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Ginza merchant has essence of Edo cool

by Judit Kawaguchi

Masayuki Kazama, 51, is the owner of StockPlus, a mailbox-rental and parcel-forwarding service located in Tokyo’s Ginza district, just opposite the Kabukiza theater.

Printing business cards, pamphlets, posters and seasonal greeting cards for nearby mom-and-pop shops, restaurants and hostess clubs, Kazama and his staff are known in the neighborhood for a speedy service. Kazama also designs and makes customized wooden and paper senjafuda (1,000-shrine tags), stickers or labels that were originally used as shrine offerings but nowadays are enjoyed as accessories. Kabuki fans visiting the theater often like to decorate their umbrellas and books with Kazama’s colorful sejafuda stickers, while hanging wooden versions on their bags.

Senjafuda is the essence of iki. Iki is a Japanese aesthetic ideal that was developed in cities during the Edo Period (1603-1867). It refers to someone who is sophisticated yet unpretentious. Imagine stylish women and cool merchants on the streets, going about their business in kimono with a small wooden senjafuda hanging on their belts or necks. That’s iki and it’s cool.

In Japan, everyone wants to have products designed for, or at least customized for them. In the Heian Period (794-1185), senjafuda were carved from wood. Each one was designed specially for the person who ordered it, and it included their name and the area they lived in. Worshippers at Shinto shrines would leave their beautiful senjafuda at the shrine in the hope that the deities would remember and protect them. In later centuries colorful paper versions were created and they were left at shrines like stickers. As more and more elaborate designs appeared, people began exchanging and collecting them. The American anthropologist Frederick Starr, also known as Ofuda Hakushi, traveled around Japan in the early 20th century. He researched toy collecting and hobbies, including the senjafuda craze, which was so popular at that time. There were senjafuda clubs where members exchanged cards and developed a fantastic variety of designs. We get inspiration for our senjafuda from those times.

Unless he can get you a discount, don’t even think of dating him. Or her. This is what Osaka people will tell you, and they are being serious. Ask anyone in Osaka what qualities they value in a spouse, and you’ll find haggling ranks really high. Getting a good deal, even on a small daily transaction like food, is important for them. In Japan, people don’t try to negotiate for lower prices in stores — except in Osaka, where everyone makes it their mission to get discounts. Shopping there is fun, but it’s tiring because everyone loves bargaining, so everything takes too much time. Customers and shop attendants also spend time cracking jokes as they work on each other. When customers try to bargain down a price, the store staff let them — but not too much. Both sides are usually happy with the result.

With cold calls, you’ll never get your foot in the door. Only when you’re face-to-face with someone can you hope to sell anything. When I was a salaryman for a big Japanese electronics maker, I did door-to-door sales. I visited 60 to 70 businesses a day — soba restaurants, fish shops, bars, stores, offices. I sold paper for copy machines, but it was very hard to make people understand why our paper was better and therefore more expensive than the competitors’. Most people just wanted the cheaper stuff. When I went to huge factories, I stopped by every section on every floor. One building would take me a day, or longer, to finish. Aside from the women’s toilet, I went to every room, and my perseverance paid off — I did well for years.

Without her job, maybe my mom would not be as healthy as she is. Who knows, maybe she wouldn’t even be alive. My parents own an osembei (Japanese rice cracker) shop. Since my father’s death 32 years ago, my mother has been working alone. She’s 80 but has no plans to close the shop. She bakes as many batches as she can and waits for customers all day in her small shop, which is on the first floor of the building where she lives. Thanks to the store, she has a reason to get up every day and she enjoys a lively social life.

Owning a business is a great way to teach a lot to your children. I wanted my kids to see that I was working hard. Why? So that they know I do my best, regardless of how much money I make. Just doing your best, day after day, is most important in life — but can’t be explained. It must be experienced. When I was growing up, I watched my parents work all day. I even helped out in their store from kindergarten age. Small chores, such as putting rice crackers on the shelves, taught me a lot. I had to think about how I could do it neater and faster. I wanted my children to have that kind of opportunity to think for themselves.

Martial arts allow us to be in the presence of greatness in the form of an aged master. When a master enters the room, we kneel before him to show our respect. This attitude is expressed by the phrase, “rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru,” which means, “beginning and ending with a bow of respect.” That’s the essence of life, too.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan.” Learn more at: judittokyo.com. Twitter: @judittokyo