Bodies and Structures

A New Kind of Consumer Space

Placing People (1)

Reimagining space--how bodies engaged with structures--was the key to the  transformation of Echigoya, a Tokugawa era dry goods store, into Mitsukoshi, pioneering modern department store (百貨店 hyakkaten or デパート depaato) in Japan.    

In the Tokugawa era, customers would wait sitting in an open interior space while a clerk searched out goods to satisfy their needs and tastes. As was and is Japanese custom, customers would take off their outdoor footwear before entering the interior and wear slippers. 

Yet a central aspect of a Western style department store experience was that customers did not have to wait for or depend on clerks for access to commodities.  Rather, they could walk around freely to peruse displays and even to touch some goods. Permitting customers to wear outdoor footwear indoors violated Japanese sensibilities, so it took time and transitional measures to finally arrive at the open access interior taken for granted today.  Some experiments included: sitting at a counter open to the exterior with clerks bringing goods; having a divided interior, one portion reserved for clerks serving customers in the old way, and another for cases that customers could walk around; and having customers switch into slippers to walk around at will among various counters and displays.  The latter practice ended when Mitsukoshi inadvertently misplaced the footgear of a large crowd of customers.

The physical transformation of the retailer was greatly inspired by close study of specific Western department stores, such as Harrods or Bon Marche, and contributed to the growth of a Japanese "exhibitionary complex." This term coined by Tony Bennett points to a set of institutions of exhibition, including expositions and museums as well as department stores, that partnered with institutions of confinement, most famously the panopticon prison.  Bennett argues in a Foucauldian vein that, by promoting seeing as well as enforcing being seen, such institutions instilled an ultimately self-disciplined submission to the dictates of social order. The Meiji state certainly invested heavily in expositions and museums in order to cultivate a sense of mobilization in the newly conceived Japanese nation for industrialization, and later, war. Like department stores, the modern state's exhibition sites dramatically changed the nature of a visit.  Rules of comportment were always posted, so that, for example, drunkenness and dogs were no longer permitted in such public spaces.  If we look at Japanese department stores, expositions, and museums together as a "complex," we can see that their promises of newly expanded access were accompanied by new definitions of appropriate behavior, which were subtly and sometimes unsubtly enforced by the crowd as well as authorities.

For a  basic timeline, Mitsukoshi provides a corporate history spanning the late seventeenth to the twenty-first century.  War and empire, however, do not make much of an appearance in this timeline.  Wikipedia provides a more compartmentalized but detailed account. If you are interested in Japan's exhibitionary complex, I recommend that you explore the National Diet Library's digital presentation, "Expositions." 


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