On Grocery Shopping in America in Japan

Costco may be in Japan, but Japan is not in Costco.


At Costco, Sports Utility Vehicles cram together like cold cats in boxes. Perhaps the engineers didn’t anticipate Costco’s catnip-like lure to the local crowd of big-box, big-car enthusiasts. This is shopping, American-style, and the experience of Costco is so red white and blue that it could make a military base seem downright anti-Capitalist.

Costco should be applauded for breaking down stereotypes of “the Japanese” as polite, reserved and group-centered people who know how to properly queue. Here are the counterexamples for anthropologists: Drivers cursing out of their windows for a parking space ten feet closer to the entrance; people discarding items in the middle of aisles; people cutting each other off for free samples; enormous people with enormous shopping carts filled to overflowing with enormous boxes of food.

It’s almost as though the enormity of everything inspires fiercer competition to dominate all available resources. It’s almost as though the single-serve portions inspire a calm reserve, while the industrial-supply size of food at Costco inspires a kind of delirium.

Show me one can of tomato sauce the size of a fist and I’ll toss it into my tiny green shopping basket. Show me 10 cans of tomato sauce, sized like aluminum watermelons, stacked into a mountain taller than my apartment complex, and I want as much as I can fit into my swimming-pool sized handcart.

The Locals
There are 13 Costcos in Japan, vast food-filled cathedrals standing against the mom and pop grocery shrines.

The locally owned shop, a five minute walk from my apartment, is filled with village produce. Village produce is fresh, delicious and only occasionally moldy.

There’s fresh sushi lining the back of the store – surrounded by enormous fish carcasses – made around the clock until 8 p.m., at which point the chefs go home and the stock boys start marking the prices down. Show up after 9 and get your raw fish half price!

The local grocery store may be a crowded mess, but that’s more the tiny aisles filled with women too old to push a shopping cart out of the way. The aisle holds one small cart’s width, sideways. Because elderly Japanese women can’t see foreigners, they’re unlikely to move out of the way.

Rather than the blaring sounds of televisions and radios, you have carnival music with announcements about meat:

On a side note, the music in the place is brilliant; electronic jazz-funk renditions that go way more extreme than anyone needs them to. It’s like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass got locked in a studio with LSD and Kitaro and couldn’t leave until they produced a shopping record.

But this is what most Americans think of when we think of “Japan,” really: Small, crowded spaces, raw fish, and robots screaming at us about meat.

The supermarket is a microcosm.

Basket of Donuts
Then there’s what most Japanese people think of when they think of “America.”

If there was an “Americatown” in Japan, one would probably design it as one designs a Costco: A giant warehouse of food and cheap TV’s.

If you think I’m slagging America, you’re wrong. I grew up surrounded by the frenzy of 50 TVs bouncing off stacks of snacks with enough calories to power the state of New Hampshire. My childhood Saturdays consisted of bland warehouse-styled buildings, fluorescent lighting and Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love” pumped through ceiling-mounted speakers.

Costco is my childhood: My obnoxious, often tedious childhood.

Going to Costco reminds me of the ways Japan is different from the rest of the world. The rest of the world is filled with the noise and filth of people, but it’s an inexplicable comfort to be reminded of it. Sometimes, you need to wallow, you need to be surrounded by people who “let go” and aren’t afraid to ram a shopping cart over the toe of a fellow human being.

Living in a culture of obligations and respect and extreme civility is stressful. You are always on guard and anxious. Being somewhere else for a moment, even if it’s just the free-for-all between the four unadorned concrete walls of the Costco Bunker, is a desperate release. It’s like an American Onsen.

Oh and There’s Shopping.
Of course, we’re all in favor of tortilla chips bags whose contents could fill pillowcases, conveniently located next to gallon-sized jars of salsa sold in pairs. I’m thrilled to find cereals that are neither corn flakes nor sold in the dessert aisle. The sight of Raisin Bran has never sparked such a thrill, as “two scoops of raisins” would probably fill an entire box of Japanese cereal.

I can’t say that Costco is any cheaper, since you buy so much more. And the added burdens of picking up a membership card and having to travel by car make it a messy endeavor. You can get there by bus, but in true American style, public transportation to my local Costco is an arduous hassle.

But Costco is more than a chance to stock up on cheap rations. It’s a cultural excursion. It’s a place where people still dedicate their internal monologue to “being first in line.” It’s a cheap thrill, a local dose of culture shock that reminds you, perhaps too much, of life back home.

If you like childhoods full of bland warehouse-style buildings, you might “like” This Japanese Life on Facebook. A version of this post originally appeared in The Refill.

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6 Responses to On Grocery Shopping in America in Japan

  1. This is amazing, and I love it. And I might love you.

    Would you ever consider being in the AJET Connect magazine?

    • owwls says:

      Sure I would! In fact I may have already been, with an article on diving in last month’s issue? That was a NAJET publication, I believe!

      • Mmmmm… March? Or is it going in April? (Clearly my internet-stalking力 is subpar, but I haven’t seen a diving article in the last two issues.) Anyway, I like the wry humor a lot and would definitely like to put you into a next issue!

      • owwls says:

        Go for it! Thanks. Need anything from me?

      • Well… What would you like to put in the issue? The deadline for May is April 20th, so if you’d want to spiff up anything you already have, or write something new, you totally have time.

        That said, our big sections are the culture commentary/information, travel stuff, and life/recipes/relationships that kind of nonsense. So, if you have anything you’re particularly wanting out there, I’ll take it!

        Hmmm… I will need to get you my email somehow.

  2. Pingback: On Selling “Latin Biorhythms” in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

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