Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Crossing Thresholds

In his December 1928 essay, “The Sociology of Department Store Customs,” the architect and “modernologist” Kon Wajirō (1888-1973) discussed the results of the survey he conducted with his students at Mitsukoshi on November 25 of the same year (Kon 1972). Kon begins:

I want to introduce contemporary urban customs in a way that will interest people. An editor (for Women's Friend) suggested that I describe what it is like “inside a department store.” So I must recount what we saw as bystanders-as objective observers-phenomena such as which people crowd into the store, and what is it like floor by floor with different kinds of counters (Kon 1972, 227).

That Sunday afternoon Kon had his students station themselves outside key exits of the central Nihombashi store branch to take careful notes on the genders, ages, hairstyles, clothing, and groupings of customers who left during a half-hour period. As a result, Kon and his students compiled an illuminating sketch of Mitsukoshi customers in the 1920s. Kon also briefly discussed past and future trends.

While a one-day survey could only yield very limited results, in the absence of other such studies, this data was invaluable. In the gallery on this page, sample portions of the diagrams from Kon's essay are available for your examination, annotated for non-Japanese speakers. How does the attention paid by Kon and his team to people and their movements create a sense of space?

You might start by considering where Kon and his students mostly set themselves up: at store entrances. These crucial boundaries between exterior and interior were relatively egalitarian sites: no matter which floor was one’s destination, one had to pass through these gateways. At the same time, the data gathered on clothing and hair styles helps populate the store floors for us in a way that most photographs from the time did not. We learn that Mitsukoshi was less of a female preserve than its counterparts in Europe and the United States, with the numbers of men and women roughly equal. While both children and older people were present, the most common age bracket for customers was the mid- to late twenties. Visitors also tended to be middle to upper class, though not exclusively so. Both Western and Japanese fashions were well represented among all customers, with men more likely to be wearing suits and women more likely to be wearing kimono. Seventy-five percent of the shoppers that day entered as individuals, while the remaining twenty-five percent were mostly in small rather than large groups. On the one hand, the data gathered by Kon and his team indicate that Mitsukoshi had successfully constructed an environment to attract a highly desirable—fashionable and well-heeled—demographic. On the other, the range of people who visited the retailer nudged it further along the path of blending social stratification with egalitarianism, Western wonder and Japanese custom, in the quest for broad appeal.

Kon also contributed an essay, “Prohibitions against Luxury Goods and Clothing Trends,” to the journal Mitsukoshi in 1940. It begins:

As Japanese subjects, everyone must labor at their workplaces for the sake of the war. For this reason, we should not fall prey to the notion that the household economy is only about consumption and therefore in contrast to production. Believing that one's way of life (seikatsu) must orient itself only toward production, and that it is wrong to enjoy consumption for the sake of consumption, as when something is beautiful: these are [only] recent developments.

You might keep in mind the issues raised by Kon when you examine other wartime materials in this and other modules.

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