The Story of Shotengai

by Inoue Naoki


When I was on a business trip in Tokyo, I happened to come across a handmade Japanese senbei shop. The owner was a simple and honest elderly man, he said he had been doing this for seventy years. But recently he didn't have the energy to bake senbei at home and had no one to pass on his skills to. He said, "If you had come ten years earlier, I could have supplied you with senbei."

Small shops on the outskirts of the capital face the same problem as those in other small cities. He said young Japanese people don't like to eat these 'hard pancakes' anymore. It's a shame that unique Japanese foods like these are disappearing one by one.

The photo was taken near Motomachi Underpass Shotengai (Motoko), a shopping street 2 kilometers from JR Sannomiya Station. Although it was a Sunday afternoon, the street was quite empty, and most shops had their shutters down. While it is true that stores that sell meat and seafood tend to close early, they should have been open at that time. However, the closed doors indicated that those shops were completely vacant.

In Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai, one of the restaurants I regularly attended announced that it was closing. A notice was taped to the wall, and the paper was turning yellow after three years of sun damage. In Shisaibashisuji Shotengai near our office, a soba restaurant closed on January 16, 2023. Though it was a branch of a well-established soba restaurant from Nara Prefecture, it opened in 2018 and didn't survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notice of closing posted on the store's shutter. The words, "Thank you," at the end make me sad.

Data on shotengai

The last few years have been difficult for shotengai. The number of shops has decreased and the number of vacant stores has increased. You can feel the change if you've visited Japan before and after the pandemic. So what do the insiders think? Let's take a look.

This chart is the result of a survey which asked 12,210 shotengai nationwide conducted by the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency in October 2021 (of which 5,105 responded).

In 2021, only 1.3% of respondents (compared to 2.6% in 2018) believed that their shotengai were prosperous. Additionally, 67.2% thought that shotengai was declining or would decline in the future. The survey found that those shotengai in areas with a smaller population meant the shotengai operators had a more pessimistic view of the future of shotengai. In cities with a population under 50,000, the number of people who thought that shotengai was declining or would decline is 82.6%, whereas the number was 56.2% in big cities & districts specially distinguished by the government.

These are subjective observations from shotengai shop owners. So what about the objective data? The average number of open shops per shotengai has decreased from 54.3 shops in 2015 to 51.2 in 2021. In 2015, 31.9% of respondents believed that the number of vacant stores had increased, while 49.1% held the opposite opinion. However, in 2021, the percentages were 33.3% and 11.2%, respectively. In actuality, the storefront vacancy rate increased from 13.17% in 2015 to 13.59% in 2021. In less populated regions, the storefront vacancy rate is even higher. 13% means that at least one in ten stores are closed. 13% would be an absolutely unacceptable percentage in shopping malls because consumers would worry that the mall would go out of business.

What is keeping the snowball rolling?

Thriving shopping malls and e-commerce are external factors affecting shotengai. Malls conveniently have everything in one place (not to mention free parking for vehicles - unheard of in the world of shotengai) and online shopping is just so easy. People can’t seem to resist such convenience because humans are hard-wired to be lazy. It's laziness that drives all technological progress. For example, our ancestors invented tools and discovered fire to make life easier (see Ed Stafford's, “Life on a Desert Island”). While the data above shows us the situation before and after the Covid pandemic, we can't clearly feel the difference. If we compare the state of shotengai to a snowball rolling downhill, the pandemic is merely a factor that accelerated it, rather than one that started it. So what started the rolling? Is there a way to stop it? Might there be a structural problem in Japanese society?

Is it the power of youth that is needed to stop the snowball?

Let's turn back to the result of the survey conducted by the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency. The most commonly reported problem (72.7%) with shotengai is the issue of succession caused by the aging population. It means that few young people want to take over the stores that their parents worked so hard to maintain. Generally, a society is called a “super-aged society” when 65% or more of the population is 65 or older. Japan became a super-aged society in 2007, and the aging population keeps increasing. Shotengai can do nothing about this. Actually, most respondents (96.0%) say they didn't have any specific plan for as to who would run their business after their retirement.

“Why don't they hand off their business to their children?” The answer to this question is the infamous inheritance tax. If one were to inherit land used for private business with an assessed value of 40 million yen, the recipient is required to pay as much as 8 million yen as a tax, even if the inheritor is one of their own children.

I love Japanese food. I truly believe that the snacks in the Nishiki Box are treasures from all over Japan. I don't want them to disappear in 10 or 20 years. So my goal is to pass on the way to make these snacks to future generations.

Japanese craftsmanship is a valuable skill that no machine can replicate. For example, the know-how of Banshu-Ako Shioame in the Nishiki Box has been passed down through Master Iida's family for hundreds of years. The whole process is handmade. The recipe is not fixed - Master Iida will adjust it slightly depending on the temperature, humidity, salt quality, and so on. It's also hard to measure the strength Master Iida uses to knead the candy dough. The know-how is completely based on Master Iida's intuition, so it would be hard to learn through simply reading some document that details the process merely in words.

A few years ago, Japanese tech leader Takafumi Horie said it would be foolish to take years just to learn how to make sushi. Some sushi restaurants indeed have chefs who weren't apprenticed to sushi masters and only trained in sushi schools. And sometimes such restaurants are even listed in the Michelin Guide. However, Takafumi Horie was roasted by the traditional sushi chefs, exclaiming that the sushi he mentioned is not sushi at all.

My grandfather was a seaweed wholesaler in Semba, Osaka (where our office is located). Due to various reasons, there is no trace of his business anymore. I think the tragedy of a broken family business is not the lost techniques, but the lost sense of pride. Cool Japan is supported by tangible things, and, more importantly, a national identity cultivated throughout Japanese history. Once we lose our identity, Japan is no longer Japan. The future that those traditional sushi chefs are fearing is approaching.

What can we do now?

We at Shotengai focus on regional charm and craftsmanship. We believe we can contribute to the rebirth of shotengai and its stores by introducing their goods to the world. We hope you enjoy these treasures.

I'd like to show you one final survey result. 47.9% of people interviewed believe that the percentage of foreign tourists among the total consumers in shotengai has remained the same compared to 3 years ago, while 34.3% believe that it has decreased and 0.5% believe that it has increased. The more sparsely populated the area, the more that respondents believed the number of foreign customers in shotengai has decreased or remained the same.

Shotengai all over Japan are making efforts to facilitate foreign tourists. According to a survey conducted by the National Federation of Shopping Center Promotion Associations, 62.4% of shotengai offer Wi-Fi, and 58.2% offer multilingual maps and guidebooks. A shotengai in Shimane Prefecture built a virtual 360° shotengai. All of this has been to try to make it easier to get accurate information about shotengai.

We want to present and promote regional charms and small stores through our booklets, website, and videos. If you like a snack, you should try to come and visit the place where it comes from. We promise that you will enjoy the natural beauty and the personal, human touch that is lacking these days.

Your bites and your footsteps support their future.

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