Shopping is not merely the acquisition of things: it is the buying of identity. This is true of all cultures where shopping takes place, and the consumption even of ‘necessities’ in situations where there is some choice, reflects decisions about self, taste, images of the body and social distinctions. Japan, a society usually, and very mistakenly, left out of discussions of the postmodern condition, is well known as a place in which considerations of ‘taste’ have since earliest historical times entered intimately into both consumption and cultural production. The utensils for the tea ceremony, the colour combinations of kimono and obi (the accompanying waist sash), the severe economy of traditional domestic architecture, the stress even today on the acquisition of skills in music and calligraphy, and innumerable other instances, all point to a culture in which aesthetic values are considered to be not peripheral luxuries, but central to the conduct of social life.1 But yet central in an interesting and perhaps even paradoxical way: first because this aesthetic sensitivity is not necessarily expressed in any conventionally ‘artistic’ form, but in the mundane activities of everyday life (including, as we shall see, shopping), and this feature has led at least one observer to characterize Japanese culture as a whole as one of the everyday, with its lack of an indigenous monumental architecture, its emphasis on the small-scale, the privileged role that it gives to the practical and to feelings rather than to intellectualization.2 And second, because of the emphasis on social cohesion in Japan, these ‘artistic’ activities are not thought of as ‘individualistic’ in any selfish sense, but on the contrary as creating self-control. Group and individual are not polarized, but integrated in the sense that the social nexus provides the greater context in which the
aesthetic activities are carried out. And third, the visitor who arrives for the first time in Japan is often shocked by the apparently anarchic mess that seems to constitute most Japanese cities. But there is a logic here too: interior space, the private, can be managed. Exterior space does not belong to anybody in particular, so can be regarded as purely functional.