For decades Japan’s prestigious department stores were not simply retailers but arbiters of culture, holding art exhibitions and setting the standards of worldly sophistication.

Now, however, consumers themselves have grown more sophisticated, provided with a wealth of information and new buying options via the Internet. As a result, they are increasingly comfortable setting their own style

Nowhere is this change more evident than in the ritzy Ginza section of Tokyo, whose ongoing transformation was dramatically illustrated in December by the closing of the Seibu department store in Yurakucho.

Seibu had opened this branch in 1984, but it struggled after Japan’s property bubble burst in the early 1990s. Despite a major makeover in 1995, it was unable to overcome the effects of deflation and changing consumer tastes. Replacing it next fall will be Lumine, which will sell lower-priced fashions considered popular with young women. Meanwhile, casual wear outlets, foreign as well as Japanese, have been moving into Ginza for several years, including Uniqlo, Zara, H & M, and Abercrombie and Fitch.

In an attempt to compete, Mitsukoshi, which joined forces with Isetan in 2008, reopened its Ginza store last September after extensive renovations and expansion. It hopes that its new emphasis on goods personally selected by its buyers, rather than on famous brands, will appeal to younger shoppers. Its information booth for foreign tourists is staffed by both English and Chinese speakers, thus reflecting another defining characteristic of the new Ginza.

Chinese tourism, despite a slowdown after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands in September, is back again in ever larger numbers. In the first 11 months of 2010, there were some 1.35 million Chinese visitors, a rise of 43.4 percent over the same period of the previous year.

Further increases are expected since visa restrictions for Chinese citizens were eased last July. Chinese visitors seem to like the cachet of the Ginza name. One of their favorite spots is the Laox discount electronics store that opened last November within the Matsuzakaya department store. (Laox became a subsidiary of a Chinese retailer in August 2009.)

So, perhaps we should view Ginza not as faltering, but as being in the vanguard once again, this time on the leading edge of a shift away from established authority in a new and increasingly borderless world.

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