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Every shōtengai in Japan has its own story to tell.

These traditional shopping arcades are a living, breathing part of local communities, each with their own unique specialties, atmosphere and character.

They’ve struggled in recent times as large supermarkets and department stores nationwide have attracted shoppers at their expense and younger consumers have been more ready to purchase items online.

The stores in these shopping districts are also typically owned and operated by an aging population who are finding it increasingly hard to sell their businesses.

With a number of issues already stacked against them, the shopping arcades are now being asked to deal with a new economic threat — the COVID-19 pandemic.

A long and winding history

An estimated 12,600 or so shōtengai are scattered across Japan.

Primarily consisting of restaurants, small businesses and retail outlets, and usually found near train stations or along main thoroughfares in local neighborhoods, shōtengai are technically defined as commercial streets made up of 30 or more shops.

Originally created to meet the needs of the local community, shōtengai in residential, urban areas form part of what architect Yoshinobu Ashihara calls a “hidden order.” The inherent character of such arcades constitutes elements of a quintessential Japanese city as they take their place in the makeup of the continuously evolving urban sprawl.

The history of shōtengai is almost as long as the streets themselves. Their legacy reaches back to the late Muromachi Period (1392-1573) when the rakuichi-rakuza (free-market) laws were enacted by the “great unifier” Oda Nobunaga, which were intended to halt monopolies and dismantle barriers to trade.

Japan’s early shopping arcades formed in areas of high foot traffic, with groups of merchants gathering wherever there was demand — at crossroads or places where travelers would naturally stop, such as in front of approaches to temples and shrines.

The shōtengai at Musashi Koyama in Shinagawa Ward is the longest covered shopping arcade in Tokyo. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
The shōtengai at Musashi-Koyama in Shinagawa Ward is the longest covered shopping arcade in Tokyo. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

The modern iteration of shōtengai, however, traces its history back to the early 20th century, when the nation’s urban population exploded, with new arrivals to large cities leaving behind farms and setting themselves up as merchants trading their wares.

Shōtengai initially emerged out of a need for people to make a living and to supply growing communities with amenities. Many of these were destroyed in the air raids of World War II, but sprang up anew to meet demand in postwar Japan.

A boom in department stores and malls in the 1950s and ’60s led to smaller retailers combining forces for survival. This was followed by legal recognition via the 1962 Shopping Street Promotion Law, which allowed shōtengai associations to become official organizations and gave them eligibility for government subsidies. The shōtengai’s place in the mercantile landscape of modern Japan was established.

However, official recognition has failed to ensure their success. After decades of prosperity, with the number of registered outlets in arcades totaling around 1.72 million in 1982, just 1.59 million shops were registered by 1991 — a figure that has fallen ever since. According to a 2015 survey by the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency, the average number of vacant outlets in any given shōtengai is 5.35, around 13.17 percent of the total number of stores registered in an average arcade nationwide.

Although growing populations in Japan’s large urban centers may have aided the shōtengai’s initial development, smaller towns and cities have experienced a downturn in business in recent years.

Many shōtengai in areas with smaller populations become shatā-dōri (shuttered streets), sometimes appearing more like ghost towns than commercial hubs.

Evolving role

Still, shōtengai have endured, adapting to take on new roles in the local community.

Wakayama resident Mayumi Wada, 52, is quick to support her local shopping arcade.

“The mall has more items, but we like to help smaller shops in the local area,” Wada says. “There’s a handy amount of food, and I like to go there for hot meals because they can be cooked right in front of me.”

Wada is not alone.

“Shōtengai are a part of the community,” says Tsubasa Ito, whose local shopping arcade is Kishiwadaekimae in Osaka Prefecture. “I like to shop for clothes there, but many of the shops are closing and it looks older than it used to. I personally think the arcades should be preserved as a part of Japanese culture.”

Takeshi Kondo, 20, likes the convenience of his local shōtengai — shopping under the covered arcade of Ibaraki Ginza Chuo Shotengai in the Osaka city of Ibaraki on rainy days makes a difference.

“There is a wide variety of products and everything is available here,” Takeshi says. “For people my age, however, shōtengai are more like places for eating and drinking, not shopping.”

Each traditional shopping arcade in Japan has its own unique specialties, atmosphere and character. | GETTY IMAGES
Each traditional shopping arcade in Japan has its own unique specialties, atmosphere and character. | GETTY IMAGES

The use of shōtengai for shopping seems to be declining, with younger generations preferring to frequent their local shōtengai for food and drink.

Hana Matsuda, 33, agrees.

“It’s fun sampling various kinds of foods, and the shōtengai serves more fresh and cheap items than the supermarket,” she says.

For older generations, however, the role of shōtengai has evolved.

“Many older people feel as if they’re not useful anymore,” Wada says. “They prefer suburban malls because they can get there easily by the community bus.”

“It represents a bipolarization of shōtengai,” she says, referring to a split between those that are shuttered due to a dearth of business and those that come alive at night with bars, karaoke and ramen restaurants.

“The number of closed stores is increasing,” says Goichi Ono, 71, adding that he simply can’t use his local shōtengai.

“They’re too inconvenient,” he says. “Shōtengai will only exist for tourists in the future.”

Uphill battle

Traditional shopping arcades are struggling to remain relevant and serve a local community that is gradually shrinking.

Millions travel to Mie Prefecture every year to visit the Grand Shrines of Ise. Away from the crowds, however, Ise’s Shinmichi Shotengai welcomes a smattering of shoppers with upbeat music as they peruse stores selling kimonos and kitchen goods.

“Our ability to attract customers has declined as car usage and suburbanization has increased,” says Takehiko Kawamura, president of the shopping arcade association. “Although (the shōtengai) has not yet attracted tourists, young business owners have been opening new stores little by little recently.”

Many of the shops in Shinmichi shōtengai in Ise, Mie Prefecture, are closed, forcing the arcade to focus on family activities and events that support local schoolchildren. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Many of the shops in Shinmichi shōtengai in Ise, Mie Prefecture, are closed, forcing the arcade to focus on family activities and events that support local schoolchildren. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Originally a red-light district that opened in 1827, the arcade has gone through various transformations, with restaurants and cafes gathering around the area in the Showa Era (1926-89). Today, although many of the shops along the walkway have been shuttered, the street now focuses on family activities and events that support local schoolchildren.

“Shopping arcades that value human connections retain their importance as local communities, something that isn’t found in large shopping centers or department stores,” Kawamura says. “We consider face-to-face sales to represent a connection between the store, its customers and the wider community.”

Many of the shops in Shinmichi shōtengai in Ise, Mie Prefecture, are closed, forcing the arcade to focus on family activities and events that support local schoolchildren. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Many of the shops in Shinmichi shōtengai in Ise, Mie Prefecture, are closed, forcing the arcade to focus on family activities and events that support local schoolchildren. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Even amid the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, shopping arcades are struggling. Once a fishing village in the Edo Bay area, Shinagawa Ward’s Tachiaigawa neighborhood is historically famous for its seaweed cultivation. Its shopping street — Ryoma Dori — faces significant problems, however.

“It has become a shuttered street,” says Toshio Kikuchi, a representative of Yamaki Ito, a seaweed shop founded in 1924. “Since each shop is privately owned and has to deal with maintenance costs, it may stay that way for the time being.”

Still, Ryoma Dori remains at the heart of the community and, in recent years, efforts to bring life into the district have come into fruition: A selection of attractions and historic sites draw visitors, while meaningful signs in English explain the meaning of omotenashi (hospitality).

“The unique atmosphere of Tachiaigawa has been around for generations, so the shōtengai has a sort of neighborly relationship with it,” Kikuchi says. “As night falls, and the lanterns begin to glow, this is a shōtengai full of humanity. It’s a bit disappointing, but I have faith in the youthful power that will follow.”

Model approach

Elsewhere, more novel ways of revamping almost forgotten shōtengai have been tried.

In the village of Iwaya on Awaji Island near Kobe, members of international organization Awaji Youth Federation formed a team to revitalize the neighborhood’s shōtengai in 2018. The group was the brainchild of Singaporean Freddy Lim, who stumbled upon Iwaya’s old shopping arcade one evening and imagined it alive with cafes and music.

“The shōtengai in rural areas and the city serve very different purposes,” Lim says. “In the case of Iwaya, it’s a rural area where there are little to no other amenities and attractions nearby.”

Aiming to rebuild, rebrand and repopulate, the team set about working alongside local residents to bring new life to the shōtengai. The group successfully helped to bring about change: a new Nepalsese restaurant opened its doors, a redundant tofu shop became home to a food stall and local businessmen formed a revitalization-focused think tank.

“If resourceful, like-minded individuals band together and gather people with experience and knowhow, real change can happen,” Lim says. “Fortunately for Iwaya, there are a few of these young adults — with businesses passed down from previous generations — and are still working on (revitalization) as we speak.”

Jujo Ginza shōtengai in Tokyo’s Kita Ward is known for its array of street-side food stalls, offering visitors a strong community feeling combined with an enticing old-school atmosphere. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Jujo Ginza shōtengai in Tokyo’s Kita Ward is known for its array of street-side food stalls, offering visitors a strong community feeling combined with an enticing old-school atmosphere. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Some shōtengai, such as Jujo Ginza in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, remain naturally vibrant. Growing spontaneously after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 to support the local residents, it boasts a 90 percent local customer base. Known for its hunger-inducing array of extremely affordable street-side food stalls, the network of shōtengai has a strong community feeling combined with an enticing old-school atmosphere.

Even along the busy streets of Jujo Ginza, however, daily visitor numbers have been gradually decreasing each year. The number of chain stores has increased and, with that, the number of stores with distinctive local character has dwindled.

Jujo Ginza shōtengai in Tokyo’s Kita Ward is known for its array of street-side food stalls, offering visitors a strong community feeling combined with an enticing old-school atmosphere. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Jujo Ginza shōtengai in Tokyo’s Kita Ward is known for its array of street-side food stalls, offering visitors a strong community feeling combined with an enticing old-school atmosphere. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Hiroshi Ishii, executive director of Jujo Ginza, says losing that local flair makes the shopping arcade less attractive.

“The key to survival as a shōtengai is how we can differentiate from large-scale stores,” Ishii says. “We have specialized stores that offer services that customers cannot get if they go elsewhere.”

For Ishii, the district also plays a hugely important role in supporting the local community.

“Most of the store owners are born and raised in the area, and are therefore the representatives of the local community.” he says. “The shōtengai itself is a big member of the community. I think this is the main difference from large stores and malls.”

Embracing the ‘new normal’

While the challenge of remaining relevant is unlikely to end soon, shopping arcades now also have to combat the impact of a global pandemic.

For Jujo Ginza, with its streams of commuters and local customer base, the consequences are immediately noticeable and, since the Tokyo Metropolitan Government declared a state of emergency in April, around half of the 180 stores in the shopping arcade have been forced to shorten opening times or close altogether.

“The coronavirus has had a great impact on Jujo Ginza, just as it has on the whole world,” Ishii says. “Most shops are returning to normal now, but I think it’ll be difficult to return to a pre-coronavirus level of ‘normal.’ Almost all stores are now conducting business while incorporating new retail methods such as takeout services.”

Many local businesses in Shinagawa Ward’s Tachiaigawa neighborhood are struggling to stay afloat. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Many local businesses in Shinagawa Ward’s Tachiaigawa neighborhood are struggling to stay afloat. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

In Tachiaigawa, the virus outbreak has created a period of difficulty for Ryoma Dori, which typically relies on a steady stream of diners at its counters and tables.

“There are more restaurants than retail stores in the area and, because of that, it’s a so-called yoru no machi (night town),” Kikuchi says. “The hardship now facing those businesses is unfathomable.”

Shoppers in Osaka have certainly noticed the effect that COVID-19 has had on their local shōtengai. Signs plaster the area recommending people to follow social distancing guidelines, wear masks and wash their hands.

And, although some shoppers have received gift certificates and coupons, funded by public money, to spur consumption, the number of shops that have closed for business in the neighborhood has risen.

Jujo Ginza’s Ishii calls on such neighborhoods to innovate and stay relevant.

“As long as you are doing business in the same way as in the Showa Era, you will be culled by large-scale stores,” he warns.

Shopping arcade retailers know of the struggles their communities have faced in the past, specifically the Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II. However, these neighborhoods worked together in such tough times to support each other and, now, that sense of community spirit remains.

“A shōtengai that values ​​its connection with people remains a part of that local community,” Kawamura says. “Shopping arcades will always struggle unless that connection with the community is shored up.”

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