… It’s well-known that Tokyo is a shopper’s paradise. It is the mecca. The kingdom. It is the Sun, and the rest of us revolve around it with wide eyes. And the Japanese shopping experience is also known to be cosmically good. Service and cleanliness are top. But there are some things you should know before getting on a plane to drop some yen. It may not be the smooth ride you expect it to be, and sometimes that service could go from heaven to hell in a heartbeat. So here is some truth about shopping in Japan, for better or worse.
First off, I gotta say outright that shopping in Japan is *still* fucking amazing no matter what. I’ve been to contenders Hong Kong, New York, Paris, Milan, London and the sheer amount of shops and boutiques scrunched into our Tokyo metropolis outranks those by far. FAR! Even living here 10 years, I would need a guide before I could get to exploring Shimokitazawa or Ura-hara, and there are amazing stores that pop up all the time blindsiding me.
“Super super super enthusiasm!”
“Irasshaimase” is sometimes taken to extreme levels. And by levels I mean decebels. It literally means “welcome” and workers often yell it out every few minutes whether there are shoppers there or not. It can get quite loud, and sometime crescendos into a chorus. It’s especially harrowing in Shibuya or Harajuku; the younger the crowd for the store you’re in the louder they yell and it can inevitably get on your nerves to the point of leaving.
But in fact, there’s a reason they do this. It’s actually considered embarrassingly *rude* for Japanese to be with someone else and stay silent. You’ll notice when they have conversations, the listener will say “uh-huh” every sentence or so. Not doing so means you’re not paying attention and the other person will get offended (sometimes asking, “Are you listening?” And you’re like…I’m looking *right at you* of course I’m listening, right??). So the constant “irasshaimase” from shop people is just them telling you that they are “listening” and paying attention to you, the “talker” as customer.
Japanese salespeople are really happy to help. REALLY happy. If you so much as *hover* at an item they will be up on you like toro on rice. They will usually say 1 of 2 things by textbook:
1. You can hold it up to yourself and look in the mirror!
2.You can try it on!
The first one is a surefire way to personally put me in a “let me shop in peace” mode. It’s an odd saying in the first place, since it comes off as like getting “permission” to pick up the clothes, but it’s a pretty standard saying and you’ll hear it all the time. It helps encourage Japanese shoppers who may be shy to “take the plunge” and pick something up.
The Japanese enthusiasm is a learned behavior. And they will be VERY enthusiastic about whatever it is you’re touching (whether you care to know about how many celebrity models wore it in magazines or how much the staff person herself just LOVES it, or how the big floppy ribbon is SUCH a CUTE “one-point” that’s not TOO sweet but JUST RIGHT or not and it’s AMAZING).
Is it possible that a shop person could really be excited about EVERYTHING in the store THAT much? Yes. Yes, it is. They aren’t being fake or sarcastic, they are just being normal.
There are two methods of sizing in Japan.
1. S, M, L and
2. “Free Size”
The first one is pretty standard, in that it’s really not standard at all. For one thing, a Japanese size S is going to be *pretty* freaking small. Most Japanese girls wouldn’t be caught dead in a size L so when it comes to local brands, you’ll often see “size 1” and “size 2” which are S and M respectfully.
The average Japanese woman is about 159cm tall with size 83bust, 63 waist and 91cm hip. The average shoe size is 36 or 37european (6 or 6 1/2 USA). Tiny! I am an American shrimp (luckily) but I cannot wear the pants as there is NO room for a bum at all. And the chest area tends to be tight as well, with no stretch. My Western friends here who are small enough to slip in with the crowd also complain about not being able to find pants that fit, so unless you are blessed, don’t spend too much time on pants shopping. And shoes. But that’s a given.
Then there’s the dreaded “Free Size”. It is a “one size fits all” and a serious cop-out for the brands since they don’t have to make any sizes. It is rampant in local labels, especially ones for the 20s market. Since it’s a non-descript “free”, it’s usually not tailored, with a big, loose silhouette so it’s very forgiving…. if you’re average size give or take. And it’s not just the young, cheapish brands either. I HAVE seen a high-end Japanese brand actually put out a fitted dress for hundreds of dollars in a “free” size intended for the western market. I said point-blank, “You. Must. Make. Sizes.”
Now, if you somehow find something you might fit in….
Trying things on:
You have to ask to try things on, you don’t just walk in. If you do not follow these rules you or the salesperson serving you will burst into flames:
1.TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES YOU ANIMAL. Make sure you’ve got no holes in your socks that day.
2.USE THE COTTON FACE COVER. It’s annoying I know, but USE it when trying on over-the-head stuff. Even if you don’t, make it look like you used it. It’s just a *thing* ok, do it.
The salesperson will definitely come back too soon and ask you how it is, even though you’re not nearly ready. You say “I’m ok” and they’ll come back again one more time before you’re finished. If you don’t like the item there are no racks that you can hang up what you don’t want and leave with, you’ve got to stare the poor salesperson in the face and say “Chotto….” (“Never gonna happen”.). They will take it with a smile, but perhaps due to the overbearing enthusiasm in helping, you yourself feel soul-crushed. Then sometimes you’ll get the obligatory feels and buy something anyway. Foiled by cuteness! Don’t worry, it happens among the Japanese as well (“I really like this shop girl and I’m embarrassed to not buy it so I guess I will anyway” type of guilt-tripping).
Speaking of buying….
First things first, unless you’re at H&M or Forever21 or some market like that, you MUST purchase everything on each floor you found it on. I don’t know exactly why this is, I think it first started out as an easy way to keep track of inventory. But now it may be to curb shoplifting, or maybe it’s just so ingrained in the culture that it comes second nature. You’ve seen Japanese people line up to see flowers bloom and to eat pancakes, yes? Well they like to line up to buy things a lot too. It’s just how it is so don’t be trying to take your contraband across “borders”.
Also, some places still won’t take credit cards, although it is rare. Clothing stores are usually OK. But I was at a big drugstore the other day and was shocked when they wouldn’t take my credit card. Some little Harajuku stores might not take them, so just check to be sure first (some might also have a minimum purchase at least).
If you are able to use your credit card, the register girl/boy may ask you “one time?” (ikkatsu?). This confused me to no end for a long time, but they are asking you if you want to pay for it once or in installments (up to 3, I think). In the west, you pay your bill in installments at the end of the month, but in Japan you can pay in up to 3 installments for free at the time of purchase (or minimal charge). Just an FYI.
A lot of these things I am used to. But this still gets me no matter what: at a boutique, the register girl/boy will insist on walking you to the edge of the store before handing you your bag and giving a hearty “goodbye”. I don’t know why this personally still irks me so much. It’s like I have already been helped enthusiastically and SO politely.. it’s like I am a disciple and Jesus insists on washing my feet. No, no, no. You have done enough for me already, kawaii girl now let me get out from under your spell. I really, really, really, just want them to hand me my bag and let me go, but I let them walk me begrudgingly.
Oh snap! Returns:
Unless the item is actually defective, and you are not at a foreign fast-fashion store, you cannot expect to be able to return anything. Ever. There are warnings on every register (usually in hard-to-understand English I must admit) so don’t try it. I could go into the time I tried to exchange a dictionary at a book store when I was an exchange student and hilarity ensued, but I’ll save it. You can’t return/exchange, so make sure you try your shizzit on first (and see above).
Now with the basics done, I will explain a few things. In Japan, working retail is done with pride, and not disdain like it is overseas. Some of the girls in shops can even move up the ranks to have their own brands ( This is called being a “producer”, see more on this here). So many are just trying to be your friend because the more customers they have, the easier it is to get popular.
Now the dark side…. there have been instances of discrimination that need to be pointed out, so you may be aware. I have seen it myself/heard from trusted friends that the influx of visitors to Japan is causing a slight disruption in the force….especially when it comes to trying on clothes. Foreigners may be asked not to try on some clothes if they are sweaty, too large/overweight, or cross-dressing/trans. I don’t know the implications and how it’s being enforced, but just to make you aware if you would fall under those categories and are in a small subculture boutique.
With that all said, I know this is nitpicking, as you will never leave Japan disappointed when it comes to shopping. There WILL be something for everyone, as with the sheer amount of shops statistics just support it.
Want to know where to shop?
Favorites in-depth from the blog:
(Also: Aquvii, Adelaide, CRY, ICON Tokyo, Alcatrock, Gr8, Cannabis, BeautiK, I AM I, Iroya, 109, Mouse, Spank!, Wagado and more are amazing)
and tons of pictures of shops below!