawn in South Koreans mainly for its signature item — a simple yet elegantly packaged selection of 12 different-flavored caramel sweets. Snaps of the square white box with colored ribbon are often posted on Instagram.
“It doesn’t matter if they are Korean or Japanese, it just makes me happy to see people enjoying our caramel,” Maehara said, adding that he looks forward to South Koreans returning.
Over in the upscale Hiroo neighborhood, the impact has not been so evident for Nuts Tokyo, a cafe based on the concept of healthy and nutritious nuts.
Although South Korean visitors make up 20 to 40 percent of customers, drawn to the store’s signature peanut butter sandwich, limited to 15 servings a day, it has largely been business as usual.
“There hasn’t really been any change at all,” a staff member said.