The Story Behind the First Modern Department Store in Japan

Echigoya illustrated by Utagawa Hiroshige, a renowned ukiyo-e artist. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Mitsukoshi is widely considered as the first modern department store in Japan. The origin of Mitsukoshi department store can be traced back to 1673, when Mitsui Takatoshi opened echigoya, kimono store, in both Kyoto and Edo[1].

Echigoya pioneered in “ cash sales at fixed prices”, as its 1683 slogan puts it. In 1895, Yoshio Takahashi, a firm believer in Fukuzawa Yukichi’s policy of modernizing Japan, took over Mitsui Gofukuten, the predecessor of Mitsukoshi department store. Inspired by the visit to Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia [2] during his time studying in the United States, Takahashi abolished the zauri system, “where products are not displayed in the stores but instead are stored at the backs, and clerks bring out the products to the customers upon their request”, as Mitsukoshi defines it, and transformed the whole Nihonbashi store into display area in 1900. The innovative spirit is descended to Mitsukoshi’s development in the early 20th century.

The bottom part is an illustration of the zauri system; the upper part is the illustration of the reformed display area in Mitsukoshi. Photo Courtesy: Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi News

In the December of 1904, Mitsukoshi issued ” Department Store Proclamation” to its customers and business partners, and at the beginning of the following year, the proclamation was placed a full-page advertisement in several major newspapers, which marked its official conversion from gofukuten, or traditional Japanese drapery to a modern department store. What is worth noting is that in the proclamation, Mitsukoshi first adopted the term depātoento sutoa[3], or a paronym of the English term, department store, written in Katakana syllabary [4]. Since language is the carrier of ideas, an evolving course of society often pulses with ideas that come with adaptations of new words that had not existed in the society. The adoption of the Western term, depātoento sutoa, signifies Mitsukoshi’s embracement of the western conduct of operations and thus the modern civilization. With the completion of the main building of Nihonbashi main store, which featured a Renaissance-style architecture with the first escalators and elevators in Japan, and lions guarded the main entrance modeled on the lions of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square London in 1914, Mitsukoshi was eventually in line with its Western counterparts.

Overall, Mitsukoshi department store can be viewed as a product of Meiji Restoration to purvey western sociocultural values. It was a commercial institution inscribed with the state motto “civilization and enlightenment” and actively engaged in the symbolic production of cultured life in the early 20th century.

*See my next post to learn more about how a department store engaged in the symbolic production of cultured life in Japan in the early century.

Footnotes:

[1] Edo is the old name of present-day Tokyo. In Edo period (1603 AD to 1868 AD), Japan experienced unprecedented economic growing and urbanization. It was also a golden age for leisure activities, such as theater.

[2] It is one of the first department stores in the United States.

[3] Before the adoption of the term,depātoento sutoa, hyakkaten, which literally means ” hundred goods stores” was widely used to refer to stores like Mitsukoshi.

[4] Katakana is one of the three constituents of the Japanese writing system designed to loaned words of foreign origins.