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.
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.
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: