Japan’s Top 5 Department Stores

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  • Oh, the beauty of Japanese department stores! There is definitely something magical about Japanese department stores whether it’s due to their exceptional customer service, often marvelous food floors, proximity to major train stations, or the way they can shield you from the summer heat or winter cold.

    by Martin Danker

    Despite the general assumption that Japan is not a big country simply because its total area can’t compare to the likes of China, Canada, and the U.S., the Taiheiyo Belt or Tokaido Corridor, which contains some of Japan’s biggest and most economically powerful cities, stretches for almost 1,200 kilometers. As such, the distance between Tokyo and Fukuoka is comparable to that of the American cities of Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California. Suddenly, Japan does not seem as small as before.

    With 125 million people (though a declining population), Japan has multiple cities with over one million citizens, and big cities equal big department stores.

    Just like in many countries around the world, Japanese department stores have not been immune to the rise of online shopping and shifts in consumerism, but many big names have been able to stand their ground. Some of the big department store names have had to close smaller or poorly performing branches, but their flagship stores have continued to thrive in part thanks to the perception citizens have of department stores and what they represent, their service, convenient locations, and tourism.

    So, what are Japan’s most popular department stores by total sales?

    5. Mitsukoshi – Nihonbashi Main Store – Tokyo

    Mitsukoshi started as a simple kimono store in the financial and shopping district of Nihonbashi before becoming one of Japan’s most important department stores. Mitsukoshi is often referred to as the oldest department store in Japan. This title is somewhat controversial since Matsuzakaya in Nagoya is about 50 years older, and while both Mitsukoshi and Matsuzakaya started in the 1600s as kimono stores, both would eventually become prominent department stores. However, Mitsukoshi advocated the “Department Store Declaration” of 1904, and became Japan’s first modern department store.

    Mitsukoshi is one of those department stores that is a wonder to walk around. The main building’s signature lion statues adorn the main entrance, and if you get there early in the morning you will see the ceremonial way in which they open doors. The building’s atrium is also graced by the beautiful Tenjo Magakoro sculpture, which was carved out of 500-year-old cypress wood and stands at an impressive 11 meters tall. This store has also been undergoing major renovations that modernized its interior. The main building’s first floor now has leaf-shaped aluminum panels created by Lighting Planners Associates and Kengo Kuma, bringing a sophisticated and modern twist to the historic department store.

    Mitsukoshi is also the most important department store in the Nihonbashi area by total sales, though the difficult years during the pandemic made rival Takashimaya’s sales slightly higher than Mitsukoshi’s. Still historically and perhaps in the future, Mitsukoshi will retake its crown. One of the reasons behind Mitsukoshi’s longevity and importance in the area is its clientele. While many other department stores cater to different types of customers, Mitsukoshi tends to have a very affluent, albeit older, clientele. It is for that reason that men looking for something on the men’s floors tend to leave a bit disappointed: Mitsukoshi carries a more conservative line of clothes because that’s how older Japanese men dress. That’s why Mitshukoshi’s plan after the pandemic is to focus on history and tradition while partner Isetan will focus on fashion and modernization.

    Mitsukoshi’s floors showcasing products like arts and crafts, food, kimono, home decor, and women’s clothing tend to be exceptional, and the men’s floor carry an exquisite selection for men who like to wear suits and the like; and just how much do Mitsukoshi’s customers spend a day? It’s estimated that the most loyal customers usually spend 600,000 yen per visit. As such, while Mitsukoshi is not the number one department store in Japan by total sales, it is the one with the most affluent clientele.

    4. Takashimaya – JR Nagoya Takashimaya – Nagoya

    Takashimaya is a very unique department store chain because of its number of successful department stores in Japan. Takashimaya operates the largest number of department stores in Japan with sales exceeding 100 billion yen under normal years, a feat no other department store chain can claim. Among Takashimaya’s many successful department stores one can find the Nihombashi, Osaka, Yokohama, and Kyoto ones.

    And while Takashimaya was founded in Kyoto and is currently headquartered in Osaka, its most profitable store is one outside those cities, and one that the company does not manage directly: JR Nagoya Takashimaya.

    Despite not being a subsidiary of Takashimaya, JR Nagoaya Takashimaya went on to outperform other Takashimaya department stores thanks to some very important factors: location and competition.

    JR Nagoya Takashimaya was born thanks to a partnership between JR Tokai and Takashimaya, which allowed the opening of a Takashimaya at JR Central Towers in Nagoya. The building is attached to JR Nagoya Station, one of the busiest train stations in Japan and a major shinkansen hub. As such, Takashimaya was able to flourish thanks to its enviable location, overtaking Matsuzakaya in Nagoya in sales.

    Of the stores that Takashimaya operates directly, the ones in Osaka and Nihonbashi, Tokyo are worth noting.

    The Osaka location is the second department store in Osaka in terms of sales, while the Nihombashi one is the third largest in Tokyo, recently overtaking Mitsukoshi, also in Nihonbashi, thanks to a recent renewal that focused on families instead of affluent shoppers.

    3. Seibu – Ikebukuro Main Store – Tokyo

    Ikebukuro is Japan’s second busiest train station (and second in the world, for that matter), and adjacent to the station one can find two famous department stores: Tobu and Seibu.
    Of the two, Seibu is the one with the higher sales volume, ranking third in Japan.

    Seibu operates under the umbrella of Seven & i Holdings, the Japanese giant that operates the 7-Eleven convenience stores (which have the largest footprint in Japan) and the Ito-Yokado grocery stores. Seibu’s flagship store in Ikebukuro is a sight to behold from the outside. The whole thing looks like a gigantic wall that extends from one end of Ikebukuro Station to the other, making it easy to understand its massive floor area.

    Seibu is famous among locals for providing luxury items, trendy clothes, a great food hall, and multiple restaurants. Seibu’s wrapping paper and shopping bags are also among the most famous and recognizable in Japan, alongside the ones from Isetan and Mitsukoshi, thanks to the artistic eye of graphic designer Ikko Tanaka.

    Ikebukuro as a whole is an important commercial district thanks to its role as a commuter hub for those who live in bedtowns across Saitama Prefecture, making it an ideal place for Saitama residents to go shopping and meet friends in Tokyo without having to venture farther into the center of the city.

    2. Hankyu – Umeda Main Store – Osaka

    “Isetan to the east, and Hankyu to the west.” That’s the common belief when it comes to department stores in Japan, meaning that Hankyu Umeda is THE one and only department store in western Japan while Isetan is THE one and only in eastern Japan thanks to their influence; and the saying is completely true. Hankyu Umeda is a force to reckon with, surpassing all other department stores in Osaka in terms of sales in such a way that it makes it seem as if there were no other major department stores in the city.

    Hankyu Umeda, and the nearby Hankyu Men’s, are trend setters in Osaka. The Umeda main store has an eye-popping concourse that looks like an elegant train terminal and an open space for festivals and events. Hankyu Umeda is a place not only for locals, but also for those visiting Osaka.

    Hankyu Umeda offers a sophisticated environment for luxury shopping thanks to 13 floors and two basement floors, housing everything from restaurants, stationary, HANKYU BEAUTY (cosmetics), living goods, women’s clothings, men’s clothings, and international boutiques.

    1. Isetan – Shinjuku Main Store – Tokyo

    Isetan is truly the queen of department stores in Japan. In Tokyo, Isetan is a trendsetting department store in Tokyo, the looks found there being the ones that appear across the city among fashion-conscious citizens.

    Unlike the Keio and Odakyu department stores in Shinjuku, Isetan is not directly connected to Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world. However, Isetan is not only the most important department store in the area, it’s also the department store with the highest sales in all of Japan. In normal years, Isetan sees sales close to 280 billion yen, and even during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many department stores across Japan suffer, Isetan’s sales stayed at over 200 billion yen.

    Isetan’s food hall is a wonder to behold (you can even buy unpasteurized milk here), and its clothing floors and two cosmetics floors can keep people shopping for hours. The main building also has restaurants, luxury watches, home goods, and stationary.

    One of the most important things Isetan has done was the creation of a men’s building, which is connected to the main store’s gorgeous art-deco building through various corridors on various floors. The men’s building was a first in Japan, and it challenged the notion that men were not interested in fashion and did not spend money at department stores. Isetan’s bet paid off, and it allowed Hankyu to also open its men’s store. As a result, Isetan has also become a jewel for men, who constantly go there to buy fashion goods; and unlike partner department store Mitsukoshi, the men’s clothes found here are not old-fashioned and conservative.

    Isetan’s popularity means that the department store tends to be packed to the brim at times, seeing a wide variety of customers from affluent ones to middle class families. Isetan’s main customers spend over 1 million yen at the store a year, contributing to its placement as the number one department store in Japan.

    *Featured Image by mitsukoshi_nihombashi on Instagram
    : mitsukoshi_nihombashi/