This Service Connects Japan’s Small Shops to the World

This Service Connects Japan’s Small Shops to the World

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Japanese lacquerware (shikki)
Picture: yasu / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Japan's small shops are struggling to stay afloat. A new service lets you give them a helping hand - without even setting foot in Japan.

Japan is teeming with great stores offering products you’ll never find anywhere else. Some of these businesses have been handed down for generations. 

Sadly, due to a combination of factors, a lot of these stores struggle to stay afloat. Some stores have taken to selling overseas to fill the gap. But language barriers and shipping logistics can make it difficult for those outside of Japan to find and enjoy these unique offerings. 

Fortunately, there’s a new online marketplace that aims to change that. 

Note: This post is sponsored by ZenPlus.

Japan’s historic businesses

Nakaroku, a miso store in Kanazawa. Nakaroku fits the definition of a shinise; it’s been running since 1813 and continues operation today with the family’s 7th generation. (Picture: 髙橋義雄 / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Japan is an old country where traditional arts are handed down across generations. In art forms such as kabuki, disciples study at the feet of their teachers and even inherit their names. 

This also happens with family businesses. The term shinise (老舗) refers to an established business that’s been handed down through generations. 

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How old does a store have to be to be shinise? There’s no exact definition. In some areas, like Tokyo, a business running for 100 or even 50 years could be classified as shinise. In Kyoto,Japan’s former capital, some content the business needs to be running for closer to 200 years (!). 

Japan has relatively more shinise than other countries. For example, in Germany, the number of businesses that stretch back for 200 or more years is around 800. In the Netherlands, it’s only around 200. But Japan has over 3,000 businesses that meet this lofty benchmark[1].

However you define one, shinise carry decades – sometimes centuries – of history with them. In many cases, they preserve a traditional craft – such as tofu making or wagashi (和菓子; Japanese sweets) – that might otherwise be lost to future generations.

The struggles of Japan’s small shops

Unfortunately, many shinise struggle to stay afloat in the modern era. One reason is the lack of relatives to inherit the trade. We’ve written before about how some traditional ramen shops have shuttered their doors due to the lack of a successor. Japan’s rapidly aging population means fewer people left to carry on the legacies of the past.

Another reason is the three-year-long pandemic. Japan closed its borders completely to tourism until just recently. This hit small retailers hard. In 2022 alone, some 1,045 businesses over 30 years old shuttered their doors. 33 businesses over 100 years old failed to make it as well[2].

How can businesses survive under such conditions? One option is selling goods overseas. After all, there’s no shortage of people worldwide who’d love to purchase authentic goods from Japan – especially from traditional producers. But many small businesses struggle with overcoming the language barrier and operationalizing international retail.

There’s also the problem of discoverability. How do you find such businesses? Until now, it’s been up to Japan lovers to find such retailers themselves and then use a proxy shipping service. But not all businesses honor the use of proxy services. And unless you’re fluent in Japanese, there are a ton of great traditional stores you just won’t be able to find.

ZenPlus: Connecting customers to retailers of all sizes in Japan

This is where ZenPlus comes in. Unlike some “Japan stores” online that sell a set number of goods, ZenPlus takes a different approach. It’s a marketplace of retailers all across Japan offering goods of all kinds and varieties.

Based in Osaka, ZenPlus works with small and medium-sized Japanese businesses to get their goods in front of an international audience. It then aggregates these offerings into its expansive marketplace, where you can search across multiple retailers to find exactly what you want.

ZenPlus offers goods across a wide variety of categories, including fashion, health & beauty, electronics, hobbies, and more. (Want a kotatsu? ZenPlus sells them!)

Even better, ZenPlus sells from a large number of shinise retailers. That means that, when you shop ZenPlus, you’re helping small, traditional retailers carry on their traditions across generations. Some of these stores have sizable reputations in Japan but are relatively unknown outside of the country’s borders.

Here are just a few of the great traditional stores you can shop from when you use ZenPlus.

Senkien (千紀園)

Dating from the end of Japan’s Edo era, Senkien is an Uji matcha tea and sweets specialty shop. Uji is one of Japan’s top matcha production locations and is renowned for its quality.

One of Senkien’s more unique products is its uji matcha soba noodles. The company sells noodle packets along with a soup base for dipping. While other manufacturers sell matcha soba noodles, Senkien says theirs contains four times the matcha you’ll find in competitors’ products. 

Aki Co, Ltd. (暁喜株式会社)

Aki is a health and beauty care product company located in Osaka. For the past 30 years, the company has collaborated with producers to make high-quality, traditional products from locally sourced ingredients. Aki’s products are even used by Japan’s Imperial Family. 

As a company, Aki commits itself to sustainable production. It also commits to working with staff members with mental illnesses and disabilities. 

Some of their unique products include a 15-set sampler of tea made from 16 Japanese herbs, as well as a smoked soup stock organic soy sauce from a producer, Takumi, that’s been in business since 1877.

Shomeido (正明堂 )

Shomeido is a manufacturer of high-end fruit-related gifts that declares itself “a bridge to the important people” in your life. The company is a forerunner in online sales: its e-commerce site has been running for 23 years. All of their products are selected by qualified staff and wrapped carefully by experts. 

Sadly, not all of Shomeido’s products would survive international shipping. But the store is offering a few of its goods for the world to enjoy. One of the delicious-looking products available on ZenPlus is this “Gokushibori” (selectively pressed) two-bottle set of orange juice made from 16 Mikkabi mandarin oranges. You can also buy premium Mikkabi tangerine jellies in 6-, 15-, and 20-set gift boxes. 

Fujishiro

If any craft in Japan deserves the prefix “the ancient art of”, it’s probably Japanese lacquerware (漆器; shikki). Dating back to Japan’s prehistory, Japanese lacquerware is prized the world over. ZenPlus features multiple sellers such as Fujishiro whose handcrafted products are nothing less than functional artworks.

Japan Village

It’s hard to find a bad meal in Japan. Traditional dishes – such as Japan’s famous noodle dish, ramen – all have tantalizing local variations guaranteed to keep your palette intrigued.

ZenPlus seller Japan Village aims to provide this local flavor to a global audience – even if they can’t visit Japan. Their ご当地ラーメン (go-tochi ramen) sets capture the unique ramen variations from a given prefecture or region. The delicious-looking six-ramen Kansai set includes ramen from four prefectures in Japan’s Kansai region: Wakayama, Nara, Osaka, and Kyoto. They also offer local ramen tastes from Hiroshima, Kumamoto, Hokkaido, Miyagi, Kagoshima, and many, many other locations.

A wide range of products

These are just a few of the over 2,000 retailers you’ll find on the ZenPlus marketplace. From sake to toys & games to furniture, ZenPlus is a clearinghouse of modern and traditional Japanese wares. Many are from shops that have struggled to find a path to sell overseas. 

The pandemic took a bite out of many local businesses. Most are still struggling to recover. Without help and support, some may not make it through 2023. Consider using ZenPlus as your one-stop shop for unique items and gifts that are the products of tens – and in some cases, hundreds – of years of tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Sources

[1] 日本にある老舗の数は世界一?老舗を守るために私たちにできること. Japan Web Magazine

[2] 今年上半期に発生した企業倒産、業歴30年以上の倒産は1049件、業歴100年以上の老舗倒産は33件. DIME

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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