BANGKOK — Thailand is smitten by Japan: Sushi restaurants fill the malls, Issey Miyake’s luxury “Bao Bao” bags are all the rage and Thai tourists are flocking to Japan in record numbers to visit a country many view as a role model.
“I love Japan. They really put their heart into whatever they do,” says Aunyawee Sahachalermphat, 26, who has traveled to Japan more than a dozen times since studying there five years ago and owns at least 10 Comme des Garcons shirts, another popular brand that sounds French but is actually Japanese.
Like many Thais, she loves Japanese food and admires the quality of its products and its advanced, orderly economy that retains a respect for tradition. “We look up to them,” she says.
Japan, too, has a soft spot for Thailand, although it doesn’t loom nearly as large in the public mind. It’s seen more as a warm, easygoing tourist spot — a welcome break from Japan’s often onerous social codes — and a vital production and export hub for more than 4,500 Japanese companies, including behemoths such as Toyota, Honda and Canon.
All this has resulted in a mutual affection between these two nations that’s rare in Asia, where historical, political and territorial tensions often complicate ties.
Typical of many in her generation, Aunyawee traces her positive feelings to watching Japanese cartoons such as “Doraemon” and “Sailor Moon” as a child. As an adult, she instinctively trusts anything “Made in Japan” and admires the courteous, subdued manners of many Japanese — widespread sentiments among Thais.
Economic and bureaucratic changes have helped foster these ties. Three years ago, Japan waived visas for Thais for up to 15 days, prompting tourist numbers to surge to nearly 800,000 last year, up five-fold from 2011.
As Thai incomes have grown and budget carriers such as AirAsia have intensified competition, trips to Japan have become more affordable. Likewise, Japanese tourists can now fly from Tokyo to Bangkok for about the same price as to Okinawa, in southern Japan.
There seems to be a cultural affinity between these two peoples — a gentleness, an aversion to conflict and an emphasis on proper etiquette — that creates a sense of familiarity and safety.
Yet there are still enough intriguing differences to make the other culture appealing in a non-threatening way.
Buddhism, for example, has influenced both countries, although in Thailand it plays a more overt role and it is epitomized by brilliantly colored temples and monks in orange robes, while in Japan it takes on a more subdued form. Both countries have royal families, although the Thai king holds greater sway over society than the emperor does in Japan.
“There’s a kindred feeling” with Thais, more so than with other Asians, said Mariko Uehara, an English instructor from Chigasaki, southwest of Tokyo, who recently visited Thailand for a second time since 2012. “We have something in common that makes us feel secure.” Some 1.38 million Japanese tourists came to Thailand last year, a similar level to previous years.
Japan and Thailand aren’t encumbered by historical baggage that has strained ties with their respective neighbors.
Tokyo’s ties with China and South Korea are tainted by territorial disputes and lingering resentment over Japan’s aggression before and during World War II. After briefly resisting Japanese troops, Thailand formally became an ally of Tokyo during most of the war and served as a supply base and so suffered less. Japan’s infamous “Death Railway” in western Thailand was built by British, U.S. and Australian POWs and thousands of other Asians.
Japan’s rosy image here has been partly shaped by popular books, TV dramas and movies.
“Khu Kam,” a novel that has been made into movies many times — titled “Sunset on the Chaophraya” in English — depicts a wartime romance between a Japanese naval officer and a Thai woman in the resistance. He manages to win her over before being killed.
Japanese food, once considered a delicacy in Thailand, has become more affordable and popular as more than 2,300 Japanese restaurants have opened up across the country, tripling since 2008.
Now a top reason Thais want to go to Japan is to eat authentic Japanese food — in Japan.
Chaitee Tandhanskul, a 29-year-old manager in his family’s chemical business, says he makes bookings at restaurants in Japan weeks ahead of time, and bases his itinerary around those reservations.
“I’ve traveled many times to Japan just for the culinary experience,” he said.
Japan is more popular than previous favorites Hong Kong or Singapore because “it’s much more exotic” and less “robotic,” said Chaitee, who also roams the country taking pictures.
Taking their cues from Thai fashion magazines and websites that highlight the latest Japanese styles, Thai women line up in Tokyo to buy Issey Miyake’s “Bao Bao” brand bags, which can cost several hundred dollars and have become a staple of Bangkok’s fashion elite. Shiseido cosmetics, Kenzo shoes and Casio G-Shock watches are also hot.
Many Thais also like Japan because it is safe and they believe they won’t get cheated by shopkeepers or taxi drivers, said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies.
The two countries’ economies have become increasingly intertwined.
Thailand’s importance to Japanese manufacturers was made plain when severe flooding here in 2011 swamped many factories and suppliers, disrupting markets as far away as Chicago and London, Japanese Ambassador Shiro Sadoshima said in an interview.
“We need to think in terms of being in the same boat as they are — that whatever Thailand is doing well is good for Japan, too,” said Sadoshima, who was surprised to find a big “Ippudo” restaurant in Bangkok serving ramen noodles native to his home island of Kyushu.
“It’s bigger and grander than the main shop in Japan,” he said.
Japan’s official development aid to Thailand shows up prominently in places like the “Thai-Japanese Bridge” sign — with national flags — on a flyover at a major Bangkok intersection. Assistance from Tokyo helped build 14 of the 21 bridges across the Chao Phraya River that runs through the capital. Officials from the two countries are doing feasibility studies on three high-speed railway lines that would cross the country, the ambassador said.
Bangkok has a large Japanese community, many of whom live clustered in an area that resembles parts of Tokyo, with Japanese eateries and yakitori shops lining side streets and Thai hostesses calling out in Japanese. There are at least a couple streets of go-go bars devoted to Japanese customers.
Each country offers something appealingly different to the other.
The very discipline and proper etiquette that Thais admire about Japanese culture can become an enormous burden to some Japanese who find Thailand’s easygoing, accepting ways a welcome refuge.
Kazue Takenaga moved with her three children to Bangkok two years ago to escape the growing educational and social pressures facing her family, especially her 11-year-old daughter. Her husband had car parts factories in Thailand, so she decided to move here and enroll her children in an international school because the country and environment seemed more accepting and diverse than Japan, and yet also familiar.
“It’s so good that we came to Thailand,” she said. “Our family’s overall health is much better. The lifestyle is much easier here. The thought of returning to Japan is daunting.”
Thais, meanwhile, want to see and experience things in Japan they can’t at home, like snow, cherry blossoms and colored autumn leaves — without traveling all the way to Europe or North America, said Tanong Prakuptanon, who runs a “Japanthaifanclub” Facebook page, which has tips for travelers and more than 230,000 followers.
“It’s different, but not too foreign,” he said. “It’s a dream destination.”
Story: Malcolm Foster