Shopping in Japan

Shopping may not be instantly recognizable as an aspect of traditional Japan, but the art of  selling has long been part of Japan’s culture.  Looking back into Japan’s history, we can see the mark of consumerism in the merchant class of the hierarchical days of samurai rule.  When Japanese society was divided into the various classes, its sure to be noted the merchants were not accorded much honor, though they did have a group to their own. The samurai’s fall came in part because many merchants eventually gained more wealth and actual status than their legal betters.

Some of the first department stores developed out of the bustle of Japan’s busy cities.  The city of Osaka grew as an important trading stop in rice and other items.  It and other trade centers became hot spots of mercantilism.

Shopping Today

Japan’s economy is largely service based.  The strong yen over the last few years has helped to decrease the importance of Japan’s manufacturing sector even more than the since the 1980’s bubble economy collapse.  Japan provides more goods and services than material.  This service economy ties up with shopping in two main ways.  First, the actual service you receive at a Japanese store will likely far out reach anything you’ll find in the west, and second, shopping is an even bigger part of Japanese social life than in the states.

Japanese Service

Ok, so you walk into an American department store.  Your greeter is a set of electronic pads making sure you don’t steal anything.  You go and search around trying to find something.  If your lucky you might catch hold of an attendant who might stop chewing their gum long enough to tell you they don’t have what you want.

Then you jump on a plane and go to a Japanese store.  You’ll likely end up being greeted by any store employee you pass, even if they’re just stocking.  If you want an item, an employee might lead you on a dash through the store, but if it’s there they’ll find it for you.  If not, they’ll apologize and help you get it anyway.

It may not seem like much, but the differences are noticeable most when you return home.  Be it at the airport, checkout stand, or in a taxi, the level of service will likely be higher in Japan.  Why?  Because that’s partly what Japan’s economy is built on, partly because a sense of separation is important in what has long been a hierarchical and very crowded country.

Let’s Shopping in Japan

At this point some of you want to drag me to an American mall and have me explain how shopping in Japan is a bigger deal.  In America you might hangout at a mall or go to find a pair of shoes once a week or so. In Japan, people of all ages go shopping every day.  Japan, again, has a long history, but for much of that it lacked refrigeration technology.  Mothers and Grandmothers traveled to local markets each day for the ingredients they would cook.  The lack of space in Japanese housing encourages variations on this tradition since there is often not a lot of kitchen space for big refrigerators.

Today most Japanese department stores have a grocery on one floor, and then clothes, electronics, etc on other floors.  They are daily stops for homemakers, hangouts for students on break, meccas for tourists, and a significant part of the lifeblood of the Japanese economy.  Whole sections of stores are often devoted to pre-packaged gifts for tourists to take back.  Omiyage is a huge part of Japanese culture that ties in with Japanese shopping habits.

Service is an interesting thing though, because it feeds on itself.  As customers come do demand a certain level of service, there is always a pressure on clerks and salespeople to provide a higher level than their competitors.  Consumer expectations has led to interesting developments in everything from store design to fruit packaging.

Modern Department Store

Not every shopping experience will be the same.  Throughout Japan there are a number of large stores and brands, and even the same store brands in the same city will have different layouts.  Here’s what I’ve found around Okinawa’s department stores:

Usually there are food courts and restaurants along with a grocery store on the first level.  The majority of the rest of the buildings will be a combination of open shopping areas and individual stores. The individual stores are many and some tend to be very accessible, though clearly marked by decoration changes.  There isn’t nearly as much theft so money is put more on appearance and signage to draw customers in.  Often there will be a young sales clerk to beckon to the masses of passersby.

The large open areas of shopping might be what you’d expect at an American Sears, though you’ll soon find that while everything appears homogeneous there may actually again be several stores right next to each other, though still with central checkouts and roaming service personnel that will help you no matter which area you need help in.  In addition to just shopping, you’ll find game centers for kids to play in, carts, drinks, and theaters.  The  department store is a one stop entertainment venue that promotes constant return.

More on Shopping in Japan

There is a lot more to shopping in Japan than major department stores, or even large chain stores like UniGlo.  Walking on the street you’ll find small bento vendors, pop up food carts, street art vendors, and whole roads full of small shops.  The thing that ties every shop from huge to brand new is a welcoming ‘irashaimase’ and an effort to please the customer.  The Japanese shopper is well-practiced, and selective.  They may tune out the greeting, but they’ll notice if it isn’t there.

What’s your favorite Japan related shopping experience?