Six times each year, a 36-year-old Chinese actress makes her way to Japan, not for the glitz of film industry events, but with a different purpose in mind: to take advantage of Japan's renowned advanced medical beauty treatments.
The Beijing-based actress has long been an admirer of Japan's aesthetic medical techniques, including treatments like Botox to smooth wrinkles and innovative procedures using stem cell injections to achieve a youthful appearance.
"The technology and service quality at Japanese clinics are exceptional," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Their focus on specialized research and the doctors' commitment to their skills deeply impress me."
She spends about 2 million yen ($13,800) on beauty treatments on each visit, during which she also travels to scenic spots and enjoys Japanese cuisine.
The actress is among a rising number of wealthy Chinese tourists who visit Japan primarily for medical services rather than the shopping-focused trips that brought many Chinese visitors in the past.
The current trend reflects a growing health consciousness in China after the coronavirus pandemic, travel industry experts said.
Clinics and other companies in Japan are trying to seize the expanding demand. Kenkoin Clinic, located in Tokyo's upscale Ginza shopping district, offers personalized preventive healthcare services, featuring some of the best imaging systems in Japan, including CT scans and MRI exams.
Prior to the pandemic, the clinic saw many Chinese patients monthly, including those seeking health checkups, intravenous infusions and supplements. The number dropped during the pandemic but is now steadily climbing back, with about 50 to 60 percent of the pre-pandemic patient volume returning.
"The majority of our foreign patients are Chinese," said Hidetaka Mori, managing director of Kenkoin Clinic, adding that more than half of its sales come from Chinese customers.
Mori said that while doctors in China are usually too busy to talk with patients at crowded hospitals, the clinic makes sure to allow plenty of time for its doctors to interview each patient.
"With personal concierges assigned to each, we ensure swift service and utmost privacy from check-in to departure, as patients want to avoid encountering others," Mori added.
The move is backed by the Japanese government, which is seeking to revitalize local economies with an expansion of inbound travel as the country's population ages.
In an attempt to boost medical tourism, the country introduced a medical visa in 2011, now permitting foreign visitors to stay for healthcare for up to one year.
The number of such visas issued jumped from 70 to 1,804 annually in the 11 years through 2022, but the actual figure for people visiting the country for medical care is likely to be much higher as many also arrive on tourist or business visas, industry experts said.
The Japanese government estimates that in 2020, more than 10,000 visitors from China came for comprehensive medical examinations, spending around 1.5 million yen on average. A smaller group of some 1,000 paid around 4 to 5 million yen to receive advanced cancer treatments. Both spending figures include travel costs.
"Japan has a high reputation for cancer screening, while its proximity, cleanliness, safety as well as the belief that there are many skilled doctors are appealing to Chinese people," said Tsuyoshi Kondo, president of Friendly Japan, a Tokyo-based consulting company specializing in the promotion of Chinese tourism to Japan.
Beyond traditional hospitals and clinics, a diverse range of companies outside the healthcare sector have made inroads into the market in an attempt to attract more Chinese tourists.
The Japanese unit of Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group launched a new service on its Tmall Global platform, a cross-border e-commerce site, in September 2023.
The service enables Japanese medical firms and clinics offering medical checkups to set up virtual outlets so that Chinese tourists can conveniently book medical services online before their arrival in Japan.
Tao Chengbin, operating officer and the head of the EC Marketing Department at Alibaba.com Japan Co. said that Japan was the first overseas market for the company to introduce such a service, noting the popularity of the country's healthcare products among Chinese people.
"In recent years, the consumption style of Chinese visitors to Japan has been changing considerably, as they have started placing more emphasis on experiences rather than shopping," he said.
Tokyo-based Hirotsu Bio Science Inc. is one of the companies seeing business opportunities in utilizing the platform, offering more affordable medical services to Chinese visitors.
The startup opened a store on the e-commerce website featuring its N-Nose tumor check system, a new testing technology that uses eelworms to detect signs of a variety of cancers from urine samples.
In the service, priced at 1,095 yuan ($153), consumers can buy a test kit via Tmall Global and receive it before coming to Japan. After taking a urine sample on arrival in the country and submitting it to one of around a dozen designated pharmacies in Tokyo, they can then receive the results after returning home.
Toshiki Mano, a professor at Tama University Institute for Healthcare and Long-Term Care Solution, said that in addition to China, there are many potential patients in Asian emerging countries such as Vietnam who are likely to become interested in medical services in Japan.
"The market for medical tourism is likely to expand considerably, as the scope of services has widened from treatments to cosmetic surgery, health examinations and regenerative medicine," Mano said.
Nevertheless, Japan faces challenges in further expanding the sector, including weak recognition of its medical services abroad and hospitals' limited capacity to accept foreign visitors while offering the same level of care as local patients. Developing translation services at regional institutions will be another hurdle.
The payment structure also needs to be reviewed, as foreign visitors, who are not included in Japan's public health insurance system, face much higher charges than local residents not only for medical fees but also for medicines, Mano said.
"While it is understandable that medical fees for foreign visitors are double compared to Japanese because of additional services such as translation, it is a problem that prices of medicines are two to threefold higher," he said.
Still, Mano sees room for further growth. "It's evident that the industry's growth is robust and multifaceted, as its coverage area may expand to such new sectors as wellness," he said.