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.
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.
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.
With a proper Japanese restaurant so people could comfort-eat home-style food too.
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.
They’re selling off the very last of the stock now – soon there’ll be nothing left.
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.
So, if you want to buy a Royal Baby Souvenir mug from a Japanese shop assistant, get down to Mitsukoshi now.