BUY BUY BUY! This is what hits me about Tokyo. A commercial executive’s paradise. An urban mass of noise, light, advertisements, billboards, TV screens, signs, packaging, images assaulting the sensory functions. On first impressions hyper consumerism seems to define this Asian urban hub, particularly in the busy centres of Shibuya, Shinjuku and electronic district Akihabara. Department stores huddle in conference around the Japan Rail and metro stations, shop assistants tout their wares from shop interiors, in some cases amplified by microphones, and shelves are lined with highly packaged goods for the consumer to gape at.
Well this certainly describes my experience within my first week or so in Tokyo, and I promptly stopped lecturing my boyfriend about spending so much money in Japan. After 2 and a half weeks I have managed to gain some sort of control and reined in the purse strings. But I now own an extraordinary number of tights (and pretty they are!) and re-kindled an adolescent passion for stationery (honestly why have I bought so many stickers and notebooks??). And I’ll put this largely down to the sheer quantity of advertising and effort which has been put into design and packaging. One of my weaknesses is unfortunately my susceptibility to well designed packaging (hence many pretty notebooks) and Japan does this well.
The agglomeration of department stores located in and around the train stations lends its advent to real estate development. Many of the commuter train lines are privately owned and tend to bear the same or similar names to department stores since they were designed in order to develop suburbs along the rail routes and connect them to major retail centres at the terminals. A concept first developed in the more southern city of Osaka in 1929.
My travels outside of Tokyo next week will help me determine whether this religion of consumerism is a widespread phenomenon across the country, or just defined to the nation’s capital. However every Japanese guide I have read on cities such as Osaka and Sapporo have a heavy emphasis upon shopping as a major and enticing activity. Of course we can all argue that consumerism is intrinsic to the capitalist and Western mode of living, but as a ‘Westerner’ myself I was struck by the intensity of it in Tokyo.
My next observation-the sheer quantity of packaging and plastic wrapping used in products. Everything is wrapped, even little biscuits or sweets within plastic packaging. Let me use the following examples to explain my points:
Case study 1: Chocolates from the UK
Subject history: Has been in Japan for 5 months.
Case details: Upon opening a packet of chocolates bought over from England subject elicits surprise that each chocolate has not been individually wrapped.
Case Study 2: Plastic Bags
Subject history: Recently arrived in Japan, tries to re-use bags where possible, owns many cotton canvas bags for this purpose.
Case details: After handing over payment for the goods, and without so much of a arigato gozaimashita! (thank you very much) from me, my goods have been plopped into a suitable sized bag and taped over.
The most conspicuous form of consumption in Tokyo is without doubt of the electrical sort, the giant television screens in popular districts such as Akihabara and Shinjuku and the glaring, flashing neon lights flooding the city centres when night time falls pay homage to this. However the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) is aiming for the city’s energy companies to reduce their reliance upon fossil fuels, having set a target of 20% renewable energy supply by 2020 as part of the Tokyo Renewable Energy Strategy. Furthermore energy consumption per capita in Tokyo is apparently among the lowest in Japan, some of that I would put down to the high number of bicycles in the city, and its heavy use on a daily basis.
A litter free oasis….
Despite the packaging cornucopia Japan has nurtured, there are numerous recycling facilities everywhere which tend to be divided into:
- recyclable bags
Though this does vary and may simply be plastic, card, and cans in some places, often located next to the ubiquitous drinks vending machines, or outside shops. However the real gem of Tokyo has been the absence of bins- a sort of reverse psychology which has succeeded very well. Very rarely will you spot a bin, and this has thus resulted in very clean streets, and a populace who instinctively take their rubbish home.
- Tokyo City Guide (2006), Lonely Planet, 6th Edition. www.lonelyplanet.com