Shōtengai: Examining the evolution of Tokyo’s venerable shopping districts

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Jesse McFaddin strolls around Togoshi Ginza shōtengai (shopping district) on a recent chilly December afternoon.

Everywhere he goes, people call out to him and his dog, Bambi, offering a quick salutation or two. He walks by a bookstore from which he bought his first comic book, a public bathhouse that welcomes people with tattoos and Togoshi Hachiman Shrine, which he visits on a daily basis to pray for the health of his family.

McFaddin is the lead vocalist and guitarist of Rize and the son of famed musician Char. But that’s not why everybody in Togoshi Ginza knows him. The Takenaka clan, McFaddin’s Japanese family name, has been in the area for four generations.

Born in Kokubunji in western Tokyo to an American mother and Japanese father, McFaddin has lived most of his life in Togoshi Ginza. Being mixed race, McFaddin says he has always felt like an outsider both in Japan and the U.S. Indeed, his nickname growing up in the neighborhood was “Togoshi’s gaijin,” or “Togoshi’s foreigner.”

Togoshi Ginza, however, has accepted him for who he is — tattoos and all.

“Before I knew it, Togoshi had not only become my hometown, it became my home country — sort of like the nation of Togoshi,” McFaddin says with a laugh. “Of all the places around the world, this is where I feel most comfortable.”

Togoshi Ginza is one of more than 12,000 shōtengai scattered throughout Japan. Although there is no official definition of what constitutes a shōtengai, the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency describes it as a shopping district or center with 30 or more shops and restaurants located closely together.

It is believed that the existing shōtengai business model started in the 1920s or ’30s and flourished in postwar Japan.

Tetsuro Kamei, who was born and raised in Togoshi Ginza, says shōtengai back then were full of energy.

“I grew up during the time of high economic growth when shōtengai was the basic business model for shopping,” Kamei says. “That was back in the day when housewives went shopping every day to buy food to cook that evening.”

Tetsuro Kamei, owner of Gallery Kamei, recalls being raised by the community in Tokyo
Tetsuro Kamei, owner of Gallery Kamei, recalls being raised by the community in Tokyo’s Togoshi Ginza. | MASAMI ITO

Kamei, a 54-year-old owner of eyeglass and watch store Gallery Kamei, recalls his childhood days when his life centered around the shōtengai. It was where all of his friends played after school, where everybody knew everybody and where relationships were so close that Kamei would be scolded by neighbors if he misbehaved. “It really was like being raised by the whole community,” Kamei says.

Like many shōtengai across the country, Togoshi Ginza eventually lost its vigor as supermarkets emerged and small businesses began to suffer.

Shops in shōtengai nationwide were increasingly forced to close because the owners had no family to pass them down to or, more recently, they couldn’t compete with internet shopping. Many shōtengai these days are called “shatta dori” (“shuttered street),” as most shops in the neighborhoods have since closed.

According to the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency’s 2017 report on vacant shops in shōtengai, 47.3 percent of the 1,441 respondents said that more than 10 percent of stores in their area were vacant. It’s an alarming figure, given that it is said that a shōtengai is in danger of closure once the vacancy rate goes past 10 percent. In the same survey, 602 respondents, or 32.4 percent, said that vacancy rates in their shōtengai had increased in the past five years.

Chihiro Hayakawa of the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency says shōtengai face internal and external difficulties. The problems aren’t limited to a shop’s individual issues — namely, the lack of an heir or aging buildings — but also includes wider concerns such as not having a defined attraction or diversity of shops, as well as the state of the general population of the area.

“Shōtengai face numerous problems,” Hayakawa says. “Some of these problems cannot be solved by each shop on their own because the issues also affect the shōtengai or even the local area as a whole.”

Instead of dismissing shōtengai as an outdated business model of the past, the government has been discussing ways to support and improve the districts.

A government-backed panel to discuss new measures for shōtengai suggests in its midterm report issued in July 2017 that such districts create new values for themselves aside from what they were once most famous for: places to shop.

The government has also allocated subsidies to help support local shops in different categories: shōtengai that exist to support local residents, famous shōtengai that act as a centerpiece for the community and shōtengai that are tourism destinations.

As a result, a number of shōtengai have managed to turn themselves around, Hayakawa says.

For example, Iwate’s Shiwa-cho has an IC-chip embedded point card system that also works as a safety network for children. The children place the card on a machine inside the school, which then notifies the parents that their children have arrived.

Nuttari Terrace shōtengai in Niigata has turned its once “shuttered street” into a retro-hip shopping district where new and old shops co-exist in the original buildings.

In Saitama Prefecture, the shopping district of Miyanokawa is a mobile shōtengai, which travels around the area’s nursing homes and mountainous regions to cater to the needs of its aging population.

“What we are doing is supporting shōtengai that are actively trying to take measures to remain desirable in their local communities,” Hayakawa says.

In September 2017, two tenants of a small crescent-shaped shōtengai called Moon Road in Higashi-Nakano successfully rebuffed attempts by a developer to move out.

Keiko Higashida, owner of Ma-Yan, has successfully challenged a legal attempt by a developer to evict her from a Higashi-Nakano shōtengai.
Keiko Higashida, owner of Ma-Yan, has successfully challenged a legal attempt by a developer to evict her from a Higashi-Nakano shōtengai. | MASAMI ITO

Keiko Higashida, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, has been running a bar called Ma-Yan for more than 44 years. Even though Higashida’s lawyers had warned her to expect a tough battle, she refused to back down.

“I didn’t believe the developers had a right to evict us, so I think it’s natural that we won,” Higashida says.

Koji Torikai, one of the lawyers representing the Moon Road tenants, says the defendants won because they were able to persuade the judge that the trial was not about individual civil lawsuits but about a social issue — the fate of Moon Road as a whole.

To do so, Higashida collected signatures from customers calling for Ma-Yan to continue. She was also able to get the local assembly and shōtengai members to support her argument, as well as attract coverage by the press.

Torikai believes the Moon Road victory will have a positive impact on similar lawsuits, which he says he has increasingly noticed amid various redevelopment plans around Tokyo.

“The judiciary sounded a warning that it would not simply approve eviction amid the increase in redevelopment in various parts of Tokyo,” Torikai says. “There are some things of value in life that cannot be exchanged for money … and I think that there is a deep meaning in this ruling in the sense that the courts appear to have recognized that value.”

Many aspects of Ma-Yan are unique, and some are almost impossible to find these days. For example, Higashida says, the “Ma-Yan” sign outside the door was created by manga artist Hideo Shinoda, the carvings on the trims were hand-carved using a traditional cho-ya ax, the matching coasters and match boxes were designed by her late illustrator friend, Hidemi Kobayashi, and so on.

“This place is filled with myriad stories,” Higashida says. “I think a bar or shop should reflect the tastes of its owner. That’s why I’m not a fan of chain stores — they lack originality.”

The legal battle may be over for Higashi-Nakano’s famed shōtengai but the road to recovery is just beginning.

Higashida wants shōtengai to regain the lively atmosphere it had during the Showa Era (1926-89), a time when bars and restaurants were lit up and people came and went within the district as they pleased.

One of the first things Higashida and fellow Moon Road tenants did following the court ruling was launch an annual autumn festival.

Higashida asked around and managed to confirm a number of live music shows for the festival, including a jazz performance that featured vocals and pantomime.

In December, local residents asked a shōtengai expert to offer them some advice on how to revitalize the area.

“The bond that is formed between us by working together creates a vitality on Moon Road,” Higashida says. “It’s not just about my bar, it’s about the area as a whole. I want people to come and drink and eat inside Moon Road while they remember the good old days of the Showa Era.”

Meanwhile, Togoshi Ginza is now one of the most famous shōtengai in Japan, processing more than 200 interview requests from the media each year. The coverage is the result of the neighborhood continually experimenting with new ideas over the past two decades.

The locals have established regular events such as flea markets, created original products such as Togoshi Ginza sake and sweets, organized festivals, designed a mascot called “Togoshi Ginjiro” and so on. The list of items that are currently available to the general public reflects how much time and effort has been put into revitalizing the community.

Kamei, who also is a spokesperson for Togoshi Ginza, suggests that the original shōtengai concept — a shopping district that is built near train stations to cater to local grocery shoppers — may have passed its shelf life.

“The current shōtengai business model was meant to last about 100 years, so I think it would be difficult for shōtengai to exist as it does now forever,” Kamei says. “That’s why we expanded our target to urban tourism, so that people would come visit us from close and afar to see our Togoshi brand.”

Walking through Togoshi Ginza these days, visitors should notice that many of the shops and restaurants are not chains. There are the longtimers such as the Katabami butcher shop famous for its potato croquette and Chinese restaurant Kinkaro, as well as the newcomers, which include salt shop Solco and Yorimichi Cafe.

People will notice the brand new torii-like pillars along the shōtengai that say “Togoshi Ginza” and perhaps, most obvious of all, the area has placed all of its overhead electricity wires underground, giving the shōtengai a sense of space.

Alan Fisher opened The Giant
Alan Fisher opened The Giant’s Stewhouse in Togoshi Ginza in 2015 to promote Irish culture. | MASAMI ITO

At the end of the shōtengai is The Giant’s Stewhouse. Alan Fisher opened the restaurant in 2015 to promote Irish culture through food and beverages, serving traditional stew from Fisher’s home country of Ireland. But that’s not all: The restaurant is filled with various information on Ireland, covering a wide variety of topics such as politics, art and history. Irish musicians, naturally, comprise the BGM, including The Corrs, Enya and U2.

Fisher had no local ties to Togoshi Ginza and, after encountering some initial hesitation in the neighborhood, he says everyone has since welcomed him warmly. He has most recently been collaborating with the shōtengai to organize various events, including a Street Ceili dance festival.

“Once our story (about sharing our culture) got out there … people were much more accepting, especially when they came in and we reinforced that introduction with a positive experience in The Giant’s Stewhouse,” the 2-meter-tall owner says.

Rize’s McFaddin also owns a business in the vicinity. Called “Jesse’s Shop & Factory,” his store opened in 2006 and has since moved several times before settling in its current location just a few minutes’ walk from Togoshi Station.

So why did McFaddin choose Togoshi Ginza instead of more glamorous locations such as Shibuya or Daikanyama? McFaddin says he wants to provide job opportunities for young people in the area, adding that it is something a local painting company did for him when he was younger.

The Rize vocalist knows what it is like to be judged by your looks and to be misunderstood. He has found that some local teenagers have some sort of trouble at home or at school and wants to give them the guidance and advice they need to learn to stand on their own two feet.

Rize frontman Jesse McFaddin
Rize frontman Jesse McFaddin’s family has lived in Togoshi Ginza area for four generations. | MASAMI ITO

McFaddin says he hopes to open more shops as well as continue to help other local businesses in order to maintain the supportive atmosphere.

“I want to make sure that the blood will keep flowing in Togoshi without me,” McFaddin says. “I don’t want Togoshi to become one of those areas where the shops will all be different in a few years. It is important to take measures to support local businesses so they can continue.”

Just as the sun begins to set, a little girl runs toward McFaddin. Jumping into McFaddin’s arms, she gives him a big kiss and squeals with delight as she hugs his dog. It’s McFaddin’s 9-year-old daughter, officially the fifth generation of the Takenaka family.

McFaddin wants to see the world with his family at some point — spending more quality time with them in the United States — but promises to return.

“I want to go to various places and see various things, and then come back to my home — Togoshi,” McFaddin says. “This is where I want to be buried.”