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What it's like for department store staff in a recession

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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

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

48 Comments
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When a customer finally does appear, we all rush up to attend to her.

Bugger off, ya vultures!

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 know a few dept store girls, and yes, this is an accurate description.

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They do not want to give opertunity to others as work share just attempting office in name of overtime.Poor people of poor mentality in G7 country.All times say no free time.

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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.”

I wonder what the name of her company is?????

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Doesn't that woman moonlighting as a "chat lady" have any dignity?

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Good ol' Kuchikomi...

This is apparently the place to be picking up girsl - department stores... the staff will do anything for your attention...

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Unfortunately they will be too busy working themselves to death for peanuts to meet up with you..

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One of the most interesting, yet heartbreaking, stories to appear on JT. It's certainly an accurate and sad reflection of the situation in Japan today.

I can see many Chinese department stores moving in and/or taking over prominent and prestigious retail premises in the future to cater more for ever-growing Chinese customers.

Shanghai & Beijing department stores, by contrast, are thriving hubs of activity all day long with customers spending what I can only describe as a phenomenal amounts of money on brand-name goods. Lets hope the Chinese can save Japan.

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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!”

Criminal.

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When I enter a store I hate being followed by store guys/ girls and I hate when they are putting pressure on me to buy stuff: you wanna sell?? Leave the customers alone! That is one reason why I hate shopping sometimes. Irashaimase? Just shut up

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My god unbelievable that people would put up with it. Maybe only gaman gabatte japanese would. These businesses should be prosecuted. She should go welfare if it pays more, this is just ridiculous. She could die tomorrow so is it all worth it?? Of course not.

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There’s only one place where she can grab a quick bite—the toilet.

I always wondered how much this nation is willing to sacrifice to back the Japanese slogan "poor people, strong state". The answer is saddening: EVERYTHING.

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I can`t understand how it is even legal to treat employees like this? No lunch break? No paid overtime? All those working hours for criminally low wages? Is it legal? Or is it just that no-one complains because they know there are a dozen others willing to step into their shoes?

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Or is it just that no-one complains because they know there are a dozen others willing to step into their shoes?

probably an accurate summary

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-those are some sad stories and I hope sales and your employment futures improve with the season.

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Eating lunch in the toilet stall? Isn't there a law against that?

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[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.”]

I think I know her. Mitsu is that you?

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10 hours a day, five days a week, for 120,000 yen a month after taxes.

Yikes, she only makes around 550yen an hour after taxes.

Sitting there stuffing down an onigiri while hearing someone relieving herself in the next stall is just so sad.

It's more then just sad, it's distrubing.

Doesn't that woman moonlighting as a "chat lady" have any dignity?

When it comes to having dignity or eating, I'm would choose posing nude on a webcam(though I don't think I would get paid much).

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I did this job once. Standing. Concrete floors. Mind-numbing boredom. Shin splints. Flourescent lighting. I did this kind of work for about a year and a half when I was younger, and it is the most depressing kind of work there is.

I feel particularly sorry for the people in Japan doing this. In other countries, outlets will close or be acquired by other stores who can use the space. Here, it must be like water torture. Consider that companies such as Daiei have been cutting staff pretty constantly for 10 years. Can you imagine? Salaries and benefits have already been at rock bottom, and now the personal contact of customers and part timers is disappearing. It must be like working in a prison. This CHAT LADY person is probably acting out because she is entirely constrained at work.

Digging ditches is not the bottom of the totem pole, people, retail is.

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For the first time I feel sad reading JT. This last lady who is forced to have her lunch inside a toilet is just a tragedy.

Well, sign of the times Chinese are coming to save these ladies...

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Japanese wont complain or do anything about it because they are taught from a very young age that taking it up the rear is normal. Working obscene numbers of overtime hours is normal. HELP YOUR COMPANY! SCREW YOUR FAMILY AND PERSONAL LIFE. Even after all this time, my mother-in-law is still dumbfounded when I come home at 4 every day, and I can take vacation whenever the hell I feel like it because I work for a foreign company. Things like "Wont you be fired for taking 2 weeks off?" can be heard when I plan a trip to the states. Japanese mentality has got to change before any of this will.

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Japanese mentality has got to change before any of this will.

Spot on, DarkKnghtZ, and I don`t see that happening anytime soon - they are already drumming into my 5 year old the spirit of "Gaman" whole I make plans to show her how life can really be...

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I was at Mitsukoshi in Ginza yesterday and the food basement and 1st floors were packed with shoppers. Admittedly, I didn't go up to the clothing floors, so I don't know how empty they were.

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Japan has overcapacity in department stores. If they shut a few down it wouldn't be so bad...

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They must be bored out of their minds. I guess people are just looking or shopping at more affordable places. Uniqlo seems busy...

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Takashimaya just made 2000 employess redundant this week.

Now we know why more than 200,000 Japanese women work in the sex industry here. Why wouldn't you when you can make around 1 million yen plus per month.

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FineDiner. You make a point that I do not think you know you are making. If the "next best option" that these women have is sex-related work, then they are not trying too hard to retain their dignity. They are just ripping off stupid men. Most men esteem a rich prostitute more highly than a single mother or shop girl with a poverty-level income. The clamor for the almighty yen leads to this "shrug-like" morality where men give away their family fortune for what amounts to nothing in return.

Where I live, I am starting to see many stuffed animals in the windows of huge trucks. Women are driving trucks and doing the dirty work that herbivore men shun. Japanese women should give up the role of subservience to men once and for all, after taking all of their money of course.

Junnama: Well said. When you consider that "women" do not have time to shop like they used to, their target market has disappeared. Factor in internet shopping, less disposable income, lower household formation rates, and the rise of the suburbs, it is a wonder how these places expect to keep operating. I cannot think of any other country that has avoided a retail revolution as Japan basically has. If anything, the LARGE STORE LAW just delayed the inevitable in Japan.

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Very tragic, especially the lunch in the toilet part. But, damnit, you've got to stand up for yourself as well at your company. Dignity??? (actually I don't blame the sex site lady for doing what she's doing. At least she's trying to change her situation).

On a different note, I am happy this country is finally realizing the wisdom of not always splurging on "brand goods" from ultra-pricy department stores. Or maybe this sanity is only temporary?

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One day Mitsukoshi will be a ¥100 shop. One large one and it will be the Chinese and Koreans making the profit. The Japanese just took too long to get it. Victims of themselves and their own culture.

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Like many here, I feel very sorry for the ladies profiled in this article, but I feel no sorrow for the stores themselves. The department stores here have tried to keep a business model alive that should have died about 15 years ago. Paying ridiculous prices so there can be about 10 gals hovering around the cash register -- one to take your money, one to count the money, one to actually ring it up, etc., etc., -- is pre-bubble thinking. These dinasours need to get into the 21st century.

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Herefornow you actually took the words right out of my mouth.

I see a lot of suffering employees but I don`t see any of the dinosaur department store companies doing DOING anything about the changing marketplace.

The model seems to be the same tired old one ever since I came to Japan and their target customer market is shrinking faster than a salted slug.

Why don`t they redefine themselves? Bring in some more down-market realistic brands. Mix up the merchandising a little bit. Everyone except these so-called "retail experts" themselves seem to be aware of the way retail is going here and yet they still seem to be following the traditional standard of "If we just work that little bit harder, and squeeze just a little bit more out of the "team" then the good times will roll again" - fact is, the good times ended in the early nineties, and it is only the delusional who are continuing to believe it will all come good again. And with this "new" recession those guys are dropping like flies.

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I thought the last GDP figures showed Japan pulled out of recession. But we still seem to be getting bombarded by these "amid the current recession" type articles. I would like to see them stop, at least until we're back in recession.

I guess the boom times for "super-luxury tableware" are gone forever.. as other comments have said, its bubble-era stuff.

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They seem pretty busy at Jusco.

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Unless it's just my imagination playing tricks with me, I've never read anything positive about Japan's retail industry for decades. Their sales simply, so it appears, follow a hyperbolic curve. Why investors buy shares in this industry is beyond me. U.S. situation is no different where, for example, Saks 5th Avenue's sales declined 26% last month. Just a couple of days ago, heading for a college reunion at a mall restaurant, I went through Dillard's and sadly, I was the only one walking through that store. I felt very sorry for the employees who are sharing the same fate as their Japanese counterparts.

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pointofview

They must be bored out of their minds. I guess people are just looking or shopping at more affordable places. Uniqlo seems busy...

Wasn't Uniqlo who announced red numbers for 2009, in comparison to 2008?

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I think the people that were interviewed for this article have greatly exaggerated their working schedule. Japan has very strict labor laws concerning women's working hours.

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Japan has very strict labor laws concerning women's working hours.

You're kidding, right? How many Japanese, not on salary, actually get paid overtime?

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"Japan has very strict labor laws concerning women's working hours."

I'm sure they do. They also have armies of bureaucrats, keidanren lobbyists, and last but certainly not least amakudari and kisha clubs that together pose a pretty formidable barrier to any effective enforcement of these laws.

And then of course, there is the mindset problem. Yes, the law says that if you're a woman you must go home after a certain number of hours. Just punch out and keep working - sorted! You're not breaking the law, and your peers still like you.

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Like many here, I feel very sorry for the ladies profiled in this article, but I feel no sorrow for the stores themselves. The department stores here have tried to keep a business model alive that should have died about 15 years ago. Paying ridiculous prices so there can be about 10 gals hovering around the cash register -- one to take your money, one to count the money, one to actually ring it up, etc., etc., -- is pre-bubble thinking. These dinasours need to get into the 21st century.

herefornow, good points. I have often noticed that too.

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.

This should be criminal. Talk about the rights of workers.

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i thought Japan was 3rd or 4th in terms of largest economy... no??

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Sitting there stuffing down an onigiri while hearing someone relieving herself in the next stall is just so sad.

That is terrible. The other person should at least have the decency to flush to mask the sound.

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I don't think the poor treatment of these employees has much to do with the recession. In the first case, it sounds like the woman just has a lousy job. If she can get more on welfare, I say go for it! As for the second two cases, the departments stores are clearly bullying and abusing their staff. Working unpaid overtime and not getting a lunch break is against labor laws. I do feel sorry for these woman and I can imagine how powerless they feel however people have got to start standing up to Japanese companies for things to change. There is power in numbers. Get together with other employees and refuse to be disrespected and treated like slaves. If your company won't change, get out and find a better job.

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These stores have way too many staff

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Hephatsheput, too funny!

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@dolphingirl - well said, and I dont know what gets me more frustrated - the fact that these people wont stand up for themselves, or possibly the fact that they can`t.

I tried to talk to my husband about the Japanese culture of "Gaman" the other night, and asked him how Japanese can continue to Gaman not even knowing if the situation will ever change. I should have known better really - he got incredibly defensive and starting hurling accusations that at least "Japanese arent lazy like the British who cant take a little hard work"....I gave up at that point. When he starts attacking like that it usually means he doesn`t know the answer!

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Shiori routinely works from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m

If the shop closes at 9:00pm, what exactly does she do until 11?

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I didn't see where it said the shop closes at 9, or is it a law that all department stores must close by 9? Besides, just because the store closes to the public at a certain time doesn't mean all the employees go home at that time. There's shelf re-stocking to do and price changes, etc.

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So then what does she do between 8:30am and 10:00am?

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'not allowed to take a lunch break'. Impressive "luxury department store" she works for.

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