What was supposed to be a day spent savoring the delights of Motomachi Shopping Street for our Timeout Yokohama feature soon took on the nature of a quest.

The objective? To find out why this 500-meter stretch of old-fashioned, road-fronted shops is thriving at a time when similar streets nationwide are falling victim to the twin curses of depopulation and huge new shopping centers — in many cases leading to their shops’ shutters coming down for good.

The question occurred to me as I quizzed shoppers on why they chose to spend their money at Motomachi. Surely the nearby, climate-controlled (and oddly named) consumer paradises of Landmark Plaza, Queen’s Square, World Porters, Leaf Minato Mirai — or even the Sogo department store — offered more comfortable, more convenient alternatives?

“Motomachi has a sophisticated atmosphere,” said a 34-year-old woman walking with her mother.

“There are things here you can’t find anywhere else,” said a 50-something man sporting a dapper fedora.

“It’s a pleasant street to be on — good for the dog, too,” said a man of similar vintage with a dachshund.

The talk of “one-of-a-kind” merchandise was to be expected. That has been part of the Motomachi legend since it emerged as a shopping district in the late 19th century.

When it was decided, exactly 150 years ago, to establish the port of Yokohama, a community of fishermen who had lived where the port was to be built was relocated to a strip of land directly to the south, along the base of the promontory of Yamate. A community of foreign traders soon sprang up at Yamate, meaning they had to walk through the fishermen’s area each day to get to the mercantile houses by the port in Kannai. Soon, it came to be known as Motomachi — moto meaning “origin,” because its inhabitants “originally” lived where the port had been built. Taking advantage of the daily stream of foreign pedestrians, the former fishermen began selling things to cater to their exotic tastes, things that couldn’t be found elsewhere in Japan: bread, beer, antiques and imported items such as furniture and crockery.

Over the years the foreigners changed — after the traders of the 19th century came businessmen and their families in the early 20th century, then postwar U.S. Occupation forces up till 1952, and U.S. military during the 1950-53 Korean War. But they were all foreigners in a foreign land, and they always needed “foreign” things.

However, when these visitors had all departed, no one came to take their place. For the first time, local shopkeepers had to start marketing “things that can’t be found anywhere else” to domestic consumers. The strategy worked, and it continues to work — hence the fedora man’s reaction.

But what about the comments about Motomachi being pleasant to be in and to walk around? What makes it so nice?

Yoshihito Yamada, managing director of the Motomachi Shopping Street Association (MSSA), smiled when I put that question to him. Then he leaned forward as though to let me in on a secret: “In the 1950s, the shopkeepers got together and decided that the road width mandated by the national government (8 meters) wasn’t sufficient to allow for comfortable shopping,” he said.

At the time, Motomachi’s street had no footpaths, meaning that pedestrians, rickshaws and the odd imported automobile had to compete with each other just to get from one end to the other unscathed.

“The shopkeepers decided to rebuild all their shops so that the first floors would be set back 1.8 meters from the road,” Yamada continued.

It took about 15 years, but eventually every single one of the roughly 200 shop owners agreed to toe the new line — literally — by turning over a portion of their own land to make a public footpath. It was grass-roots town planning, and it didn’t stop there.

In the “Second Phase Machizukuri (Second Phase Town Building),” which started in 1985, Yamada explained, the MSSA set its sights on their town’s ugly electric poles — the same ones that to this day clog and visually pollute most of Japan’s streets.

“They decided to put all the utilities underground. They also made the street one-way and widened each footpath to 3 meters by making the road one-way,” Yamada explained.

Sure enough, clicking back through the photographs I had taken, I realized that though I hadn’t been consciously aware of those initiatives, they without doubt fed into the “pleasant” atmosphere that I and the shoppers enjoyed.

But why did the shop owners have to do all this themselves? Surely it was the local government’s job?

“They decided they couldn’t just rely on the local government,” said Yamada. “And that was even though what they wanted to do ended up costing much more than the government would give them.”

The second machizukuri, which also included repaving the entire street with natural stone from Argentina, came in at a cool ¥1.5 billion — of which a third came out of the shopkeepers’ own pockets.

“That is what sets this district apart from everywhere else,” said Yamada. “If they had only done what was possible with government money, it would have ended up looking like everywhere else.”

Eager to confirm that Motomachi’s penchant for urban improvement really did set them “apart from everywhere else,” I next paid a visit to Takeru Kitazawa, professor of socio-cultural environment at the University of Tokyo.

“The decision in the 1950s to set back their first floors and create a footpath was really ahead of its time,” Kitazawa confirmed. “To think that, at that time, just after the war, the Motomachi shopkeepers had the vision and the leadership to pull it off is awe-inspiring.”

That led naturally to my next question: What was it about Motomachi’s traders that made their thinking so advanced; why were they so different to Japan’s other thousands of street associations?

That question I put to Hiroaki Chikazawa, a former MSSA chair and president of Chikazawa Lace, which dates from 1901 and is one of the street’s oldest shops.

After speculating that other communities probably didn’t have the quality of leaders that Motomachi did, he also explained that whereas most similar shopping streets in Japan faced their first depopulation/shopping-mall crisis in the 1980s and ’90s, Motomachi first faced the threat of extinction way back in the ’50s.

“When the Occupation forces started leaving, Motomachi shopkeepers realized that the threat that their clientele might suddenly disappear was real,” explained Chikazawa. “They faced oblivion if they didn’t do something, and that is really the reason they made those changes in the ’50s.”

But not all the changes went smoothly. Chikazawa explained that in the 1980s there was a long-running argument in the MSSA about whether they should cover the street with a large, overarching roof. Just then, of course, many big new shopping centers were even shielding their clientele from seeing the weather — let alone feeling it.

“Ultimately disagreements like that come down to a simple vote,” said Chikazawa. That particular vote was won by those who argued that putting up a roof — in line with the trend of the day — would make Motomachi look like everywhere else.

“When there’s been a really divided vote like that, we all go for a drink together at the end of the day,” he laughed.

Chikazawa also informed me that there is never an end to a process of urban improvement. Even today — with the district attracting an estimated 8.5 million visitors per year — a rosy future is not assured.

“We now have a lot of middle-aged and elderly visitors — people who have fond memories of shopping at Motomachi in the 1980s, when it was particularly fashionable,” he explained. “We need to think about how to attract the next generation.”

Tokyo University professor Takezawa had some ideas.

“The problem facing all shopping centers — from Motomachi to the latest developments like Roppongi Hills — is that they need to regain their cultural relevance,” he said.

“In the past the shopping center was near the local shrine and it was the place where the local festival was held. Without that cultural content, shopping centers will suffer,” he said.

In that way, he conceded, Motomachi has a slight advantage: “With their one-of-a-kind branding, and the fact that many of the shops actually manufacture their own products, they do possess a unique form of culture.” But, he continued, that doesn’t mean they can rest on their laurels. Knowing their enthusiasm for self-improvement, it’s not likely they will.

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