Shopping Streets

  • Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Reiji Yamanaka

    Main guest

    Reiji Yamanaka was born in 1953 in Kochi Prefecture. He works as a management consultant for small and medium-sized enterprises, and as a business regeneration advisor. Yamanaka visits shopping areas across Japan and offers advice about how to reenergize businesses. He specializes in strategies to attract international visitors. Yamanaka has also published books containing commentary on famous shopping streets in Tokyo and proposals for their revitalization.


March 6, 2018

Shopping Streets

*You will leave the NHK website.

As in much of the industrialized world, a significant amount of shopping in Japan takes place in towering shopping malls and chain supermarkets. But cities and towns throughout the country are also home to a more traditional form of shopping thanks to their shotengai, or shopping streets.

While these traditional shopping streets are facing numerous challenges, they're also being reevaluated for their friendly atmosphere and contribution to the social fabric of their neighborhoods. In this edition of Japanology Plus, we take a stroll down several of these shopping streets and find out why they're worth a visit.

Shotengai in Japan have a long history: one theory about their origin stretches back to the late 1500s, when monopolistic guilds were eliminated and a free market system was established. Some say this freeing up of the market led, over time, to the shopping street format that still exists today, with multiple small businesses lining a single road. In the era of pedestrian transport, shopping streets were built along main routes.


A bustling shopping street.

Today, too, many shopping streets are intertwined with transportation. The entrances to many shotengai can be found at train or subway stations, allowing visitors to hop off the train and get right to shopping. Often, in fact, a station can be found at both ends of a shopping street, allowing visitors to begin their stroll from either direction. There is no defined length for a shotengai: some are only a few blocks, while others, like Togoshi-Ginza in Tokyo, can run well over a kilometer.

As host Peter Barakan and expert guest Reiji Yamanaka discover on their trip to several prominent shopping streets, one of the appeals is the range of unique, family-owned businesses that line these streets. From vendors of street food, to stationery and other odds and ends, to produce, to cafes, and more, each shopping streets' atmosphere is one-of-a-kind, created by the people who run it.


Host Peter Barakan and expert guest Reiji Yamanaka go shopping.

These shop owners are often part of what is called a shotenkai, or shopping street association, a self-governing body that decides on things like the shared decorative elements of a street (such as posters and banners, which often change by season) and special events. For example, the main shopping street in Asagaya, Tokyo, celebrates the summer Tanabata Star Festival by hanging elaborate papier-mâché sculptures from its covered arcade ceiling, an event that shows off the creativity of the shopkeepers and brings out the entire community.

Despite their numerous appeals, shopping streets have been facing major challenges in the form of one-stop-shop malls and supermarkets, which are more accessible by car, less affected by weather, and may carry more brand goods and stores consumers are familiar with. On the program, we see one example of a shotengai in serious decline after the opening of a large supermarket nearby.

Still, there are a number of initiatives being deployed to help bring back consumers to traditional shopping streets. One, which we see on the program, involves physically bringing the shopping street (or a number of its wares, at least) to nursing home residents, creating a pop-up shopping experience.

Other studies show that shopping streets are beneficial for elderly people who still retain mobility, too. Because most of these streets are on relatively flat land and their shops are on ground level, they have been cited as excellent gathering places and social outlets for the elderly, for whom spaces like malls, with confusing layouts and multiple floors, might be difficult to navigate. Shopping streets like Sugamo-Jizo-dori have incorporated many benches and other resting areas for these visitors, and it's been noted that these resting areas have come to serve as impromptu social spaces too. With an ever-increasing portion of Japan's population aging, shotengai can serve as valuable focal points for keeping the elderly active and connected.


Some shopping streets are covered, helping shops stay open in inclement weather.


Many shotengai shops, like this one selling tea, offer free samples (and a free chat).

Of course, the future of shopping streets ultimately depends on young people, hence initiatives like the one cited on the program by Yamanaka, in which empty shops can be rented for limited time pop-up events. It's possible that Japan's shopping streets might even become a venue in which the young and old spontaneously meet, allowing knowledge and ideas to be transmitted across generations.

In short: they may be called shopping streets, but it's clear there's a lot more going on on these streets than just shopping.


At this oden shop, multiple generations work side by side.

*You will leave the NHK website.