Tokyo is the poster child for all that’s good and bad about consumer society. On the upside, the Japanese capital boasts of one of the world’s most exciting retail industries with shopping districts like Ginza and Shibuya famous for starting global fashion trends. Akihabara, another familiar retail district, is a well-known incubator of the latest technology, a testing ground for companies like Nintendo and Sony which seed the area with prototypes before releasing new products in the market.
So influential is Tokyo in the global retail industry that trend watchers from all over the world routinely descend on the city to observe the fast-moving fads that emanate, almost organically, from neighborhoods as diverse as Harajuku, where teenage fashionistas converge on weekends, to hipster havens like Daikanyama. All too often, what kids in Tokyo buy today eventually end up on runways and showrooms around the world a full year later.
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But Tokyo’s hyper-consumerism and throwaway culture have their obvious downsides: waste. The concept of the hyaku-en shappu, literally “everything for a dollar” shops, is a uniquely Japanese invention. The cheap, mostly plastic stuff sold in these stores are meant to be disposable, thrown away instantly after use. All this waste generated by the insatiable Japanese consumer ends up in landfills across the country or as pre-owned junk sold in thrift shops in developing countries.
It’s no longer just the environmentalists that are taking notice. All across the nation, and especially in Tokyo, a new type of consumer is rising and voting with their yen. The clamor is for more sustainable and responsible consumption and for products that are better made—handmade, in fact. It’s partly a nostalgic reaction, or perhaps just another trend for all things vintage. But the interest in monozukuri, the art, science and craft of making things by hand, is here to stay…and growing.
One of the first Japanese brands to identify and cash in on this movement was MUJI, a name which when translated, literally stands for “no brand quality goods.” The Japanese company employs a counterintuitive approach to trends and branding with no logos on their products, an emphasis on basic, minimalistic designs, and an environmentally sustainable manufacturing process. Founded in the 1980s, MUJI’s business model was a novelty at best, an anomaly at worst, at least in the Japan of that day. In the decades after World War II, the country produced everything it consumed while exporting its surplus—mostly, electronics, watches, and cars—to the rest of the world.
In the boom years of the 70s and 80s however, Japan Inc. began abandoning light manufacturing in favor of heavy industry and the nascent hi-tech business. The products once manufactured in small workshops in the country were eventually offshored to the rest of Asia, leaving local artisans to compete with cheaper imports. The property bubble was an even more cruel development for small- and medium-scale enterprises, many owned by generations of artisans and craftsmen. With rents skyrocketing in downtown Tokyo, most were forced to move away from the center of the city or close shop altogether.
The retail landscape that emerged in the aftermath of the property bubble and the era of outsourcing is still in place today: centrally located shopping districts dedicated to big brands with the financial muscle to build stores or lease space, or small independent companies that cater to upscale consumers willing to shoulder the higher profit margins that help pay the rent and high cost of Japanese labor.
But all that is quietly changing in Tokyo. Independent brands that peddle the handcrafted are appearing with more regularity all over the city. In the early part of the millennium, these were mostly relegated to hipster neighborhoods on the fringes of Daikanyama and Meguro. But, in recent years, many of these establishments have set up shop in more mainstream shopping districts. The store Pass the Baton in the basement of the upscale Omotesando Hills Mall along the tony Omotesando-dori is a good example of how consumers are rediscovering the integrity of vintage and handcrafted products of yesteryears.
As the shop name suggests, all items are pre-owned, from elegant silk scarves to vintage handbags to one-of-a-kind curio items and rare ephemera. It’s like a thrift shop for the rich, but the well-curated and valuable pieces are a cut above anything you’d find even in the famous flea markets of Paris. At Pass the Baton, well-heeled customers come not only to buy, but to trade in their pre-owned valuables as well.
Establishments like Pass the Baton prove that Tokyo’s post-consumer class is no longer comprised solely of hardcore environmentalists and countercultural activists. Young urban professionals are increasingly at the forefront of the new consumer movement, many of whom are shunning Main Street in favor of alternative retail hubs such as Maach Ecute in the former Manseibashi train station in Kanda, in the heart of downtown Tokyo.
The converted station is part of an urban regeneration project that has so far resisted the temptation to host the usual chain stores and fast food establishments found in most new developments in Tokyo. Instead, the 11 establishments housed within the arches of the elegant, red-brick structure along the Kanda River belong to a new breed of small, independent retailers. The Obscura Coffee Roasters is one of the growing number of so-called third wave coffee shops that source their beans directly from small farmers around the world and roast these on site. Their first outlet in Maach is a refreshing alternative to the ubiquitous Starbucks and Doutour chain of coffee shops found in the Kanda neighborhood.
At the opposite end of the converted station is Fukumori, an all-day diner-cum-café that specializes in healthy and organic food sourced from farms in Yamagata Prefecture. The shop overlooking the Kanda River also sells books, tableware, and home interiors made in Japan. The rest of the stores and restaurants at Maach Ecute share the same independent streak and post-consumerist ethic with an emphasis on product quality, sustainability, and close ties to the community.
In Tokyo, where prime real estate is usually reserved for only the biggest players, the support provided by developers to independent establishments signifies an important shift in attitudes within the retail sector and a welcome change for local consumers seeking the quality of products of a bygone era.
Pass the Baton Omotesando Hills west B2, 4-12-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo Maach Ecute 1-25-4 Kanda Suda-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Photographs by David Celdran
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014