Olivia Parker
Aug 5, 2019

Why Thailand really likes all things Japanese

From cosmetic shops to discount chains and all kinds of food in between, Thai people are big fans of Japanese exports.

People shopping at Don Don Donki in Bangkok
People shopping at Don Don Donki in Bangkok


Scroll though the list of Thailand’s top 100 brands, and you’ll notice more than a few names that not only don’t sound local, but sound distinctly like they originate some 4,500 miles away, in Japan.

Of course, the usual Japanese multinational behemoths make the list, as they do in almost every market in the world, let alone in Asia. Panasonic, Sony and even Canon, which has been gradually slipping down the ranking in Asia’s overall top 1000 brands list since a high point in second position in 2008, all held their positions from 2018 to 2019 in Thailand, in third, fifth and 14th positions, respectively.

The middle of the list sees Japanese brands largely on the rise in Thailand, however. Mitsubishi climbs 10 spots to 23; Toshiba jumps a significant 24 spots to 40; Hitachi is up—by a modest three places, but still up—to 45th position; and Toyota is also up three places to 73.

Thais do seem to have a soft spot, or at least an appreciation of, all things Japanese, including the country itself. Japan was the third top destination for Thai travellers (after much closer neighbours Malaysia and Laos) in 2017, found a survey by the Tourism and Sports Ministry. The number of tourists visiting Japan broke the 1 million mark for the first time in 2018 and the Thai Travel Agents Association predicts a repeat of this in 2019, despite the introduction of a new departure tax, or “sayonara levy”, of ¥1,000 (roughly 300 baht or just under US$10), imposed on all departing travellers by Japanese authorities.

Japanese stores announcing new launches in Thailand recently include the Japanese cosmetic brand @cosme, which opened its first brick-and-mortar store in Bangkok’s new megamall on the banks of the Chao Phraya River late last year. In the new @cosme shop, also the largest shopping website for cosmetics in Japan, customers will be able to browse over 6,000 products from 600 beauty brands. Also opening within the mall late last year was a new seven-floor department store named Siam Takashimaya, the Thai version of the Japanese shopping chain.

At the more budget end of the scale, Thai shoppers seemed no less excited by the opening of the first ‘Don Quijote’ in Thailand. Called ‘Don Don Donki’ locally, this Japanese discount chain is open 24 hours a day and houses a huge variety of Japanese household items at low prices.

The number of Japanese restaurants, too, continues to rise in Thailand, as consumers seek new options and different eating experiences. In Bangkok, this figure has hovered at around the 1,700 mark since 2015, when there was a surge upwards from just 1241 in 2013. Upcountry from the capital, the rise has been even more extreme: while in 2013 there were just 565 Japanese restaurants, today these number 1,286, according to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Thailand is currently the biggest market for Japanese food in ASEAN, Kaoru Fukuta, director of the Agriculture and Food Department, told the Bangkok Post in January.

Japanese restaurant chains seeking to take advantage of Thai tastes for their cuisine include the Central Restaurants Group, which planned to open a total of 10 new Japanese restaurants in Thailand this year, according to a spokesperson, as it has for the last three.

So what explains Thai people’s national affection for Japan, beyond a taste for ramen? Some commentators attribute it to a lasting sense of gratitude since the Japanese waived visa requirements for Thai visitors back in 2013. Others attribute it to the two nations’ shared links to Buddhism, or simply a historical lack of conflict. Look no further than the Facebook page ‘Japanthaifanclub’, however, with its close to half a million followers (up from 230,000 in 2016), which offers travel tips and resources, and you’ll see that the love affair is far from ending.

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