In praise of the ‘shoutengai’: Japan’s traditional shopping streets maintain the human touch in a cold modern world.

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Sixty seven years running the same shop in the same location is no easy feat. With the rise of global chain stores over the past couple of decades, a large number of independent mom and pop shops in so many countries have fallen victim to the march of globalisation. Japan has not been immune to this, with so many suburban, and now inner-city, station fronts afflicted with the same department store chains and fast-food shops, making it at times difficult to distinguish one station from another.
And yet in the midst of this blur of identikit shopping centers suiting all income levels, the Japanese shoutengai (neighborhood shopping street) survives against enormous odds, often full of family run stores that pre-date World War II. Japan’s post-war economic miracle is known worldwide, with its automotive, electronic and finance industries bringing prosperity to much of the population. Much less well known outside Japan are these local traders, shopkeepers and craftsmen who have been the lifeblood of residential communities around the country.

The tai-yaki/sweets shop is an integral part of every older Japanese neighborhood, selling not only the tasty fried tai-yaki cakes but all sorts of biscuits, candies, packaged sweets and in the summer, kaki-gori (shaved ice snow cones). Like candy stores anywhere it’s a magnet for the area kids in spring and summer.

Mr. Tomio’s tai-yaki/candy store has been open at the same spot for 67 years on Akebono Shopping St in an old, working class fisherman’s neighborhood in the north part of Yokohama. Now 85 years old, Tomio-san first took over the shop when in 1950 when he was 18. He survived the war as a teenager and in the very tough years post-1945 he was one of a generation of Japanese young men struggling to make a living. His is one of what used to number thousands of similar shops all around the country.

Tomio-san is up daily at 6am to prepare his morning deliveries around the area, bringing snacks and sweets to day care centers and kindergartens. He then returns to the first floor shop to make the first batch of tai-yaki, set out the cooler of ice next to the snow cone machine, and replenish the containers of biscuits and cookies that fill the shop.

Daily, from about 9am to 7pm he is there, smiling & chatting with customers, neighbors and delivery people. Unlike the rather dour fishmonger next door who is always scowling and seemingly always working (maybe there’s a connection), Tomio-san seems to be perpetually cheerful and welcoming. He knows everyone in the neighborhood and can still rattle off details about life in the area over the last six decades.

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The shoutengai around Tomio-san has individual shops selling clothing, hardware, stationery, books, fish, liquor, toys, tea, futons, fruit & veg, meat, shoes. Local residents tend to shop almost daily for fresh goods, and with that there’s a regular rhythm of Japanese greetings, commiserations about the weather and local gossip.

Three generations of locals do their shopping on this street, with the kids always stopping by to see Tomio-san for some sweets and shaved ice. It’s an identifiable community space, unfettered by any chain stores excepting the 7-11 at the extreme end of the road.

It’s easy, and somewhat lazy, to long for the simpler ‘old days’ of local community; this is often a mask for xenophobia and a resentment of equal rights for all members of society. And yet, Tomio-san and the shoutengai can’t help make you wonder, how much has been lost. We all sense that pressing a few buttons and ordering anything from anywhere, instantaneously, is deeply seductive. However the increasing loss of daily human interaction is something unprecedented for human beings, the consequences of which can also be seen in Japan among the estimated one-million ‘shut ins’, people whose entire life is spent alone, mostly online.

It’s not the cure for such social ills, but the local shoutengai, with it’s slow, predictable repetitions and daily communication can help fight off the creeping isolation of the modern world. Shopping in an sterile department store or ordering all your weekly groceries (these days fully cooked meals) online is convenient, but so cold and impersonal, to say nothing of the the disastrous effect online shopping has had on local commerce.

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Watching Tomio-san smile and joke with the kids as he sells them candy, counting up purchases on his abacus, I’m reminded of Jose Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’. The lead character, the potter Cipriano Algor, works hard to maintain his livelihood in the modern world, making by hand what can be mass produced for much less expense at a monolithic new entity called The Center. Like Algor, Tomio-san is an anomaly, a relic of a Japan that is vanishing before our eyes. Hopefully the urban shoutengai can fight off extinction for another generation.
James Catchpole is a 20 year resident of Japan. He runs tokyojazzsite.com, a website devoted to the bountiful jazz cafe and bar scene in the Tokyo Metro Area.

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