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Thursday, May 23, 2002

THE ZEIT GIST

Buyers be wares -- shopping consumes Japan


I was once asked to translate a pamphlet published by the municipal government of one of the most beautiful and historically endowed cities in Japan. The material was aimed at foreign companies and their expat employees to entice them to the city.

The great thing about living here, stressed the pamphlet, was its fabulous shopping opportunities. There are department stores and shops everywhere, and many are located on the former sites of historical landmarks. Where stately old brick buildings once stood are now the sites of shiny new shopping centers, it bragged.

I doubt whether the message impressed many expats. It didn't impress me.

But then, the pamphlet's writers probably made the assumption that when it comes to ranking quality of life issues, expats think like most Japanese -- that shopping is easily the No. 1. priority.

Shopping, in case you haven't noticed, is a national obsession here, and the act of buying things is seen here as recreation, culture and even an art form.

By this I am not referring to buying food, clothes and other such items people actually need to lead their lives.

Instead I mean "frivolous shopping," or buying stuff we have no real need or even use for. Like the guy who has 15 different G-Shock watches, which he never wears for fear of getting them dirty.

In this regard, Japan is easily the world leader. The world's biggest market for luxury-name fashion accessories is here. For instance, about one out of every three products made by Louis Vuitton, the French fashion brand, ends up in Japan.

Frivolous shoppers are often celebrated in the media. One TV program featured a young woman who lives on her own in a sparsely furnished one-room apartment. But then she opens her large closet to reveal a vast collection of Louis Vuitton handbags, more than a hundred items on which she has spent millions of yen of her meager income. The show's presenters gush with envy.

Shopping is also increasingly becoming a prime social activity. Donquixote, a discount retail chain, recently decided to extend its shops' business hours late into the night. A company representative told a national newspaper that many of the new late-night customers were expected to be young people out on dates.

So, after a romantic dinner in town, it was surmised, our young lovers would spend the rest of the evening arm in arm while browsing lustily at plastic buckets, bathroom rugs and Hello Kitty pencil erasers.

I wouldn't be mentioning all this if Japan were actually a good place to shop. It is not.

First off are the prices, among the world's highest, according to countless surveys.

Then there are the shops themselves. The shopping centers are often crowded beyond reason, as retailers are in the habit of shoehorning vast amounts of merchandise into tiny spaces. Add to that the migraine-inducing announcements blasted through high-powered speakers installed in shops' walls and ceilings.

Naturally, I realize that if people want to spend the bulk of their free time and extra money buying exorbitantly priced things they don't need, they should be free to do so.

Yet what concerns me about the national shopping obsession is its effect on our cities and communities.

For illustration, I can cite my own neighborhood of Nakano, a congested and centrally located area of Tokyo.

The streets surrounding JR Nakano Station are all lined with what seems like hundreds of shops selling nearly everything you could ever hope to own.

On the other hand, there are hardly any attractions of historical or cultural interest, or just plain open spaces.

There is one prominent open space, a concrete square not far from the station. But it is frequently crammed with stalls selling all manner of tacky merchandise, on special "event" days.

But this kind of shopping -- and I include that also found in Ginza's finest boutiques -- is not culture or art.

It is materialism, pure and simple, practiced by people who can't or won't use their free time in a truly constructive or creative manner.



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