A Japanese confectionery shop offering a wide variety of mouth-watering sweets. Notice the space in front of the display boxes. Customers sat here while being served.
Even in the early 20th century, shop display windows were relatively rare in Japan. Many shops could not even be entered. They opened straight onto the street and displayed their goods on a raised platform, with some space left open for the customer to sit down. Often there were also chairs or stools.
The open store layout made streets lively, but also had its drawbacks. Japanese streets were not paved and were quite dusty. One could expect to get a serving of this dust with whatever was purchased.
Some shops employed kanban musume (看板娘, signboard girls), young women whose looks were expected to attract and persuade potential customers. They would sit or squat in front of the shop.
As would the owner’s wife, often with one of her babies in a sling on her shoulder. Perhaps boiling tea water on a bronze hibachi, shifting the embers about with brass tongs.
Goods were brought to the customer, instead of the customer going to the goods, as we are used to doing today. This made shopping personal, but also time-consuming. A visit to a shop could easily turn into a drawn-out affair with cups of tea and long chats.
Japanese author Jukichi Inouye describes such shops in Home Life in Tokyo:1
Have another good look at the top image. In the back, a young girl can be seen leaning on a small gate. This entrance most likely led to the living space of the family running the store. Generally, the living space behind the store was quite visible from the street. There were few barriers between street and family life.
Many foreign visitors were surprised by this lack of privacy and wrote about it in letters and books. One of the earliest foreign books to mention this in the 19th century was The Capital of the Tycoon, written by the first British diplomatic representative to live in Japan, Rutherford Alcock (1809–1897). He was stationed in the country between 1858 (Ansei 5) and 1864 (Bunkyū 4), just as Japan was opening its borders.2
Private life on display was not limited to shops. With living space generally at a premium, life in Japan’s town and villages would often spill into the streets.3
Even as late as the fifties and sixties, much family life in Japan was played out on the streets. British sociologist Ronald Philip Dore, who studied a Tokyo neighborhood for several months during the 1950s, described this in his book City Life in Japan:4
1 Inouye, Jukichi (1911). Home Life in Tokyo. The Tokyo Printing Company, Ltd., 17-18.
2 Alcock, Rutherford (1863). The Capital of The Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in Japan VOL. I. New York: The Bradley Company, Publishers, 90–91.
3 Inouye, Jukichi (1911). Home Life in Tokyo. The Tokyo Printing Company, Ltd., 12-14.
4 Dore, Ronald Philip (1958). City life in Japan : a study of a Tokyo ward. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 17.
Duits, Kjeld (). 1890s: Japanese Sweets Shop, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on December 11, 2023 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/876/japanese-confectionery-shop-meiji-vintage-albumen-print-1890s