Wary of Local Shortcomings, Chinese Parents Look to Japan for Diapers

August 16, 2016 Updated: August 17, 2016

While Japan is the go-to bogeyman in Chinese propaganda, the average consumer couldn’t care less where their products come from, so long they work better and more safely than locally-made goods.

But perhaps sensing some contradiction between ultranationalist sentiment and practical needs, some have made a fuss about Chinese parents getting their baby diapers from a Japanese producer and specifically from that producer’s Japanese factories.

Last November, Chinese actress Hai Qing proclaimed that she would never endorse a Japanese company, since her hometown, the city of Nanjing, was the site of a brutal World War II massacre in which the Imperial Japanese is estimated to have slaughtered hundreds of thousands and to have raped tens of thousands.

The company she was referring to was Kao, a company whose Japanese-made diapers are in such high demand that they have become a popular smuggling item. The state-run Qianjiang Evening News reported that in 2013, authorities in the port city of Ningbo discovered 35 million yuan (about US$5.3 million) worth of Kao diapers, called “Merries.”

When Kao invested 1 billion yuan (US$150 million) to construct a diaper factory in Anhui Province, China, this proved to be a mistake, since many Chinese consumers would check carefully to see if the diapers were made in Japan or China, and avoid the Chinese ones.

According to information posted on a website for Chinese mothers, Chinese-made and overseas-produced Kao diapers differ in durability, liquid absorption, and permeability. The “genuine” Japan-made products can be identified by a watermark that becomes visible in UV light, showing one of three Japanese cities where the diaper was produced.

Trying to hoodwink customers, many Chinese stores ship their wares to Japan, then re-import them under the guise of Japan-made goods. Others mix Japanese and Chinese Kao diapers, making it difficult for buyers to make out the difference.

“I don’t know why there is such a huge difference,” wrote one customer in an online review of the Chinese-produced Kao diaper. “This diaper is a lot thinner than the imported Merries I used before, and it has a plastic smell and bad appearance. Is it a difference in Japanese and Chinese technology? Or because the Japanese are mean and produce the same product with different qualities [depending on what country the factory is in]?”

Japanese products sometimes become the object of violent nationalistic venting, when anti-Japanese protesters smash Japanese cars and restaurants while boycotting goods from Japan. But Kao has continued to do well, according to the Japanese economic paper Nikkei, despite being five times more expensive than Chinese counterparts.

Anxious Chinese parents turn to Japan for other products for their children besides diapers, including Japanese-made milk powder, feeding bottles, baby vitamins, baby powder, and flu medicine for babies.

This dependence on another nation, in particular Japan, for safe products is a source of conflicting emotions, as shame battles with national pride.

A blogger on the popular Internet portal Sina wrote a post titled “Don’t Turn Against Japan Over Diapers.” In it, the writer chided local producers for being unable to provide Chinese mothers with a quality product.

In an article about Ningbo port authorities discovering the smuggling of Kao diapers into China, a woman was quoted saying, “It’s not that I don’t love my country. I just don’t want my baby to get hurt.”  

A Japanese consulting company posted a similar quote to explain why Japanese companies can do well in China: “Even though I hate Japan, I buy [Merries] for safety reasons.”

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer