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Legacies: A Tokyo Shopping Street In Transition (Part 1)

Walking out of the South Exit of Nishi-Ogikubo station one immediately notices a small shopping arcade across the plaza. For over four decades, in the left corner shop there used to be a fruit shop where commuters would stop to buy gifts for people they were visiting, to treat family members, or to impress a pretty hostess at one of the small bars near the station. Now this prime location is occupied by a cellphone sales shop. The values of a society change, and so do the spaces and practices that actualize those values. Where gifts of fruit once maintained social ties, they are now maintained digitally. The other valuable spaces in this arcade are also changing, reflecting the changing social relations in this community.

The covered arcade is called the Nakadori Shopping Street. Though perhaps one of the least impressive of the many covered arcades along the Chuo Line, some of its structures actually date back to the 1930s when it was first built. (Though the Station opened in 1922, the South Exit was constructed in 1938.) With the famous pink elephant hanging from its rafters, it is now the symbolic heart of Nishiogi. Yet, according to many rumors, it is now threatened by redevelopment and by a long-term plan to broaden the street all the way from Ome Highway to Itsukaichi Highway, the two main East-West roads connecting Suginami District to the city center since the Edo period. This would almost certainly mean the end of the arcade as we know it.

We were wanting to learn more about the redevelopment, the broadening of the street and the history of the neighborhood, so we interviewed two community veterans. One is Mr. Kobayashi Masatoshi, whose family long ran that fruit shop at the very entrance of the arcade in front of the station. The other is Mr. Tada Hiroaki, whose family has long operated the Auckland jeans shop, in front of which the pink elephant has hung since 1951.


First, we talked to Kobayashi, who heads the Nakadori Merchants Association (shōtengai) as well as the Association of Merchants Associations, an umbrella group for all the twenty-three merchants' associations of the neighborhood. “The Nakadori Association includes thirty-five or thirty-six shops from the plaza in front of the station up to Shinmei Street,” he said.


“I am now seventy-three years old, and I ran a fruit shop there on that corner for forty years. In the past, there was a fruit shop in front of every station. There would be a fruit shop, a Japanese sweets shop, and a cake shop. The reason was that people took the train, and usually, there would be someone they would be meeting when they got off. So they would bring a gift (omiyage). They would buy something at a neighborhood shop when they got on the train, some fruit or a cake. When you would say hello, you would hand over a gift. When a father came back, he would announce he’s home and give the children some fruit or a cake, some kind of souvenir. And if you visited your favorite bar and there was a cute girl you liked there you would buy her a present from one of the shops in the neighborhood. People have since lost this custom.”


“I not only sold fruit but also some vegetables,” Kobayashi said. “And I would also sell some pickles. In the old days, people would send some tangerines back to their families in their home towns or send some apples. Even now some people do that.”


Kobayashi would buy his produce in the wholesale market in Kanda, more precisely Akihabara. The fruit market had been in Kanda since the early Edo period, moving to Akihabara in 1928 after the original market was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake. “I went there for twenty years. It then moved to the Ota market [in 1990] because the parking lot in Kanda was too small. But in the Ota, they sold everything, vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. All sorts of vendors would go there. Even now I go there sometimes. When I want to get a present to someone, or when we have a family party, when I need a big quantity of fish, I go there and get it at the wholesale price. I went to the Ota market for twenty years, so people know my face. I can ask, ‘which one is tasty?’”


His father had started the fruit shop. “I took it over when I was about twenty. I went to Sophia University and my elder brother went to Waseda. I thought that after university I would become a teacher, but my father asked me to take over the business. I couldn't say I didn’t want to do it.”


The merchants association [literally, the “shopping street”/ shōtengai] played an important public function in those days, Kobayashi said, the most visible of which was to participate in temple fairs [mastsuri]. “We would organize the portable shrine parade [mikoshi] at the festival [matsuri],” he said. “And put on fireworks. This was done by the merchants association. When I was an elementary and middle school we would pull the parade wagon and carry the portable shrine. After that, we would wait to get candy. Japan has this kind of cultural tradition. It is not maintained by the district government. A shopping street is a small area, so this kind of activity could bring in customers from a broader area.”


The merchants association also served to create solidarity among its members. There were also trips and events where shopping street association members could share some time with each other, almost always with copious drinking. “We would hold a New Year party or a year-end party to create a place for communication,” Kobayashi said. “Shop owners are usually busy and I don't have time to talk with people at the next shop, because the hours of business differed from store to store. So we would hold a New Year's party, a year-end party, and a general meeting of the shopping district. Sometimes we went on a trip together, to Atami or Izu. We went into the hot springs together, had a drink and talked."


"But now, even in companies, such a year-end party and a new year party are gone. Now I do a year-end party, a new year party, in the shopping street, but we no longer go to a hot spring. I do it locally, at no cost, at one of the shops. When I was the shopping district chairman, we all went to Hokkaido, and before that, we asked if we would like to go to Taiwan, we went to various places, and we were looking forward to it. There were people who did not participate in the event, but about twenty people would join the group. So they talked a lot and understood each other, even sharing personal stories.”


Willow Alley is directly adjacent to Nakadori, but the bars from the Willow Alley bar street didn’t participate, he explained. “But they would participate in the temple festival,” he said. “Even now the girls from the bars have a shrine parade. But because there aren’t so many anymore, about half the girls are part-timers. But they go out in the name of the shopping street.  They do that so people will see, ‘Oh, there are girls in that shopping street.’ And they will go drinking there.”


Kobayashi recalled the Willow Alley a half-century ago as a blue-collar working man’s third space, a place to stop over for some relaxing sociability between home and work. “Back in those days, there were about thirty bars. Each was really small, about three tatamis in area. A cup of coffee was about 50 yen. When the craftsmen [shokunin] would finish work they would drop by for a drink. The craftsmen would finish work at about 5 o’clock, and around 5 or 6 o’clock they would drop by for a drink. There were a lot of carpenters here then. The percentage must have been the largest in the world. Construction companies, road building companies, lots of people working in construction, people working at government offices. So it wasn’t the kind of place you would take someone for a business meeting. It was a place people would stop off in after a day’s work. The customers would recognize one another’s faces. They would get to know each other. There were lots of drinking buddies there.”


Kobayashi recalled that he was late in coming to the drinking scene himself. “Because I was working in the shop, I didn’t start drinking until I was around thirty. Because to make it to the market I would have to leave at 5:30 or 6 am. The auction starts at 7 am. So I had to be at Kanda, or later at Ota, by 7 am. So I had to leave at 6, so I didn’t have time for drinking. If I were out in the morning with a red face, people would have laughed at me. It would have been trouble”


We also interviewed another long-term resident of the shopping street, Mr. Tada Hiroaki, owns the long-established “Jeans’ Shop Auckland” a clothing store. He told us about the shopping street after the war, and his family’s business there.


Auckland has been in its current location since 1951, when his father ran the business. “When my father started it, we were a second-hand clothing store,” he said. “We would buy old clothes from the Americans by the kilo. All sorts of things would come in a big bag, menswear and womenswear mixed together, coats and skirts, all kinds. We hired seamstresses and they would patch it up, and we would wash it, and sell it here. It was an incredible business. We had a villa in Chiba Onjuku and another in Yamagata Zao. And on the other side of the alley, my younger brother had an apartment. My father was a very successful man, he had shops in Otsuka and Okubo on the Yamanote Line. All of the cousins from Yamagata would come and help out.”

“At that time, right after the war, people didn’t have anything to wear. So we would wash it up and fix it, and we would travel all over Japan to these ‘bazaars’ which would be in places like a gymnasium. It was quite profitable. There were a few people doing the importing. At the time I worked a lot with Tsunemi [the company that created Edwin the first jean’s brand in Japan]. They created an import route. We bought it cheap and then we would travel in a truck with a speaker and a recording on open-reel tapes, ‘This is …’ - We were called Tsuruya Trading or the American Shop - and I would spread my goods out on the gymnasium floor. We would sell a huge amount. This was a time when there wasn’t much merchandise to sell.”


As he reminisced about this time of the family’s business success, he showed us photos from 1964 in which the Yokozuna [Japan’s highest-ranked sumo wrestler] Kashiwado Tsuyoshi participated in a sumo match in the garden of their family home in Chiba.


As described by Kobayashi and Tada, the postwar period the shopping street was a lively community space of privately owned shops specializing in goods need for everyday life by community residents, not a place for eating out by commuters as it is today. “In the old days there was a fruit shop,” Tada said, trying to recall some of the old places. “The was a tsukudani shop called Ariaki-ya. It was an old school tsukidani shop and people would line up for it. Then there was a meat shop.”


The turning point according to Kobayashi was when the large supermarkets began appearing, especially Seiyu [which is now controlled by the US Walmart].  This caused people to stop buying their daily necessities in the small shops owned by resident retailers on the shopping street. "Now the number of individually owned, independent shops is decreasing,” Kobayashi said. “The number of young people who train and become independent and open their own shops as in the past is steadily decreasing."


Kobayashi’s former fruit shop occupied one of the prime pieces of real estate in the neighborhood, directly facing the South Exit of Nishi-Ogikubo JR station and is now a cellphone service sales point. Few shops are still owned and managed by the people who own the buildings (and often lived upstairs). “There is still stationery shop,” Kobayashi pointed out as we walked down the arcade. “Then there is the jeans shop and the flower shop. That’s about it. Everything else is rented out.”


“It’s not just Nishiogi,” he said. “In every shopping street, convenience stores and supermarkets have been coming in. The little pharmacies are also disappearing. The futon shops, the geta shops, the shoe shops, then the vegetable shops, the meat shops, the fish shops, all are disappearing. When the Seiyu first opened on the corner where the pachinko is now, back then Seiyu didn’t sell vegetables and fruits. But when it moved [to the other side of the station], it did, and it was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”


It used to be you would buy what you needed in a small number of shops around the neighborhood. Now you buy everything at the supermarket. The disappearance of local shops even impacts the events which lend Nishiogi its reputation as a lively city of independent businesses. This includes the morning market which is held along Shinmei Street every third Sunday of the month from 8 am to 11 am. “This has been going on for thirty years,” Kobayashi said. “But actually only half the businesses who participate in the market are local people. Others are now outsiders. They pay a participation fee.”


Supermarkets are just one institution that is impacting the city. The other is large-scale chain shops. The physical scale of the building stock in Nishiogi still protects it to some extent from the latter, Kobayashi said.  “Chain stores are increasing in Nishiogi,” he said. “But in Nishiogi, relatively speaking, there are many small shop spaces, not many large ones. Many are only five to seven tatami mats in size [8 – 11.5 square meters]. There are great many around 10 tatamis [16.5 square meters]. Chain stores won’t go into a space like that. So there are still many independent individually owned stores in this town.”


Nonetheless, chain shops are definitely increasing in the neighborhood, especially in the Nakadori arcade, including a Family Mart, Doutor Coffee, Tsutaya and several smaller restaurant chains. We asked how the chain shops interact with the merchants association.  It is difficult, Kobayashi admitted. “Some of the people from the chain shops will enter the merchants association,” Kobayashi said. “but they will not participate in activities. The reason for this is that most chain shops only have one full-time employee working there. And part-time employees are not going to participate in activities. When I became the head of the merchant’s association, I asked them to put it into the lease of the people who open a shop, a clause to insist that they join the merchants association. That’s because there was trouble asking them later, I asked them to put this in the lease of the new shops. If you don’t do that, then they will say, ‘I don’t understand, or I didn’t know about this.’ Now, it still is not in the lease, so people from the merchants association have to go invite them to join. ‘Please enter the merchants association.’ But the decision lies with the tenant, and they may say, ‘I can’t afford this.’ Or ‘I’m operating this place just between me and my wife and family, and even if I have some understanding of these activities, I can’t send anyone.’ So they are able to refuse. The monthly membership fee is 4000 yen. When the merchants association gathers this together they are able to use this effectively to sponsor events for everyone to attract customers and increase business. One shop alone can’t do that.”


Still, when Kobayashi described the activities of the association, the meetings sounded a bit old school. “About once a month I hold a meeting of the,” he said. “We talk about events we can plan to make the shopping street more attractive. What can we do to appeal to customers? But people who come to such events have decreased. Many of the tenants now are chain shops. The meetings are at 7 or 8 in the evening, and people operating a restaurant or bar are busy in their places and can’t come. And they can’t send someone who is just a part-time worker. So the merchants association is slowly getting smaller.”

In reality, the transition to chain stores has already overwhelmed the old social order of the shopping arcade. Tada’s old shop Auckland now faces a long row of chain shops on the opposing side of the arcade – a convenience store, a ramen chain, a video rental shop, and so forth. He pointed out to us that the advantages of the chain stores are not just scale but labor policies. “Chain stores hire a lot of people from overseas,” Tada said. “the costs are low. The Family Mart hires Vietnamese. The store manager is Chinese, Wang-san. Wang-san’s Japanese is truly great! Even in China, he must be quite outstanding, even if he has an accent. In the old days, there was another crafty Chinese owner who ran a massage and manicure shop over there. Her Japanese was pretty bad when we went to get the merchants association fee, even though we explained it, she never paid. We explained that it went to the electricity fees for the arcade and such, but she just replied, ‘I don’t understand!’  Wang-san understood everything from the very beginning. He just paid up, and when there are any additional costs, he just says, ‘oh, you all are working hard!’ He is really amazing. He is a full-time employee of Family Mart. It is a company-owned branch. He understands the different ways of Japanese business.”

Tada-san pointed out that the foreign workers have brought some positive changes to the businesses they manage. “The [ramen and Chinese fast-food chain] Hidakaya has a Vietnamese cook,” he said. “The manager is Indian. All the people who work there are Vietnamese or Indian [Nepalese?]. So the portions are much bigger than when the Japanese guy ran the place. Probably they are giving out portions they would give out in their country rather than the small Japanese portions. Some sometimes when I order fried rice, it’s so much, I think, ‘Is this okay?’  It’s that much!” he said laughing.

Some companies only seem to hire Japanese people, he said, including the Doutor coffee chain store and the cellphone shop. And even with all the cheap imported labor, it’s not always easy for chain shops, Tada said. “Tenants frequently change. The rent is high, really high, like 670,000 yen,” he said. In fact, some shops pay up to one million a month, Kobayashi said, and even a very small shop space can be half that. The shopping center directly in front of the station is a valuable property, providing Kobayashi and the other owners of rental properties a very handsome income. Some still live in the neighborhood, but only a few above their stores (or former stores).


Nishiogi is quite different from the neighboring stations of Kichijoji and Ogikubo. There is no adjacent high-rise station building full of commercial rental properties. The area around Nishiogi station is still a fragmented, human-scale commercial district with low-lying small shops and micro-scale drinking places. It has the feel of a Showa-era town center. But this is all changing, as we can see most clearly in this most central commercial street. The increasing visibility and popularity of the neighborhood and rising commercial rents may be harbingers of problems. In Part 2 of this piece, we write about plans for “renovation” and the activities of speculative real estate buyers in the neighborhood. (James Farrer April 15, 2020.)


(Interview with Kobayashi by James Farrer Feb. 10, 2020;  interview with Tada by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura Feb. 19, 2019, and April 4, 2020; Japanese transcription and Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved)

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