Chinese hipsters help Uniqlo thrive despite anti-Japanese xenophobia

Nothing about this Uniqlo store in Shanghai looks or feels Japanese.
Nothing about this Uniqlo store in Shanghai looks or feels Japanese.
Image: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Japanese brands have had a difficult time in China since the two Asian nations began rowing furiously over a set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. But one business has been spared: Uniqlo, the skinny jeans giant that is about to open a new, 6600 square meter flagship store in Shanghai that will be its largest worldwide.

Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing said the fashion brand’s China sales for the three months to last November exceeded its conservative expectations. (Fast didn’t break out actual numbers but did raise earnings estimates for its non-Japan business on the back of strong performance in Asia.) And this success came at a time when China’s anti-Japan propaganda and rioting were at fever pitch.

How is Uniqlo escaping anti-Japan sentiments? It basically comes down to Chinese hipsters. Uniqlo is positioned as a low-cost, affordably chic brand in the West, but lower average incomes mean that its Chinese customers there are middle or upper-middle class—a group whose outlook is more global than nationalist and who do not blindly follow anti-Japanese rhetoric. This is the type of Chinese person who would own or aspire to own an iPhone, and who might have used the Weibo microblog service to mock the Beijing government’s ongoing PR campaign against Apple.

A Mintel study of China’s middle-class consumers produced last June said this group, who it defines as people earning $8000 to $30,000 annually, predominantly live in urban centers where traditional Chinese architecture has been replaced with faceless malls full of international brands. They do not have a strong sense of national history or pride—and may have more in common with the 20-something fashion consumers in New York’s Soho district than with a chanting anti-Japanese mob.

Another reason for Uniqlo’s success in China is that shoppers may not realise it is Japanese at all, simply viewing it as a global retailer along the lines of H&M or Zara. While Fast’s rival Ryohin Keikaku strongly plays up  the Japanese credentials of its Muji retail chain, Uniqlo’s Chinese stores are devoid of any national identity, featuring  tall, faceless mannequins with Western body types.

And last September, staff at one Uniqlo Shanghai outlet also went so far as to hoist a banner claiming the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were “Chinese territory”. Fast later insisted this had not been sanctioned by head office.

The recipe for Japanese retailers to do well in China then: sell great skinny jeans to urban professionals who care more about the cut of their clothes and the brand of their smartphone than national identity. And be quiet about where you come from.