Tokyo pharmacies cater to foreign shoppers

By Beixi (Bessie) Xu

Yuhong Liu, a traveler from Beijing, was shopping with his friends in Matsumoto Kiyoshi, Japan’s most popular pharmacy, near Shibuya station.​

Here he explains why:

“I buy two masks for my friends, because everything is expensive in China, cosmetics in Japan are cheaper than China,” said Liu. “This one is close to $400 in Japan, but if you buy the same product in China, it is close to $600 or $700.”

When you walk along the street in Tokyo, you will come across different pharmacy chains about every hundred meters. Matsumoto Kiyoshi Co. is one of the biggest chains in Japan. Like CVS and Walgreens, drugstores in Japan sell not only medicines and cosmetics but necessities like eye drops, contact lenses, and health products.

Foreign shoppers, especially Chinese carrying their dark red passports, wait in line at special tax-free checkouts.

The sales tax in Japan is 8 percent. For foreign visitors, if they buy more than 5,000 yen products, or $44, at a time and show their passports, they can avoid that tax.

“I come to Japan once a month for business trip, and every time I will spend 32,000 yen [$282] to buy different products, such as contact lenses for myself, hair dye, health care products for my colleagues’ parents and baby products for my friends who have babies,” said Liangzi Wu, a global supply manager in Shanghai. “I can save 8 percent tax fee if I use my passport, including the whole price, totally I can save 20 percent every time.”

Chanelle Collings, a 25-year-old from the Philippines, was carrying bags of cosmetics with her mom out of a pharmacy.

“Japanese products are very good for the skin. Compared to western products, Asian products are much better. They are much more expensive than Philippine products, but the quality is better,” said Collings. “Materials and ingredients in their products are very good. Today I buy a toner for the face, lip balms, lip essence, and mineral powder.”

Most Japanese pharmacies provide free Wi-Fi connections to foreign customers, enabling them to search products online, show pictures to clerks, and select pharmacies’ official accounts to get extra discounts.

Many stores accommodate Chinese shoppers by employing Chinese clerks.

Coupon in WeChat
A coupon in WeChat, similar to Facebook Messenger, enables Chinese customers to get extra discounts in Japan. (Screen capture from WeChat).

“We have our WeChat official account and customers can use coupons to get 3 percent discount and 5 percent discount if they buy products more than 10,000 yen[$88] and more than 30,000 yen[$264],” said Yu Zhang, a Chinese clerk in Matsumoto Kiyoshi drug store. “People who use China UnionPay cards can also get an extra 10 percent discount.”

​Photo at top: Chinese visitor Liangzi Wu, who shops regularly in Tokyo during monthly business trips, heads for the tax-free checkout at Matsumoto Kiyoshi pharmacy.(Beixi Xu/MEDILL)​