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Sunday, June 12, 2005


Staff writer

When sumo elder Futagoyama, the father of former grand champions Takanohana and Wakanohana, died of cancer two weeks ago, many sumo fans were deeply saddened at the loss of the charismatic, 55-year-old former ozeki. Many people prominent in varied walks of life expressed their sadness, as did members of the shotengai (mom and pop retailers' street) in Nakano Ward in Tokyo, where the Futagoyama family has its sumo stable.

News photo
Takeo Tanaka, a children's clothing shop owner of 50 years' standing. and chairman of the Towa Ginkza Shotengai association in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, chats with a regular customer in the shopping arcade whose business and social renaissance his group is working hard to achieve.

Interviewed for a newspaper, one of these -- a meat-shop owner -- said she had enjoyed more than 20 years of friendship with Futagoyama, who often shopped at her store, and whose stable was supported by shotengai members. News of his death shocked her so much, she said, that she could not move for a long time after hearing it on a television bulletin.

Sumo aside, shotengai, the groups of small retailers found in almost every town and all over cities in Japan, have long been deeply connected to their localities, providing people not only with daily necessaries and services, but also often taking the lead in community activities, notably seasonal matsuri (festivals).

Despite their many contributions in their areas, however, shotengai as business centers have been in steady decline through the last 15 years of economic stagnation, finding it hard as they do to compete with the big supermarkets, suburban shopping malls and department stores that have mushroomed as people's shopping habits have changed.

Both despite and because of this, many shotengai associations are now trying to re-evaluate their roles in their community, while there are signs that customers, too, are beginning to rediscover the value of their community-based services and businesses.

Born out of medieval markets

For anyone with a feeling for history and tradition, these can only be regarded as welcome developments. That is because today's shotengai -- estimated at more than 15,000 nationwide -- are believed to date from the late 1500s, when merchants were permitted to operate rakuichi-rakuza (free markets that were introduced after the abolition of market taxes and the monopolistic control of guilds). Over time, the ancient free-market system has evolved into the linear shopping streets, often with arches at either end, that are the bustling core of countless of the country's communities.

"The shotengai system was born spontaneously out of those medieval markets," said Teruhiko Mochizuki, a professor at Tama University and an expert of city/community management. "However, what really sets them apart, and what is their most interesting and important aspect, is that the commercial system of the shotengai has come to play many other important roles in the community, such as welfare and security."

As with so much tradition in society, though, lifestyle changes ongoing since World War II are now a serious threat to the future of shotengai. With large, chain retailers, supermarkets and shopping centers often able to buy cheaply in bulk, and many people's lives also becoming ever-busier, fewer shoppers now make daily trips to their local tofu or vegetable shops, or browse through the wares at small shops selling utensils, instead opting for one-stop shopping at competitively priced supermarkets or visiting department stores on weekends.

Indeed, a survey by the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency last year found that about 95 percent of the 3,500 shotengai that replied to a poll said their business was stagnant or declining.

Some may say there is nothing surprising -- and a lot that is inevitable -- about this, both as people's lifestyles changes and globalization marches ever on.

In Mochizuki's view, though, the decline of shotengai has caused localities to lose their character, colors and traditions, "and it is a serious problem concerning culture in this country."

But he believes all is not lost, since "in the face of difficulties, some people are clearly recognizing the wider role of shotengai in their communities, and are starting to take action."

A case in point is the retailers' association in the Towa Ginza Shotengai in Tokyo's downtown Adachi Ward. Located an 8-minute walk from JR Kameari Station, the arcade has nearly 60 years of history. In its heyday in the 1970s, it boasted 101 shops and it was so crowded that cyclists could not ride through.

Since the late 1980s, though, business has been on a downward slide, and as 11 supermarkets sprouted up within a 1-km radius, more than 30 shops went out of business in the 1990s.

"We lost customers dramatically," said 73-year-old Takeo Tanaka, who is chairman of the shotengai association. "It's been very hard to keep our business."

But Tanaka, who has run his children's clothing shop there for the last 50 years, doesn't think the decline of his shopping arcade's fortunes is simply due to new competitors in the area.

"The traders in this shotengai have been resting on the laurels of their shops' glory days, and many have failed to keep pace with the drastic changes in the environment," he said. "Most crucially, this shopping center has lost its energy because retailers forgot the philosophy that a shotengai is there not just for retailers themselves to make a profit -- but for the services it also offers the community."

Back to basics

Consequently, Tanaka's watchword is to "get back to basics," and, under his leadership, association members formed a small company to carry out community service work -- though, in fact, only half of the shop owners agreed to contribute funds. Now, though, 10 years after it was set up, the company employs 200 local people who work for a community day-nursery, a lunch-delivery service for senior citizens and in local elementary school kitchens preparing lunches. As well, company members will take over any shops that become vacant, and try to keep them running and serving the community in the previous line of business.

While the services are heartily welcomed by the local community, their earnings would hardly make an investment banker beam. But compared with the dire situation 10 years ago, Tanaka said that the shotengai has started to regain its vitality and its role in the community.

"We are not doing this company project to get rich. We have started this because we realized that the shotengai could not survive apart from its deep roots in the community. We have to survive altogether, as a town function."

As homey as this may seem, Mochizuki of Tama University said through just such initiatives the old shotengai system has now started to develop positively to reflect conditions in today's Japan -- often through cooperation with NPOs or other similar groups, from ones that provide recycling services to ones organizing events and festivals.

"Shotengai can show a business model that can be called 'community business,' as opposed to 'global business,' " he said. "Community business might be small, but it can have a big role in its locality."

Shotengai are, without doubt, at a crossroads -- but as the reports in this week's TIMEOUT make clear, these characterful concourses are at anything but a dead end.

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