In the West, people seem to prefer to keep the business of buying and selling separate from their aesthetic pleasures. In Japanese consumer culture, by contrast, it has for decades been established practice for shopping to go hand in hand with art. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, department stores in Japan have set up exhibition spaces within their premises as an extra attraction to entice customers to cross their thresholds. The development was part of the evolution that they underwent from their distant origins as kimono shops—the stores, as elsewhere, gradually transcending their original commercial function, and assuming a new and wider role as monuments to urban modernity. Like Bon Marché in Paris, the Tokyo stores would become ‘a permanent fair, an institution, a fantasy world, a spectacle of extraordinary proportions, so that going to the store became an event and an adventure’.footnote1 Not only were they sites—that is, loci—of consumption, but sights—spectacles—of consumption, too.footnote2 Here the Meiji period’s preoccupation with Westernization was given concrete form—in the ornate Renaissance-style buildings constructed to house the stores, as well as in the large variety of foreign goods on display for sale.

Being sites of a spectacle of Westernization—an imagined West, of course, infused and conflated with Japanese values, rather than a real one—Tokyo stores could, from the beginning, encourage consumption by associating it with images of quality and prestige. The status accorded to foreign goods was such that they immediately took precedence, in terms of visibility and glamour, over domestic products. Theatricality and appearance, the marketing of an image, were to become an integral part of selling practices. The package on offer included not only displays of merchandise designed to dazzle the eye, but also music, drama and other cultural events, art exhibitions, mini-zoos, roof gardens with panoramic views of Tokyo, hot houses, Shinto shrines, bandstands, huts for tea ceremonies and pergolas, not to mention in-house magazines, advertising campaigns and a whole range of other innovations. With the cultivation of the new consumerism went the promotion of a whole lifestyle.footnote3

More specific to Japan was the birth of the terminal depato. In 1929 the Hankyu Railway Company founded the prototype in its Osaka Umeda Station, heralding not only a new form of shopping, but a wholesale reorganization of contemporary urban life in Japan. While earlier department stores had still catered primarily to the more affluent, upper-middle-class clientele that had patronized the kimono shops, the terminal depato was targeted at an emergent middle- or lower-middle class who used the railway terminus as part of their everyday routine. The mass-transit companies who set up these terminal depatos at the end of their lines imitated the promotional styles of the established department stores by providing, for example, hairdressing salons and marriage bureaux, as well as restaurants selling delicacies such as swiss rolls and choux-cream éclairs (which immediately launched a popular new culinary fashion).footnote4 They also built amusement parks to cater for family weekend trips. Housing estates were constructed on land immediately adjacent to the railway lines, with the aim of increasing the number of commuters on their trains.

The ultimate goal of these exercises in social engineering was to facilitate and encourage consumerism—and to attract the passengers into the department stores, strategically situated within the urban rail termini. In this chain of endless consumption, created and sustained by different groups of railway conglomerates, the terminal depato can be seen as a sort of consumerist nirvana, to which every aspect of the daily lives of Tokyo commuters is directed, their every need catered for, and their every desire potentially fulfilled—their ultimate destination, in other words, as well as their time-tabled point of arrival.

Though badly affected by the long economic downturn, the terminal depatos once housed some of the best examples of department-store art galleries in Japan. Anyone visiting Tokyo for the first time during the economic bubble of the 1980s would immediately have become aware that any self-respecting store had to have its own ‘culture hall’—whether a modestly sized display area or a more ambitious museum, with full-time curators and professionally organized exhibitions.

Whatever their size, these were nearly always located at the top of the department stores. This was designed to facilitate what the Japanese call the shower effect—the process whereby, once the visitors have been enticed up to see the art-works on the top floor, they can be counted upon to come down to the lower levels to spend their money.footnote5 There were few exceptions to this ergonomic rule, and in the rare cases where galleries were located either on the ground floor level of the store or in an adjacent building, the route to the store itself was prominently signposted. How much this ‘shower effect’ actually contributed to the commercial turnover of the stores is, however, unknown. A substantial number of free entrance tickets to exhibitions were routinely given away in order to encourage people to visit the stores via their galleries. Few statistics exist outside the stores’ own private records to allow any conclusions to be drawn on what, if any, commercial benefits accrued from the display of art-works, although an insider estimated that sales increased by some 20 per cent when an exhibition was being held.footnote6

But as with other forms of corporate intervention in the art world, direct monetary return is not the businesses’ ultimate concern. The true reward of running a gallery is far less tangible but no less real: the enhancement of the patron’s social image. One of the most successful examples of this is the Seibu Museum—‘the Mecca of Modern Art’, according to one critic.footnote7 Operated by the Seibu Saison Group and located at its Ikebukuro terminus department store, the Seibu Museum was, when it opened its doors in 1975, the first with its own full-time curatorial staff ever to be run by a department store. So unique was it, indeed, that the Museum was to become the backbone of the group’s entire image strategy. Some idea of how crucial this was for the group can be gauged from the fact that its ceo, Tsutsumi Seiji, actually took personal charge of the store’s entire publicity department. The reason for this was that the reputation of the Seibu Department Store had suffered a great deal since its opening in 1952—first and foremost because the Ikebukuro district, in northwest Tokyo, along with the area covered by the Seibu Ikebukuro railway lines, were considered working-class backwaters populated predominantly by poorer country people. The floors of the Seibu store were said to be ‘spattered with mud from the clogs and straw sandals of lower-class shoppers from the countryside’.footnote8