A yen for the best may be dangerous

By Lawrence and Kathleen Charters
Kenko Shimbun, February 1984, p. 10.

Japan is a very dangerous place to live. True, there is next to no crime (except on TV shows), and the people are friendly. On the other hand, there are limitless numbers of quality “bargains,” and nothing is more tempting – and dangerous – than an outstanding product at a good price.

One of the most dangerous places in Japan is Tokyo’s Ginza district, the country’s shopping capital. Board a red kanji train at Yokosuka’s Chuo station and continue on to Higashi Ginza station in the heart of Tokyo. The train automatically enters Tokyo’s subway system at Shinagawa, so don’t worry about switching trains. There is a koban (police box) a few feet from the subway exit and, just beyond the koban, a narrow street leading to one of the most terrifying places in Japan: TCC. The trip is so easy and effortless it is hard to get lost but, if you do, just walk up to a koban and a police officer will cheerfully tell you where to go –

Exit from Higashi Ginza subway station
Exit from Higashi Ginza subway station. Tandy Computer Center is behind the building with the large arrow. (Image scanned from newspaper.)

While the name “TCC” may not seem familiar, it is short for Tandy Computer Center. Tandy, parent company of the Radio Shack chain, has more outlets worldwide than McDonald’s, and sells a wider selection of computers than its four top competitors. Finding one in Japan is a major disaster since, unlike most Japanese computer stores, TCC stocks American designed products with English language manuals and brochures (all the better to tempt you with). Toshiaki Takayanagi (“Ak”), the English-speaking assistant manager of the Ginza store, compounds this catastrophe by being very helpful. Just an hour after entering the store we left with a Model 100 computer and a bag of digital goodies.

This clever notebook-sized machine has a built-in word processing program, making it perfect for typing Kenko Shimbun articles while wrapped up in a warm bed on a cold winter’s night. It has a full typewriter keyboard, a nice screen, and enough memory to write 20-30 pages of letters, notes, or leave requests. While riding on the train we used the built-in programming language to discover that, had this been Italy, the machine would have cost 1.34 million Italian lira. (You could also program useful things, too, but that probably wouldn’t be as much fun.) As for why buying the computer was catastrophic – we were window shopping, and had not expected to buy a window –

A Tokyo district address marker
A district address marker for the Ginza. The number corresponds to the first digit in an address, as in “4-9-13 Ginza.” (Image scanned from newspaper.)

You might think getting a computer would be enough for one day – but Japan, remember, is a dangerous place. Straining under the weight of our new four pound computer, we next went looking for Kinokuniya, a huge bookstore in the Shinjuku district. Kinokuniya is a little harder to find; Shinjuku station is huge, and we spent several months walking around it, looking at such marvels as a racketball court sized electronic screen for showing new video disks. (When you see a twenty-foot high Olivia Newton John, you begin to understand why she is called a “superstar.”) Not knowing where we were going didn’t save us, though: we found Kinokuniya without any trouble. Kinokuniya has several floors of books, but to us the most interesting was the “foreign language” section on the fifth floor. There you can find German, French, and Spanish language books, as well as books in the most foreign language of all: English. Thousands of English language titles from U.S., British, and Japanese publishers are available, as well as calendars, maps, and magazines.

The dangerous bargain at Kinokuniya was heavier that the Model 100 computer – several times heavier. After twenty some years of effort and millions of dollars and billions of yen in expenses, the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan has finally been published. A massive, nine volume work devoted to everything Japanese, Kodansha International claims the encyclopedia is the most comprehensive work ever devoted to a single culture. After skimming a couple dozen articles and looking at the index, it would be hard to disagree.

Had we not already purchased a computer we probably would have walked away with the encyclopedia. At ¥130,000 (¥140,000 starting in April, 1984) the encyclopedia is not cheap, but it also isn’t unreasonably priced for what it offers. This is probably the most dangerous aspect of shopping in Japan: everything – from the people to the products – is almost always seductively reasonable.

Returning home with a lightweight computer and a weightless wallet, we avoided talking about bargains. Secretly, however,we’re· saving one yen coins and building upper body strength, all in preparation for getting a hundred pound encyclopedic bargain. It’s a good thing we are here for only three years – we couldn’t afford anything longer –


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