What If?

Almost every neighborhood in Tokyo has a Seiyu—part department store, part supermarket—located right near the train station.  When I first moved to Nishiogikubo in the early 1980s, there were actually two Seiyu’s:  one next to the station, and one diagonally across the street.  The former had a more up-to-date atmosphere in the groceries section, while the latter, two stories high, had a greater selection of housewares and furniture.  The one next to the station is still there but the one across the street closed down long ago and is now the site of a pachinko parlor.  The items you could buy in Seiyu in those days were not discounted but they were reasonably priced, and among all the cheaper sorts of women’s clothing, I often found something unique and to my taste: a winter jacket in black and white tweed—the only one on the rack—or 100% wool shawls in interesting patterns and colors to cover my shoulders and add some warmth to a Tokyo winter day.

Since the bursting of the bubble in the early ’90s, the merchandise available in Tokyo stores has slowly and subtly undergone change.  The riot of color that used to greet my eyes when I visited the appliance or household goods section of the supermarket has faded to white and gray or a limited choice of anemic pastels.  Jackets, like all the other clothing, come in two or three styles and colors, all subdued and ill-fitting and made in China.  Everything looks the same as everything else.

Seiyu, in the meantime, has been bought out by Wal-Mart, which may also account for the deterioration in quality and variety of the goods on offer.  As the Seiyu shopping bag proudly declares in English, they are now “part of the WAL*MART family.”  Prices are boldly advertised as being boldly slashed, and the racks and shelves have sprouted large gaudy red and yellow tags boasting the items’ low cost.  They hurt the eyes.  And no doubt hurt the earnings of smaller shops who cannot afford to discount their goods as drastically.  One by one they close down and leave the neighborhood:  the hardware store where you could buy a small pot for heating up milk, with flowers painted on the side; the boutique that sold women’s clothes in all sizes, all 100% pure silk; the corner fruit and vegetable store with all its wares out on the sidewalk so you could easily pick up a bunch of bananas as you walked by.

An article in the Daily Yomiuri, “Wal-Mart to open smaller stores in U.S.” (Fri., Oct. 15, ’10) tells us that Wal-Mart “sees a ‘true need’ for stores smaller than its supercenters….’After years of development we are now prepared to accelerate growth’ of smaller stores, [U.S. stores chief] Simon said.”

Let’s get this straight.  First you build these huge stores outside of town that offer merchandise at such low cost that you drive the in-town shops out of business and turn main street shopping centers into ghost towns; and then you decide that after all there is a “true need” for small shops in “urban markets”?  Well, if Simon says so, then I guess everyone else will just have to go along with it, but we here at the Tree are refusing to play the game.  Instead, we’d like to pose a “What If?” for you to ponder.

What if one day we go out to do our shopping and find that the only stores around are all “part of the Wal*Mart family,” and are all selling exactly the same thing as each other?  And what if, because they now own and operate every possible outlet for goods and food, Wal-Mart has a brainstorm and realizes that if they are the only game in town, and therefore there’s no competition left to put out of business by underselling them, then there is no longer any need to keep their prices so low?  Think about it.


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