Japan from the inside out

Mom & pop shops in Japan and South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 28, 2008

THREE WEEKS AGO, we had a post describing South Korean Prof. Che Kei-ho’s defense of the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula. The professor incorporated in his argument the unenlightened attitude of the Joseon Dynasty rulers, whom he said were anti-progress, anti-commerce and industry, and anti-intellectual. Prof. Che maintained that it was inevitable a stronger power would colonize such a backwards place.

This week, a discussion of that same Joseon attitude popped up in an unexpected source in which an entirely different point was being made. That source was Nihonjin to Kankokujin: Naruhodo Jiten, a book consisting of short articles two or three pages in length written for a Japanese audience. These articles compare and contrast daily life and customs in the two countries.

One article contained a discussion about small shopkeepers, particularly for eating and drinking places. The authors paint with a broad brush, of course, but their explanation of why most of those shops in South Korea are operated by women instead of men, as is usually the case in Japan, is interesting in light of Prof. Che’s lecture. Here’s a summary/translation of that article.


“The shops (in South Korea) are left to the wife, while the mainstream conservative husbands get to do whatever they like. Yet seldom do their wives and children criticize the men for their behavior. This is perhaps due to the lingering influence of the system of paternal authority, or the old concept of respecting men and demeaning women (danson johi in Japanese), but the prestige of the man as the head of the household is maintained. That the women’s efforts have been successful enough to allow the families to buy their own homes can only be a source of envy for Japanese men, who often have to work like dogs in the same circumstances.

“Of course, not all Korean families that operate successful and profitable shops have a man lying in front of the TV set all day. But the idea that the shop would be very profitable if the husband were to cooperate and apply himself to the business is how the Japanese think. Those shops (in Korea) where the husband is enthusiastic about the business are successful in their own way. But the reason most men are not interested in doing that sort of work has its origins in an old Korean attitude that has been handed down to the present.

“There is an old tradition in Korea that commerce is an ignoble occupation. This attitude of the privileged classes who controlled the Joseon Dynasty filtered down to the common people. That’s why some still consider the sight of a man in an apron welcoming customers to the shop to be unseemly.

“It’s a different story with larger enterprises. It’s perfectly acceptable for men who owns a restaurant chain with several outlets to stand in a suit and greet the customers. That’s an upgrade in rank from petty commerce to business enterprise, and from shop proprietor to company president. Japanese find it difficult to understand, but there’s a wide, unbridgeable chasm between petty commerce and a business enterprise in South Korea.

“One exception in Korea are those people who lost their jobs due to corporate restructuring in the late 90s and opened a small shop with the intent of turning them into a larger business enterprise. Those men did wear aprons and toil in front of the stove.

“This historical background is the same reason there are few shinise (Japanese for long-established shops) in Korea that boast of having been in business for decades or centuries. Most parents would rather see their sons succeed in a large business enterprise than hand over a shop to them. In contrast, a Korean is likely to be puzzled by Japanese shop owners who are proud of their unbroken line of succession. Some might think the only reason the current shop owner is operating the business is because he lacks the talent to do something better.

“Of course, we cannot overlook the Japanese colonial control of Korea and the Korean War as factors for the lack of shinise. These two factors cut Koreans off from the economy and industry that existed previous to them. While it’s not unusual to find shops in Japan that have existed since the Edo period (1603-1868), it would have been difficult in Korea for shops from that era to continue to operate even if the proprietors wanted to.

“Since the end of the Korean War, the attitude in Korea toward shinise has started to change. As society has become more affluent, people are starting to appreciate such things as “traditional flavor”.

“Perhaps the day that the “heavy hips” of the men of the house grow lighter is also not far off.”


If the article’s positive tone and the lack of nationalistic or ethnocentric propaganda are not what you were led to expect by what you’ve heard or read elsewhere, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s typical of the contemporary Japanese attitude toward South Korea.

2 Responses to “Mom & pop shops in Japan and South Korea”

  1. Ken said

    There is an old tradition to dispise not only commerce but also working with sweating itself.
    They contempt steady accumulation and are solely interested in such vanity as the order of final-assembled products.
    That is why their goods are spoken ill of as follws.

  2. Ken said

    “This historical background is the same reason there are few shinise (Japanese for long-established shops) in Korea that boast of having been in business for decades or centuries.”

    As they cannot succede a certain biz over generations, one of them ripped off not only brand but also the foundation year as follows.

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