It’s a holiday afternoon in the heart of the world’s second largest economy, and the department store is… empty.
To those who remember Japan’s department store heyday of the early and mid-1980s, the contrast is startling. The fall from grace didn’t occur overnight. What the recession of the ‘90s started, the current recession is accelerating, perhaps fatally. Department stores are out, discount shopping is in.
What’s it like clerking in a department store these days?
Like hosting a party no one comes to, Weekly Playboy (Dec 14) discovers in interviews with staffers. It’s emotionally forlorn, physically wearying, and economically untenable, given the panicked salary cuts that make government welfare payments seem enviable by comparison.
“We’re selling 30% what we were selling five years ago,” says Kaori. She’s a 27-year-old full-time employee of an outlet renting department store space to sell luxury brand-name products (Weekly Playboy doesn’t tell us which ones) at an unnamed department store. “It’s not unusual for there to be zero customers on the floor, just staff. When a customer finally does appear, we all rush up to attend to her. Even when there are no customers, the staffers are not allowed to talk to each other. So when it comes time to greet a customer, our voices are so rusty, the ‘Irasshaimase’ comes out sounding hoarse.”
Kana, a 33-year-old working on a contract basis, sells “super-luxury” tableware at a department store. “We see maybe five to eight customers a day,” she says. “We’re lucky if the daily turnover is 100,000 yen. Meanwhile, I’m working 10 hours a day, five days a week, for 120,000 yen a month after taxes. On welfare, I’d be getting 130,000 yen. Really, it’s impossible. I’ve started moonlighting as a ‘chat lady’ on an Internet site. I use my company name as my handle and pose naked in front of my webcam.”
Shiori, 29 and employed full-time by a department store with a 120-year history behind it, finds herself working more than 100 overtime hours a month and being paid for 10. Cost-cutting is her employer’s top priority, so the part-timers paid by the hour are sent home early. Shiori routinely works from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. “I get home and I sleep. That’s my life. I don’t even get invited to parties anymore. Physically and emotionally, I’m drying up!”
Minayo, 29 works full time at a department store selling Italian brand-name goods. Her employer having laid off all the part-timers, she is alone at her counter all day long. She can’t take a lunch break -- there’s no one to fill in for her. Eating at the counter is against the rules. There’s only one place where she can grab a quick bite -- the toilet. “Sitting there stuffing down an onigiri while hearing someone relieving herself in the next stall is just so sad,” she tells Weekly Playboy. “Before I know it, sometimes, I find myself in tears.”
Not long ago, Japanese department stores were vibrant symbols of prestigious elegance. Have they sunk to this? Is there no hope?
There is one, slender perhaps, but better than nothing. “When rich Chinese tourists come in, with their families or in tour groups, they shop to the tune of one or two million yen,” says Yurie, a 28-year-old full-timer. “They account for half our floor’s sales. When a Chinese tour group comes in, you can be sure the staff bends over backwards to give them a hearty welcome!”© Japan Today