London Mitsukoshi – End of an Era

London Mitsukoshi

Mitsukoshi on Lower Regent Street closes next Saturday after thirty-four years of trading, so if you want to pay it a last nostalgic visit, like I did, you need to get your skates on. Its atmosphere is rather sad, and the shelves are bare, but walking through its doors is still like walking into Japan. But why should a Japanese department store giant have a branch in London at all? Let me explain.

Mitsukoshi can fairly lay claim to being the oldest department store in the world. It began trading in 1673, when Takatoshi Mitsui, a kimono fabric merchant, opened a shop called Echigoya in Edo (present day Tokyo). His innovation was to price-label his fabric and sell it at whatever length his buyers asked for. Two centuries of successful trading later, in 1927 Mitsukoshi opened a new store in Nihonbashi with Japan’s first fashion show and put the goods on open display instead of in cases which had to be opened by assistants.

Here’s what Echigoya looked like, reconstructed at Nihonbashi in 2005.

Mitsukoshi Echigoya

(写真提供:三井不動産)

When they rebuilt the store after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, they brought in another innovation; customers no longer needed to take off their shoes on entering the store. In 1932 a tube station called Mitsukoshimae was built that opened directly into the basement of the store.

Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi

Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi

Fast forward to the start of the power-shoulders-and-greed decade of conspicuous consumption that was the Eighties. In Japan the economy boomed and property prices soared out of control. At one point it was claimed that the land on which the Imperial Palace stood in Tokyo was worth more than the whole of California. Japanese people began to travel to Europe for the first time. Nowadays it’s moneyed Chinese tourists who are courted, but in the eighties the Japanese tourist, backed by the soaring yen, was king.

But that led to a uniquely Japanese problem. Japanese people don’t speak foreign languages very well, and are wedded to their own way of life. They wanted to go shopping in London, but they wanted to be comfortable doing it. Enter Mitsukoshi London – a shop selling British goods to Japanese visitors in an environment that was just like home.

Mitsukoshi London

With a proper Japanese restaurant so people could comfort-eat home-style food too.

Mitsukoshi London

For a while it worked. But then came the inevitable crash. In 1990 the Nikkei stock index lost 35% of its value and continued to slide in 1991. By then property prices had hit the floor. The ‘bubble economy’ of the eighties was over and the nineties came to be known as the ‘lost decade’.

Still, Mitsukoshi London kept on going, even as other specialist shops catering to Japanese visitors shut their doors (remember JAL Plaza Igirisuya, anyone?). But what has delivered the final blow is the Crown Estates, Mitsukoshi’s landlord, and their plans to turn Regent Street into a premier shopping destination. That includes redeveloping the Mitsukoshi building, so they have to go.

Mitsukoshi London

They’re selling off the very last of the stock now – soon there’ll be nothing left.

Mitsukoshi London

Mitsukoshi London

Mitsukoshi London

Mitsukoshi London

The Japan Centre next door is closing its doors too, but has plans to reopen elsewhere. Not so Mitsukoshi, which has closed all its European stores in recent years.

Japan Centre London

So, if you want to buy a Royal Baby Souvenir mug from a Japanese shop assistant, get down to Mitsukoshi now.

Mitsukoshi London

61 thoughts on “London Mitsukoshi – End of an Era

  1. OH NO, not the Japan Centre too!! I go every couple of weeks but had no idea! This is an amazing post though, I didn’t realize it had such a special place in Japanese history – thank you for sharing

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  2. Sad news…but it reflects how marketing strategies have to stay abreast with time. The Misukoshi store in Hong Kong and Taipei should be fine. I’ll be there later this year.

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  3. This must be one of your saddest posts ever. Those empty are very haunting and look so odd – as if disaster had struck … which it has, I guess! 😦

    I’m intrigued though to know where the new JC will reopen. Hopefully it will be a bit more spacious. It’s a London Institution and can just disappear!

    You’ll keep us posted!

    y.

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  4. It is a great shame that Mitsukoshi is closing. I do remember the hayday of Japanese big name shops in Central London. And Mitsukoshi was the last giant to cater a unique shopping experience in UK.
    I’ve heard the bookshop in the basement has moved to somewhere behind the Boots at Piccadilly Circus. The staff told me they were operetaing already. So it is not all lost. Thank god for that. (^-^)

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  5. I did wonder about the Japanese shops around Piccadilly Circus (although truthfully never went in them) and watched them close down one by one, so thanks for explaining the history. It’s part of the story of the evolution of economic power……

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  6. I was going through your old posts. glad I did because I had no idea Mitsukoshi closed down over the summer while I was gone!! It was such an institution. I always found it amusing that a Japanese department store was here in London. When I lived in Japan, I found it incredibly expensive on my student budget. Sort of like Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, the store was beautiful for dream shopping.

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  7. Thanks for your post. I do remember the JAL store located in a square off Oxford Street! It’s sad to see the Mitsukoshi store close down. Whilst I never bought anything there, the service and setup was a little slice of Japanese life which was unique in London!

    However, over the years, I have been to the basement Mitsukoshi restaurant many times (around half way to three figures!) over the past 10 years. The decor was stuck in time but the food in the restaurant was good, cheap (particularly their lunch sets which were a bargin) and more authentic than usual (no fusion etc). I also enjoyed eating at the sushi bar many times – Oshima san was charming once you got to know him; and I met lots of interesting other customers there, e.g. the Japanese violinist/conductor, Joji Hattori and his mother once.

    After a long absence recently (my fault), I returned yesterday (Friday) with a friend for a final dinner (the sushi bar has now become a ramen restaurant and Oshima san has gone). The restaurant was full of customers – Japanese etc. The food was as I remembered and it was so good that I am considering going back for a final final meal today (which I assume is the last day).

    There is a glimmer of hope though! Unlike it is just being polite, there is a notice which reads:

    “… Mitsukoshi restaurant … will close indefinitely until a new site is found.

    We are endeavouring to find a suitable site for Mitsukoshi restaurant and hope to resume trading as soon as possible.”

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  8. This is pretty sad. Mitsukoshi was my go-to place for dinner in London with its nicely balanced Early Bird special. Anybody know of anything comparable in London?

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  9. HI ,
    EVERY 1 ITS REALY SHAME THAT MITSUKOSHI IS CLOSED LOTS OF GOOD STAFF LOST THERE JOBS INCLUDING ME AS WELL ITS LIKE A FAMILY BUT ALL SEPERATE I DIDNOT REALISE I WORK 6 YEAR N TIME FLY SOME TIME I PASS LOWER REGENT STREET I REALLY MISS MITSUKOSHI .

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  12. I have just found out about Mitsukoshi via a school research page about artist Sara Midda. She had a range of products there. I think it’s a great idea to bring Japan to the UK, whilst selling souvenirs there. Would have loved to go and visit it (if it was still there!) if I went to London. Have you any idea if they will open again elsewhere?

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  13. The decline and fall of a countries economy reflected in the closing of the shops that catered to it’s global business presence. It’s show us how fragile and transient economic success is and how predictably the nationalists rise as hard economic times ascend upon a culturally rich nation.

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  14. Thanks for the fascinating post – I used to work in Mitsukoshi in 1987 -1988. I’m returning to London next year and was wondering if it was still there. Such a shame, but as it’s been nearly 30 years since I was there I’m not surprised.

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  15. I used to work in Mitsukoshi from 1989 until 1992. Met some great friends and also introduced me to Japanese life. I have been living in Japan since 1992. I and many of the Japanese staff will be meeting for dinner this friday November 11th 2016. Looking forward to going down memory lane.

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  16. Hi,
    I worked at Mitsukoshi for a short time in 1991, Was in the souvenir department. The boss was a little wee lady, Tomario. Also remember a tall chap John who supported Luton. Love too hear from anyone who was there at that time.
    Cheers , Glen (Kiwi)

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