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Why Chinese tourists are buying toilets in Japan

Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

Diplomatic relations between Asia's two biggest economies remain strained, but cheap prices are driving savvy Chinese shoppers to Japan with many making an unexpected purchase: Electronic toilet seats that heat up, wash, dry and disinfect.

The Japanese yen has weakened by nearly 40 percent against the Chinese yuan over the past two years, making it cheaper for mainland tourists to shop in Japan, analysts say.

Indeed Chinese tourists are visiting in droves and spending big time: The number of mainland Chinese tourist arrivals in Japan nearly doubled on year to 2.4 million in 2014, while their average spending rose 10.4 percent to 231,753 yen ($1,935), according to government data.

One of the principal reasons the Chinese are choosing to go to Japan is "rising affordability given the yen's decline," said Nomura China Consumer analyst Katherine Chan in a note published on Tuesday.

Gaining appeal

Tourists often marvel at Japan's multifunctional electronic toilet seats, but until now few took them home.

Over the recent Chinese New Year holiday electronic toilet seats were the third most popular item among Chinese shoppers in Japan, even outperforming rice cookers, according to a social media posting survey by Japanese big data analysis firm Hotto Link.

"The heated toilet seats are among our top selling items to Chinese customers – we have set up dedicated display areas for them in our biggest Tokyo stores," said Yasuaki Beppu, a spokesperson for Bic Camera, one of Japan's biggest electronics retail chains.

"We have selected a range of easy to install models specifically for our Chinese duty free customers," Beppu said.

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Many retailers highlight models that do not require plumbing work and need only be hooked up to water tanks.

Get clean without getting cleaned out

Cheaper prices are the main draw for Chinese tourists.

For example, the Toshiba's SCS-T160 Clean Wash model sells for around $441 in China,, compared to $117 in Japan, according to a February 26 report by Chinese state-run English newspaper Global Times.

In Japan, prices range from 10,000 yen ($84) to 70,000 yen ($585), according to Bic Camera's Beppu. Chinese shoppers typically opt for models in the 30,000 yen range, he said.

"[Electronic toilets] are not cheap, but they are able to prevent germs from piling up as well as having washing and instant heating functions," said Sina Finance columnist Wu Shaobo in his January 26 article. The seats can be installed on all types of toilets, Wu said.

-- Chehui Peh contributed to this report.