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

Modeling Consumption

Even though Kon Wajirō's research team found that the numbers of male and female customers were roughly equal, an evolution in Mitsukoshi's model type reveals the retailer's desire to identify the store as a space configured specifically for women. Before and during the transformation of Mitsukoshi into a Western-style department store, the retailer frequently employed popular geisha as models for its latest textile patterns or to draw attention to an upcoming event (Hatsuda 1993, Aso 2014). These women were chosen for their ability to attract male attention, which made sense in the early modern period, when the majority of its customers were, in fact, men. However, as Mitsukoshi cemented its identity by the 1910s, it turned to a new kind of model, one intended to attract women (as well as men).

Instead of geisha, the recurring image in posters and other forms of advertisement was a woman portrayed as a Mitsukoshi customer. Generally, these women were young matrons shown at leisure, perhaps reading or playing music, in gorgeously appointed households, or in transit, waiting for a subway or walking on a street, on the way to or from Mitsukoshi. In short, these models were aspirational figures.

The store space itself was also explicitly designed to invite female customers in their role as household managers, offering children’s fairs, model rooms, an elegant dining hall and resting areas, and more. In contrast, European and American department stores targeted women as individuals (Abelson 1989). A Mitsukoshi representative sent abroad in 1932 was struck by how heavily tilted the gender ratios for Western department store customers were: “Parisian department store customers are 99 percent adult women, with very few male customers. About the only time one sees children brought along or the family as a group like in Japan is during Christmas sales” (Hatsuda 1993, 115-16). While Western department stores employed floor detectives to catch individual customers so overcome with desire that they fell prey to the temptation to shoplift, Japanese department stores were able to put in place an exhibitionary self-regulation regime by attracting families (Yoshimi 1992). The household, in this context characterized by female leadership and not by female isolation, would keep an eye on itself to uphold respectability.

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