Shotengai, or shopping arcades, have been moving toward extinction for several decades now, the victim of increased motorization, new laws favoring large chain retailers, and the economic slump in general. Composed of small, family-run stores that invariably coalesced into merchant associations, shotengai were the social and commercial hearts of communities in both rural towns and huge cities. The death of the shotengai in the countryside has given rise to a new phenomenon called shopping refugees (kaimono nanmin): residents, most of them elderly, who are effectively cut off from retail areas because local family merchants have closed down and they have no easy access (i.e., driver’s licenses, vehicles) to shopping malls. Some local governments and chain retailers are addressing this problem by helping the refugees reach retailers, but there are also communities that refuse to let their shopping arcades fade into memory.
One is Marugamemachi, at 470 meters long the biggest shopping arcade in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, population 410,000. As far back as 1972, the merchant association projected the rise of the automobile and the disastrous effect it could have on their businesses, so they started building more parking lots. In 1988, when Marugamemachi celebrated its 400th anniversary as a shotengai, the association became aware that other shotengai in Japan were experiencing a loss of patronage, despite the fact that it was the height of the so-called bubble era. They immediately started a reconstruction project, rebuilding the common features of the arcade and helping individual businesses remodel. However, with the passage of the Big Store Law in 2000 and the subsequent spread of major chain supermarkets and foreign retailers like Toys R Us, Marugamemachi lost 50 percent of its pedestrian traffic and sales revenues from its peak in 1992 (3,000 a day and ¥27 billion a year, respectively). But the association warded off the “shutter-street” phenomenon that usually spelled the end of a shotengai by launching a major redevelopment project in 2005. Since the project was completed in Nov. 2006, sales of vacant storefronts have increased threefold, and pedestrian traffic has grown by 50 percent.
Marugamemachi’s success is being studied by other merchant associations, but Shinagawa Ward in Tokyo, where a number of shotengai have already fallen into the shutter-street situation, has come up with a different solution. The main problem in the heart of Tokyo is that many of the storefronts that have fallen vacant are connected to residences where the owners of the failed retail outlets still live. These former owners are not passing their businesses on to heirs, and it’s difficult for them to rent out their retail spaces to third parties because the two functions, retail and residence, normally share facilities such as entrances to the street and bathrooms/toilets. Consequently, the ward is now offering to subsidize reconstruction work that will separate the retail space from the living space, creating separate entrances and toilet facilities. According to an article in the Asahi Shimbun, so far five property owners have taken advantage of the offer and plan to rebuild. Since Shinagawa has 108 shotengai, that’s a very small start, but it is a start.