History & Culture

Building Memories - The History of Nihombashi Mitsukoshi Part 2


145_01.jpgAs we saw in the first part of our reflections on the history of Nihombashi Mitsukoshi since its establishment it a timeline defined by a spirit of change that is sometimes not immediately obvious in the enduring building you will find today. None the less its foundations are built on constant renewal, whether in response to the destruction wrought by earthquakes in advance of the safety technology we enjoy today, and more important even than that, the tumultuous tide of Tokyo's own history. Fittingly it is there that our story begins when in the first year of Enpō (1673) in Edo era Japan, the period that was responsible for the growth of present day Tokyo, Takatoshi Mitsui was to found the kimono dealer Echigoya in the heart of this emerging city that would later grow into the Mitsukoshi we know today.


Needless to say, the lack of photography prevents us from getting a direct sense of what this first iteration of the store must have been like, but fortunately the ukiyo-e woodblock print art of the era not only captures the architectural form but also the lively atmosphere. The earliest of which dating to Enpō 1 (1673), the very year when the store was first opened, finds a cross section of Edo life in a very different setting to the one you can find today with a raised tatami matted shop floor largely free of merchandizing and the staff fetching every item from the store room as required amongst a distinctly Japanese setting. Even so, this is a world not entirely disconnected from the present with the figures offering tea to visitors still part of the omotenashi service of the store at certain places, and the bold noren merchant curtains at the entrance a familiar sight even now over the New Year and other occations.

145_03.jpgSo how did this highly traditional Japanese earthen building make such a transformation? The answer again can be found in the art of the era, where we find frequent depictions of the store in the heart of bustling Edo, whether in famous views of Mount Fuji or from the literal ground zero of Edo, the Nihombashi bridge. It is this placement that is key, as it put Echigoya at the fore of the rapidly merchant culture of Edo, and then as we give way to Meiji (1868 - 1912), the store continued to be in the epicenter of change. A change exemplified by views in ukiyo-e capturing the store in the company of the new western style buildings in a Nihombashi area now synonymous with an aggregation of power, money and cultural influence. Here we find Nihombashi Mitsukoshi at the dawn of modernity, but still very much a reflection of the past.

By the time the first recorded photographs of the store were taken in Meiji 33 (1900) this dialogue between the store's lengthy history and modernity was well and truly underway. While Meiji 29 (1896) had seen the store renamed as Mitsui Gofukuten, meaning it was still predominantly a kimono seller, it had established a western style tailoring department as early as Meiji 16 (1883). This is echoed in the building itself where we start to see a hybrid approach to architecture incorporating a merchant facade with hints of Western architecture in the shape of the roof and addition of windows that resonated with tastes in the Nihombashi area as a whole.

Join us in Part 3 as we enter Meiji in earnest and see the building rendered in stone, announce itself as Japan's first department store, and formally greet its first foreign customers.

Top: Ukiyoe of Suruga cho by Kiyochika Kobayashi Meiji 1, 1868
Second: Suruga cho taken in Meiji 7, 1874
Third: Echigoya taken in Meiji 25, 1892

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