100 Yen Shops

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    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

    Reporter

    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.

  • Emiko Masao

    Main guest

    Emiko Masao is a super resourceful housewife with a knack for making creative use of 100-yen shop products in everyday life. She runs a daily blog, with some posts getting close to 2,000 hits per day.

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April 10, 2018

100 Yen Shops

*You will leave the NHK website.

For many viewers, the words "dollar store" (or the equivalent in their local currency) may evoke the image of a shop lined with items that look like they're worth, well, about a dollar, to put it kindly.

But pop into one of Japan's many (over 7,000, in fact) 100 yen shops, and you'll discover a range of high-quality items for practical, everyday use, plus souvenirs and much more. Why Japan's 100 yen shops are a cut above, and how DIY enthusiasts and others take advantage of these shops, is the theme behind this crafty edition of Japanology Plus.

As we learn on the show, an astounding 98% of Japanese consumers shopped in a 100 yen store over the past year, a testament to both their ubiquity and usefulness. These shops carry a mind-boggling array of items, from kitchenware to gardening tools to toys, food, cosmetics, and more.

How and why did Japan's 100 yen shops emerge? According to one account by a prominent business magazine, their origins can be found in the 1960s, at what we would now refer to as "pop-up shops." These temporary stores would set up in an unused corner of a supermarket or department store and sell goods for a uniform price of 100 yen. Another origin story goes that Japan's largest 100 yen shop chain got its start when its founder, who sold products out of a truck, couldn't find the price of an item and simply told a customer, "well, 100 yen is fine."

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The homes of both DIY enthusiast Yuki Inomata (left) and expert guest Emiko Masao (right) are decorated with items from 100 yen shops.

In any case, the next step came a couple decades later, when 100-yen pop-up shops started to put down roots. Reportedly, the first permanent store to officially call itself a "100 yen shop" opened in 1985 in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, not far from Nagoya. 100 yen shops picked up major steam a few years later, when two of the biggest chains began operations in 1991 and 1993, respectively. These days, in addition to the over 7,000 locations in Japan, some of these 100 yen shop chains even have branches abroad.

The dates 1991 and 1993 are probably no coincidence. As host Peter Barakan notes at the beginning of the program, Japan is just now emerging from over two decades of deflation sparked by the bursting of its so-called "bubble economy," which collapsed—you guessed it—in the early '90s. Japanese consumers, who had been used to lavish spending, were forced to rein it in, and 100 yen shops were a perfect fit.

Japan's economy is slowly getting back on track, but support for 100 yen shops is strong. One reason is their newfound popularity among female enthusiasts like expert guest Emiko Masao, who runs a well-known blog centered around reasonably-priced shopping. Shoppers like Masao use their DIY skills to add both practical and stylish, personalized additions to their homes with purchases from 100 yen shops. On Plus One, Matt Alt meets another crafty fan of 100 yen shops, and helps spruce up her home's restroom with some items from the local shop and a bit of creativity.

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A row of cosmetics, only 100 yen each.

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Emiko Masao shows Peter Barakan how a cheap gadget can create easy-to-peel hard-boiled eggs.

With this new influx of creative fans, not to mention an ever-increasing number of foreign visitors seeking souvenirs, 100 yen shops seem set for life—but there are potential challenges on the horizon. For example, one 100 yen shop chain recently reported depressed sales, which a prominent business newspaper says may be related to another current phenomenon in Japan—labor shortages. Companies struggling to fill positions are hiring the very women interested in crafts and DIY, giving them less time to indulge in their hobbies, which in turn has a negative effect on 100 yen shops.

Still, as several of the program's interviewees point out, the 100 yen shop business model is strong for many reasons. For one, they're resilient in the internet shopping age because they reward in-person hunts for unique items. For another, they're able to offer many of the same goods as higher-priced supermarkets or convenience stores because they buy in bulk. Finally, and most fundamentally, they offer high-quality merchandise for one extremely reasonable price.

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This stylish, spacious layout belies the fact this is a 100 yen shop.

*You will leave the NHK website.