Local shopping streets in Japan are threatened by the same factors that put small retail businesses in danger all over the world. Economic uncertainty limits consumers’ ability to spend, and individual owners face serious competition from transnational and domestic chain stores, mega-supermarkets, and online shopping. Throughout Japan, shopping streets in small cities are reeling from these pressures. Even in Tokyo, the capital, a city with more than 12 million residents, the number of small retail stores with fewer than five workers fell from 93,000 in 1997 to 63,000 in 2007. These changes shape the dominant Japanese view that local shopping streets are in decline. This view is reinforced by the conservative attitude of many shopkeepers, and especially by the conservative leadership of shopkeepers’ associations on individual streets, some of whom manage family businesses that have lasted for two or three generations.

In this chapter on Tokyo, we will visit two shopping districts with contrasting geographical locations and historical backgrounds. One is Azabu-Juban, a main shopping street with a few commercial side streets which is located just outside Tokyo’s city center and is accessible, since the turn of the twenty-first century, by the Namboku and Oedo subway lines. Azabu Juban has had a long history as a shopping street since the feudal Edo period (1603–1868). Even now, many small retail businesses, some of which opened their doors almost two hundred years ago, sell foods and daily goods to local residents. But on the same streets, and particularly in the adjoining alleys, shoppers looking for high-quality goods find them in tiny, sophisticated, and often costly restaurants and shops. The contrasting shopping district is Shimokitazawa. It is located in a western suburb of Tokyo at the intersection of the Odakyu and Keio Inokashira railroad lines, a short ride from the city center. Built on farmland before the era of the automobile, the complex, irregular tangle of narrow streets and alleys makes it quite difficult for cars to drive into the shopping area. Some businesses sell goods and services that meet the everyday needs of local residents, from grocery and hardware stores to barber shops. But there are also many boutiques, bars, hair salons, and restaurants that cater to hipsters.

Azabu-Juban and Shimokitazawa share an impressive tolerance towards different cultures and tastes. This tolerance creates an authentic public space in the shopping street, which contrasts with the privatization that has become common around the world. While “authenticity” appears to be a very attractive business strategy for these two districts, it needs to do more than represent the past. An “authentic” local shopping street must restate new and multiple cultural narratives, based on changing transnational migrations and adaptations. Agents of globalization know authenticity’s true value. They try to promote “surviving” or even “resisting” streets to the global list of shopping destinations. Azabu-Juban and Shimokitazawa, featured in Time Out, the Michelin Guide, and shopping and entertainment websites, are two successful cases. However, their ability to remain “living” shopping streets depends on whether they are given the opportunity—by developers and government—to remain spontaneous and on a human scale.

Keiro Hattori, Sunmee Kim, and Takashi Machimura

Gallery with photos from Azabu-Juban:

Prof. Takashi Machimura

Sunmee Kim

Prof. Sharon Zukin with president of merchants' association.

Local sweet shop

Low scale of street

AJ Change slide


Click here to view the photos on Flickr


Gallery with photos from Shimokitazawa:

Redevelopment site

Never-Never Land Bar

Music studio

Local shop signs

Entrance to shopping district


Click here to view the photos on Flickr

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