The Japanese Consumer, An Alternative Economic History of Modern Japan

by Penelope Francks
Cambridge University Press, 2009, 249 pages including index and references, ISBN 978-0521-69932-7 (soft back)

Review by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Penelope Francks is an honorary lecturer in Japanese studies in the department of East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds. She has specialized in the study of Japanese economic history. Most books about the Japanese economy concentrate on the supply side and tend to overlook consumption within Japan. Penny Francks’ book thus fills a significant gap. It (page 5) “opens up the neglected world of everyday life – of eating and drinking, dressing, furnishing homes and socialising; of women and children  as well as their more visible menfolk; of ordinary goods produced elsewhere than in the gleaming, or Satanic, factories and offices of the ‘modern sector’…Japanese people have been honing their skills and developing their particular tastes and characteristics as consumers for two centuries and more, and their history remains embedded…in the vibrant post-modern consumerism to be observed on Tokyo streets today.”

Among the factors which have led to the neglect of Japanese consumption in the literature about the Japanese economy have been the samurai’s declared contempt for merchants and artisans and the Confucianist and puritanical traditions of Japanese sumptuary laws during the Edo period. In the immediate post-war period where Japanese economic policies were dominated by the need to increase exports and where the average Japanese was forced by circumstances to live a frugal existence in cramped accommodation, consumption took second place to production. Once these restraints were loosened Japanese renewed their enthusiasm for consumption. The Japanese market for luxury and expensive items has few parallels elsewhere and Japanese now eat and drink outside the home far more often than most people in western countries.

Dr Francks points out in her second chapter headed “Shopping in the city; urban life and the emergence of the consumer in Tokugawa Japan” that (page 11) Japan was one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Edo with a million inhabitants was probably then the largest city in the world.  Japanese department stores such as Mitsukoshi trace their history back to the late seventeenth century and markets developed in centres throughout Japan as can be seen from place names ending in ‘ichi’ [市] meaning market. “Eating, drinking, and being merry” were catered for by “an explosion in the provision of facilities (page 21).”  “The gourmand and food snob became recognised characters, and a well-known saying had it that while Kyoto people ruined themselves through extravagance on clothes, Osaka people did the same on food (page 27).”

Japanese consumption after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 was encouraged by the 1878 exhibition in Ueno Park which led to the establishment of a number of permanent ‘bazaars’ reflected in modern Japanese shopping arcades. In the big cities shopping “continued to develop as a leisure activity and tourist attraction; strolling along the Ginza window-shopping became a sufficiently well-recognised pastime to cause a word –gimbura- [銀ブラ] to be invented for it (page 83).”

Japanese exports could not have grown as fast as they did without increasing consumer demand at home. As Francks notes “the desire of consumers to acquire the goods that came to represent the comfortable family life of the Japanese middle-class household was the necessary condition underlying the investment decisions of Japanese firms. It was by means of this investment that new technology was embodied in ever expanding production facilities (page 146).” But unfortunately “Long after the end of war-time and occupation rationing and price controls, regulatory restrictions – on imports, on retail provision, on consumer credit, on the degree of competition between domestic producers – continued to influence what consumers could buy…”  This created imbalances in the Japanese economy and exacerbated trade friction. As Francks notes “The complex and many-layered wholesale network by means of which goods reached the numerous local retailer was difficult to penetrate and raised the prices consumers faced in the shops (page 161).”

The Japanese consumer continues to differ from consumers in European countries by the way in which goods are distributed and sold as well as by such social traditions as gift-exchanges and by Japanese emphasis on quality, fashion and wrapping as well as on the cachet attached to price. But the Japanese consumer is an important feature of Japanese economic and social life.

Any British manufacturer of consumer goods wanting to export to the modern sophisticated Japanese consumer market should read this book, but he/she will also need the detailed advice about individual Japanese stores, distribution networks and changing tastes which the commercial departments in the British Embassy in Tokyo and the British Consulate General in Osaka can provide.

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