Japan from the inside out

From chin-don in Nagoya to the Passage Choiseul in Paris

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 24, 2008

REGULAR VISITORS know that we sure love us some chin-don music at Ampontan. In fact, there’s a post about halfway down the page about Tchindon, a new French film in which the key element is this musical style/instrumentation/manner of presentation.

The musicians in the movie are played by the Adachi Sendensha group, but there are plenty of other working bands in the country that could have just as easily stepped into their shoes. Another important outfit is the Osaka-based Chin-Don Tsushinsha. Rather than being a single band, they seem to consist of a larger contingent of musicians that splits up and travels to different sites. How else is a band supposed to play 700 gigs a year?

As you can see from their English page (pdf), their calling card is their PR potential rather than their musical skills. That’s not to say they can’t play; it’s just that publicizing commercial establishments is how they make a living.

But in addition to their ability to attract customers, they also have the musical chops. They’ve taken first place 10 times in the annual national chin-don championships in Toyama, and performed overseas 22 times.

Their Japanese-language website has a link to a YouTube video of one of their performances in Osu, Nagoya, at a commercial fair this fall. Here it is, and it’s a classic!

And that reminds me!

The street scene in this video is of a typical Japanese shotengai, or pre-shopping mall-era urban shopping and service cores. These permanent commercial districts are packed with streets of shops; they could be just as easily be described with the words marketplace, bazaar, or souk.

As in the district shown in the video, some of the streets in the shotengai are open, but most of the area is occupied by a shopping arcade or gallery covered by iron beams with hard translucent plastic sheets that admit light and keep out the rain. That’s also the case with this neighborhood in Osu, as I confirmed after a bit of scouting around on the web.

I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do a post about the shotengai for a while now. For one thing, they’re unlike anything I saw in the U.S., where retail commerce has become increasingly mall-dominated. I grew up not far from a small American-style shopping arcade, but unlike its Japanese counterparts, it wasn’t as open to the outside, nor did the shop proprietors live on the premises.

The shotengai in Saga was the social/commercial center of the city when I arrived in 1984. The place was always filled with people, even during weekday afternoons, but it was ram jam city on weekend nights in August when they held their commercial fairs. It opened in 1964 and was in its golden age by the time I first saw it. Only a half-hour at most was required to walk around its circumference, but it had everything most people needed: a movie house with five screens; the city’s best grocery store, bookstore, record store, and Chinese restaurant; a French pastry shop operated by a man who learned his trade in Paris; the best drinking establishment I’ve ever patronized, and a coffee shop with more jazz LPs than a record company warehouse.

But the increased ownership and use of automobiles and the amendment of the Large Retail Store Law at American insistence put an end to all that. The American mall culture gained a foothold in my part of Japan about a decade ago and has been growing ever since. Meanwhile, the local shotengai is nearly dead. More than half of the shops have been torn down, and operations have been drastically scaled back at the ones that still exist.

A few of these centers are still thriving. I visited one in Nagasaki a few years ago that was quite crowded late one Sunday afternoon, and the big ones in Fukuoka City are still hale and hearty, particularly the one in Tenjin. (At one end of the shotengai near the Nakasu-Kawabata subway station is a relaxing Shinto shrine with plenty of trees, one of the unexpected pleasures of Japan.)

It’s encouraging to see that this shotengai in Nagoya seems to be doing well, but regardless of the few viable districts that remain, they have permanently lost their predominant position in the commercial life of Japanese cities. It’s a shame, because they were built and operated on a human scale that shopping malls will never have, and they were free of the latter facilities’ contrived, impersonal, and hard plastic edge.

I hadn’t given much thought to how the Japanese developed their concept of shotengai, except to vaguely assume that it had evolved organically. But here’s some serendipity: On the same day I saw the Chin-Don Tsushinsha video and wondered again about the possibility of a post, I stumbled across a reference to French shopping arcades called passages couverts. They were created in Paris in the 1860s and later spread throughout France. Then I searched a bit and found this recent photo by Clicsouris of the Passage Choiseul in that city:


That’s a shotengai, right down to the roof covering and the three-story buildings! (Except that the roof is glass and not plastic.) Double the width of the passageway and change the language on the signs, and that could be any one of hundreds of sites in Japan. The basic idea is obviously the inspiration for the Japanese version that took root and thrived a century later on the other side of the planet.

Now I ask you: Wouldn’t you rather spend your time at place like this–either in France or Japan—than at a shopping mall?

And why did we make that collective choice anyway?

5 Responses to “From chin-don in Nagoya to the Passage Choiseul in Paris”

  1. toranosuke said

    I agree completely about the shotengai. There’s something about the arrangement that feels much more personal, much more traditional and local community oriented. This likely has a lot to do, though, not just with the layout and arrangement of shops, but the content of the shops as well. Line a shotengai with brand name chain stores instead of Mr Tanaka’s vegetable stand, Ms Watanabe’s shoe shop and Mr Hara’s sushiya, and it’ll feel a lot like a shopping mall.

    I love shotengai; in particular, the Yokohama-bashi Shotengai in Yokohama-shi Minami-ku, where I used to live. And I don’t want to see them vanish!

  2. ampontan said

    Toranosuke: The one in Saga had two “anchor stores” that were local or regional chains (one was a Daiei), but the rest were all the mom-and-pop stores you talk about.

    Thinking about the Daiei reminded me there was actually a disco two doors down called Jack and Betty’s!

    And a 30-second walk out the back door of one of the supermarkets brought you to a small produce shop (of the type where you could stand in front and see what they were watching on TV in the living room two rooms away). They had customers and stayed in business despite selling stuff that you could buy in the supermarket next door.

  3. Roy Berman said

    I don’t have any historical data, but shoutengai seem to be still be doing fairly well around Kyoto, and Osaka is shoutengai central. Even with all the recent development around Umeda you can still walk about a block away and find yourself in a rather huge shoutengai complex just to the east, and there are quite a few others around the city and prefecture.

  4. ampontan said

    RB: It might be that they might be doing poorly outside the big cities. A lot of politicians are complaining about the “shuttered streets of the shotengai” in regional areas. I’ve only visited Osaka and not lived there, but it might be that there are going to be a lot of people coming to Umeda anyway for the other shopping opportunities (assuming people still use those department stores) and the private railroads, which makes access easy. (There was very little parking near the Saga shotengai, while there is plenty at the two malls close to me.)

    Tenjin in Fukuoka might be similar (it’s the main station for Nishitetsu). The shotengai areas are still doing well (on weekends anyway) but there are a lot of other urban shopping opportunities there too. That includes the single, semi-high-rise type facilities that are basically vertical malls, which are in the US too.

  5. I like this type of shopping street. I visited one near Asakusa. They have a lot of energy and activity. But I also admit that I like visiting the nice, clean, indoor malls as well. In the US, the traditional indoor mall you mentioned is actually not as popular. Outdoor open air urban or downtown like malls are becoming more popular.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: