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Alice M. Bacon:
How Japanese Ladies Go Shopping, 1890

THERE are in Japan a few great merchants whose word may be trusted, and whose obligations will be fulfilled with absolute honesty; but a large part of the buying and selling is still in the hands of mercantile freebooters, who will take an advantage wherever it is possible to get one, in whose morality honesty has no place, and who have not yet discovered the efficacy of that virtue simply as a matter of policy. Their trade, conducted in a small way upon small means, is more of the nature of a game, in which one person is the winner and the other the loser, than a fair exchange, in which both parties obtain what they want. It is the medieval, not the modern idea of business, that is still held among Japanese merchants. With them, trade is a warfare between buyer and seller, in which every man must take all possible advantage for himself, and it is the lookout of the other party if he is cheated.

In Tokyo, the greatest and most modernized of the cities of the empire, the shops are not the large city stores that one sees in European and American cities, but little open-fronted rooms, on the edge of which one sits to make one's purchases, while the proprietor smiles and bows and dickers; setting his price by the style of his customer's dress, or her apparent ignorance of the value of the desired article. Some few large dry-goods stores there are, where prices are set and dickering is unnecessary; and in the kwankoba, or bazaars, one may buy almost anything needed by Japanese of all classes, from house furnishings to foreign hats, at prices plainly marked upon them, and from which there is no variation. But one's impression of the state of trade in Japan is, that it is still in a very primitive and undeveloped condition, and is surprisingly behind the other parts of Japanese civilization.

The shopping of the ladies of the large yashikis and of wealthy families is done mostly in the home; for all the stores are willing at any time, on receiving an order, to send up a clerk with a bale of crepes, silks, and cottons tied to his back, and frequently towering high above his head as he walks, making him look like the proverbial ant with a grain of wheat. He sets his great bundle carefully down on the floor, opens the enormous furushiki, or bundle handkerchief, in which it is enveloped, and takes out roll after roll of silk or chintz, neatly done up in paper or yellow cotton. With infinite patience, he waits while the merits of each piece are examined and discussed, and if none of his stock proves satisfactory, he is willing to come again with a new set of wares, knowing that in the end purchases will be made sufficient to cover all his trouble.

The less aristocratic people are content to go to the stores themselves; and the business streets of a Japanese city, such as the Ginza inTokyo, are full of women, young and old, as well as merry children, who enjoy the life and bustle of the stores. Like all things else in Japan, shopping takes plenty of time. At Mitsui's, the largest silk store in Tokyo, one will see crowds of clerks sitting upon the matted floors, each with his soroban, or adding machine, by his side; and innumerable small boys, who rush to and fro, carrying armfuls of fabrics to the different clerks, or picking up the same fabrics after the customer who has called for them has departed. The store appears, to the foreign eye, to be simply a roofed and matted platform upon which both clerks and customers sit. This platform is screened from the street by dark blue cotton curtains or awnings hung from the low projecting eaves of the heavy roof. As the customers take their seats, either on the edge of the platform, or, if they have come on an extended shopping bout, upon the straw mat of the platform itself, a small boy appears with tea for the party; an obsequious clerk greets them with the customary salutations of welcome, pushes the charcoal brazier toward them, that they may smoke, or warm their hands, before proceeding to business, and then waits expectantly for the name of the goods that his customers desire to see. When this is given, the work begins; the little boys are summoned, and are soon sent off to the great fireproof warehouse, which stands with heavy doors thrown open, on the other side of the platform, away from the street. Through the doorway one can see endless piles of costly stuffs stored safely away, and from these piles the boys select the required fabric, loading themselves down with them so that they can barely stagger under the weights that they carry. As the right goods are not always brought the first time, and as, moreover, there is an endless variety in the colors and patterns in even one kind of silk, there is always plenty of time for watching the busy scene, for sipping tea, or smoking a few whiffs from the tiny pipes that so many Japanese, both men and women, carry always with them.

When the purchase is at last made, there is still some time to be spent by the customer in waiting until the clerk has made an abstruse calculation upon his soroban, the transaction has been entered in the books of the firm, and a long bill has been written and stamped, and handed to her with the bundle. During her stay in the store, the foreign customer, making her first visit to the place, is frequently startled by loud shouts from the whole staff of clerks and small boys, outcries so sudden, so simultaneous, and so stentorian, that she cannot rid herself of the idea that something terrible is happening every time that they occur. She soon learns, however, that these manifestations of energy are but the way in which the Japanese merchant speeds the departing purchaser, and that the apparently inarticulate shouts are but the formal phrase, "Thanks for your continued favors," which is repeated in a loud tone by every employee in the store whenever a customer departs. When she herself is at last ready to leave, a chorus of yells arises, this time for her benefit; and as she skips into the jinrikisha and is whirled away, she hears continued the busy hum of voices, the clattering of sorobans, the thumping of the bare feet of the heavily laden boys, and the loud shouts of thanks with which departing guests are honored.

There is less pomp and circumstance about the smaller stores, for all the goods are within easy reach, and the shops for household utensils and chinaware seem to have nearly the whole stock in trade piled up in front, or even in the street itself. Many such little places are the homes of the people who keep them. And at the back are rooms which serve for dwelling-rooms, opening upon well-kept gardens. The whole work of the store is often attended to by the proprietor, assisted by his wife and family, and perhaps one or two apprentices. Each of the workers, in turn, takes an occasional holiday, for there is no day in the Japanese calendar when the shops are all closed; and even NewYear's Day, the great festival of the year, finds most of the stores open. Yet the dwellers in these little homes, living almost in the street, and in the midst of the bustle and crowd and dust of Tokyo, have still time to enjoy their holidays and their little gardens, and have more pleasure and less hard work than those under similar circumstances in our own country.

The stranger visiting any of the great Japanese cities is surprised by the lack of large stores and manufactories, and often wonders where the beautiful lacquer work and porcelains are made, and where the gay silks and crepes are woven. There are no large establishments where such things are turned out by wholesale. The delicate vases, the bronzes, and the silks are often made in humblest homes, the work of one or two laborers with rudest tools. There are no great manufactories to be seen, and the bane of so many cities, the polluting factory smoke, never rises over the cities of Japan. The hard, confining factory life, with its never ceasing roar of machinery, bewildering the minds and intellects of the men who come under its deadening influences, until they become scarcely more than machines themselves, is a thing as yet almost unknown in Japan. The life of the jinrikisha man even, hard and comfortless as it may seem to run all day like a horse through the crowded city streets, is one that keeps him in the fresh air, under the open sky, and quickens his powers both of body and mind. To the poor in Japanese cities is never denied the fresh air and sunshine, green trees and grass; and the beautiful parks and gardens are found everywhere, for the enjoyment of even the meanest and lowest.

On certain days in the month, in different sections of the city, are held night festivals near temples, and many shopkeepers take the opportunity to erect temporary booths, in which they so arrange their wares as to tempt the passers-by as they go to and fro. Very often there is a magnificent display of young trees, potted plants, and flowers, brought in from the country and ranged on both sides of the street. Here the gardeners make lively sales, as the displays are often fine in themselves, and show to a special advantage in the flaring torchlight. The eager venders, who do all they can to call the attention of the crowd to their wares, make many good bargains. The purchase requires skill on both sides, for flower men are proverbial in their high charges, asking often five and ten times the real value of a plant, but coming down in price almost immediately on remonstrance. You ask the price of a dwarf wistaria growing in a pot. The man answers at once, "Two dollars." ATwo dollars!" you answer in surprise; "it is not worth more than thirty or forty cents." "Seventy-five, then," he will respond; and thus the buyer and seller approach nearer in price, until the bargain is struck somewhere near the first price offered. Price another plant and there would be the same process to go over again; but as the evening passes, prices go lower and lower for the distances that the plants have been brought are great, and the labor of loading up and carrying back the heavy pots is a weary one, and when the last customer has departed the merchants must work late into the night to get their wares safely home again.

But besides the flower shows, there are long rows of booths, which, with the many visitors who throng the streets, make a gay and lively scene. So dense is the crowd that it is with difficulty one can push through on foot or in jinrikisha. The darkness is illuminated by torches, whose weird flames flare and smoke in the wind, and shine down upon the little sheds which line both sides of the road, and contain so tempting a display of cheap toys and trinkets that not only the children, but their elders, are attracted by them. Some of the booths are devoted to dolls; others to toys of various kinds; still others to birds in cages, goldfish in globes, queer chirping insects in wicker baskets, pretty ornaments for the hair, fans, candies, and cakes of all sorts, roasted beans and peanuts, and other things too numerous to mention. The long line of stalls ends with booths or tents, in which shows of dancing, jugglery, educated animals, and monstrosities, natural or artificial, may be seen for the moderate admission fee of two sen. Each of these shows is well advertised by the beating of drums, by the shouting of doorkeepers, by wonderful pictures on the outside to entice the passer-by, or even by an occasional brief lifting of the curtains which veil the scene from the crowd without, just long enough to afford a tantalizing glimpse of the wonders within. Great is the fascination to the children in all these things, and the little feet are never weary until the last booth is passed, and the quiet of neighboring streets, lighted only by wandering lanterns, strikes the home-returning party by its contrast with the light and noise of the festival. The supposed object of the expedition, the visit to the temple, has occupied but a small share of time and attention, and the little hands are filled with the amusing toys and trifles bought, and the little minds with the merry sights seen. Nor are those who remain at home forgotten, but the pleasureseekers who visit the fair carry away with them little gifts for each member of the family, and the O miage, or present given on the return, is a regular institution of Japanese home life.

By ten o'clock, when the crowds have dispersed and the purchasers have all gone home and gone to bed, the busy booth-keepers take down their stalls, pack up their wares, and disappear, leaving no trace of the night's gayeties to greet the morning sun.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 399-406.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998

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