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Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010


Shopping — a bitty of the kitty in all of us

One of the most popular hobbies in Japan is shopping. Shopping as a hobby? Although shopping includes "window shopping" (you don't apparently have to buy anything to be "shopping"), there is a large contingent of those who purchase such "material" things for themselves.

And it does seem to qualify as a hobby when you consider that people amass large collections of things such as jeans, high heels and sweaters. You could almost consider this hobby akin to hunting when you look at some of the items in the collections: snake skin boots, rabbit fur vests, and cow hide purses.

But there is so much Japanese culture to be learned when shopping, even when shopping for something as mundane as a pair of jeans. Here, shopping has been elevated to an art form. Whereas such a transaction would amount to a clerk ringing up of the item at a Walmart in the United States, here in Japan the purchase involves bows, smiles, giggles and tatemae flattery. Oh, and of course, warm hearts.

After I decided to purchase a pair of jeans in a store in the mall the other day, the clerk complimented me on my purchase and told me I must have very good taste in clothes because these particular jeans were very popular right now. She asked if I was an English teacher and giggled at how "young" I was. She then folded up the new jeans and carefully wrapped them in clear plastic, affixing small pieces of tape in strategic places, ending each action with a satisfied smile.

You could tell she had done this before, and was particularly proud of her skills. She then held the plastic wrapped jeans up in the air to show me, as delicately as she would handle a newborn. Then she slid them into a beautiful paper bag with handles. She then instructed me to follow her to the doorway, and only after I had stepped out the door did she hand over my new baby jeans, using both hands, while bowing deeply. It was enough to make me think, "I am so glad I just parted with that 100 bucks!"

The shopping bag was imprinted with the words, "Blessing of Nature." They could have just stopped there, but instead, the bag went on to say "Heart and Heart — life-size clothes. Sincerity delivery service 1989." There's that word "delivery" again. Formally discharged from the shop, we could now return home and start bonding.

Standing there in the shopping mall outside the shop, every passerby could see I had just purchased something at this store, which I always find rather embarrassing. But this didn't bother the clerk, who kept cheerfully singing thank yous to me at the top of her voice while performing numerous deep bows. I probably watch too many nature shows on TV, but all the bowing and ducking up and down of the head was not unlike the mating ritual of the Bird of Paradise. I took to my heels and headed for the nearest mall exit.

Not that, in general, I have anything against yelling out "Thank you!" with no regard to decibel limits. I just don't think it should be limited to that particular phrase. Why not shout out other phrases such as "Eat more chicken!" or "Damn you Osama Bin Ladin!"

And, as I stood there embarrassed by the warm-hearted clerk who was bringing so much uninvited attention to me, I wondered what celebrities do when they go shopping. How do they shop discreetly? Like, where does Hello Kitty shop? Kitty-chan is known for her fashion and she often dresses in local prefectural regalia such as dressing like a peach while in Okayama Prefecture or like a maple leaf when in Nara. She even puts on cow hide in Hokkaido. I wonder how she buys those outfits with any degree of privacy.

Maybe that's why Hello Kitty seems to become more and more human every day. Perhaps all those people out there who are die-hard Kitty fans and wear Hello Kitty slippers, toast their bread in Hello Kitty toasters and drive Hello Kitty cars are actually Kitty-chan herself, disguised as human.

I have a friend who dresses in everything Kitty-chan. After she got married, and had Hello Kitten, she dressed her baby the same. The baby was as cute as a kitten but the resemblance to one was uncanny.

This goes to show that you never really know who Hello Kitty is. Perhaps there's a bitty of the Kitty in all of us.

And this gets back to shopping as a hobby. If there was no tendency to shop to extremes in Japan, Hello Kitty wouldn't be so popular or successful.

Maybe what the Japanese economy really needs is to put more yen into the kitty.

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