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Sunday, July 30, 2006

COUNTERPOINT

Time-capsule Tokyo along a street where I lived


Special to The Japan Times

In the early 1980s, my wife and I lived in a tiny flat in Soshigaya on the Odakyu Line in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward. The eldest three of our four children were born then, and I have only the fondest memories of pushing a pram up and down the kilometer-long shotengai (shopping street) between the station and our home.

Those were heady times in Japan. The asset-inflation bubble was inflating daily, and you could make a fortune on the stock market or in land speculation if you had the right tips. (Insider traders had a field day in the '80s.) Kokusaika (internationalization) was becoming the decade's byword, and young people, with more money than ever before, were wallowing in their run-run era. Pronounced "roon-roon," the word denotes "carefree living it up."

Back then, Japanese people by the millions were traveling overseas, and a popular commercial touted the message, "Shokugyo sentaku no jiyu ahahaan." Meaning roughly, "You're free now to choose your own job, oh yeah," this little phrase encouraged the young to seek employment they felt suitable for themselves and not merely accept society's or their parents' judgment.

It was a decade that foreshadowed the more casual, individualistic attitudes of today's Japan.

In many ways, though, the Soshigaya shopping street was still a microcosm of life predating that internationalization. One day in 1983, I decided to survey this street as it ran from the station to the turnoff to our flat. Just last week, rummaging through an old box in my office, I found the list of shops and services that I compiled on that day. It presents a telling portrait of life in a Tokyo suburb more than 20 years ago.

Catalog of convenience

This is what I found there then.

Six fruit-and-veggie shops, five butchers. Two fishmongers, two banks, two jewelry shops, three oculists and two tobacconists. Seven general grocery stores, 11 clothing shops, two shops selling futons, four selling wagashi (traditional Japanese cakes), three bakeries, three florists, 15 beauty salons and 27 restaurants, including takeaways, and one stall selling motsuyaki (broiled giblets).

Also on the kilometer-long stretch were three stationery shops, two toy stores, two tofu-makers, two shops selling rice and pet food (a common retail combination at the time), five dealing in gas and electrical appliances and eight parking lots (one for taxis only). There were two photography shops, five bookstores, six coffee shops and four liquor stores; three shops selling tea and seaweed and two selling crackers made on the premises.

Additionally, the shopping street boasted three shoe shops, two record stores, six pharmacies, one raucous pachinko parlor and two clubs for playing go or mahjongg. There was also a key-maker, a hardware store, a bag shop, a picture-framer's, a tea salon, a dairy goods shop, two household goods stores, a bath supplies outlet and an umbrella-repair station; a doctor, two dentists, a life-insurance sales office, a garden suppliers, a landscape architect, a supplier of grass for lawns, one police box, a pet shop, a lumber yard, a basket-weaver's, a glazier and windowframe-maker's, a real-estate agent, a homemade noodle shop, a supermarket (Seifu), a small department store (Nagasakiya), a newspaper distribution center (ASA) and a hole-in-the-wall joint selling all sorts of stuff that looked like it had fallen off the back of a truck: cheap jeans, wood carvings of Hokkaido bears, pseudo-baroque ceramic clocks and even the odd topless Polynesian beauty painted on black velvet.

While out there logging such a rich and varied range of establishments, I counted 25 public telephones, some yellow, some blue and some red; three post boxes and 48 vending machines.

Surely, few people anywhere could pack as many goods and services into such a small stretch of street as the Japanese. I called the Soshigaya shopping street circa 1983 a microcosm; and, indeed, you could have lived your whole life without stepping off it, making phone calls and enjoying everything from homemade crackers to broiled giblets. You could have had your cavities filled and the ribs of your umbrella straightened. The wonderful thing about a Tokyo suburb like Soshigaya was that it was self-contained. Autarchy reigned. Why leave it? You had everything you needed right under your nose. (No video shops -- the first one appeared in 1984 -- and certainly no place yet to buy fax paper or computers.)

Vending-machine addicts

Judging by this time-capsulelike list unearthed in my office, Tokyoites at the time took their hair pretty seriously. Fifteen beauty salons -- all of them, incidentally, 1980's state of the art -- afforded quite a choice for your coiffure, while eight dry cleaners only emphasized how important looking nice was to Tokyoites.

By that time, people had become vending-machine addicts. Of the 48 I spotted, six were for cigarettes, one for batteries, one for rice, two for cup-noodles, one for ice cream and one for condoms (priced from 400 yen to 600 yen per box). Interestingly -- but for reasons that escape me to this day -- of all the machines, the one vending condoms was the only one that accepted the then-new 500 yen coin. The rest of the machines sold drinks, ranging from milk, soft drinks and liquor to the vitamin supplement Oronamin C.

Finding that old list, I must admit, sent me on an intense nostalgia trip. I remembered buying disposable nappies, then relatively new to the Japanese market, at the street's pharmacies. Moonie nappies were the top-quality brand (I became an expert after spending around 935,000 yen of "disposable" income this way in my eight years as a nappy-shopper); and they ranged in price from 860 yen to 1,000 yen for an M-size pack of 16 (5-12 kg). This was cheap compared to the 1,160 yen you had to shell out for Moonies in nearby, upscale Seijo Gakuenmae.

By the mid-'80s, though, the bloating bubble was starting to affect even my Soshigaya shopping street. A young couple who ran one of the small restaurants had to shut it down when the building's owner upped their rent by 350 percent. The husband found a job cleaning ventilation ducts. The good news was that, without the stress of running their business, the wife got pregnant after having tried for eight years. The rent rise was a blessing in disguise.

Having written this article, I decided to return to my Soshigaya shopping street after an absence of 23 years and record once again the kinds of shops and services offered there, to see how life has changed in an ordinary Tokyo suburb. I will report on my findings in next week's Counterpoint. You might find them surprising.



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