What can a trip to the supermarket tell you about Japanese society?

by admin on September 30, 2012

I love street-level research.

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about what you can learn from supermarkets. For example, an average supermarket in the UK will have a large ready meals section, a huge beer and wine section, a reasonable fruit and veg section, and massive crisps, chocolate, and breakfast cereals sections. Arguably, the floorspace taken up reflects the realities of consumers lives.

What better opportunity then, down to go to a very average supermarket in Japan.

The supermarket concerned was a Seiyu, a 24-hour operation selected for its averageness, in Higashi-Ikebukuro (north of central Tokyo). People come to this area for general shopping, and there are many department stores around, but this is not a high-end supermarket. I went there to visit the only Indian restaurant that I would travel to by train in Tokyo – the owner is actually Sri Lankan, and they, like me, escape for winter.

Seyu supermarket in central Tokyo Seyu supermarket in central Tokyo


The supermarket announces its price competitiveness with this poster:

Japanese supermarket discount Japanese supermarket discount

It means that if you can find a cheaper product on a leaflet from another shop, they will sell you the product for that other shop’s price.

Upon entry: The bread section is actually quite large. Apparently, it is at least 5 times as large compared to that of an average supermarket 20 years ago.

Bread aisle Bread aisle

Although bread in Japanese (“pan”) refers collectively to sweet soft bread, pastries, and ordinarily sliced bread, brown bread is also available (178 yen for 6 slices).

Brown bread Brown bread

The prepared food section has noodles, cooked fish, and pasta. It is about the same size or, or slightly larger, than the fruit and vegetable section.

Prepared food section Prepared food section

Also includes stir-fried/boiled lotus root:

Soy sauce flavoured boiled lotus root Soy sauce flavoured boiled lotus root

The riceball (onigiri) section is fairly small compared to expectations, but this is probably because most people get their onigiri from convenience stores – which are so everywhere you turn, at a density that would make Starbucks blush:

Riceball section Riceball section

Tofu section takes up quite a lot of real estate:

Tofu section Tofu section

Frozen foods take up one aisle:

Frozen food aisle Frozen food aisle

The frozen meals do not include meal sets as you can find in the US.

Nato (fermented soy beans – hated by almost all foreigners):

Nato area Nato area

This is the noodle section (the whole of the right side, and half of the left side) – further down on the right side there is a large amount of pot noodles:

Noodles Noodles

Rice aisle (left of pic):

Rice aisle Rice aisle

Soy sauce:

Soy sauce Soy sauce

Dried stuff (including dried seaweed, dried fish, and other weird dried stuff that you basically don’t want to eat, but may end up eating if you drink some soup):

Dry stuff Dry stuff


Fruit and veg:

Fruit n veg Fruit n veg

Horrible processed-to-death vegetables:

Horrible vegetables Horrible vegetables

Nine-dollar grapes (“not so expensive”):

Nine-dollar grapes Nine-dollar grapes

For reference – this is an expensive watermelon from another shop:

Expensive watermelon Expensive watermelon

Can you read the price tag? Yes, it does actually say 315,000.


Back to Seiyu – Upstairs – snack section is massive – all the half-aisles in this photo:

Seyu snack section Seyu snack section

Intriguingly, the toilet paper section is also very large:

Toilet paper section Toilet paper section

Great name for toilet paper – Fruit Basket (“smells like grapes”):

Toilet paper in Japan Toilet paper in Japan

But … this where it gets interesting.

This is the size of the nappy (US: diaper) section for babies:

Human nappies Human nappies

And here is one nappy section for dogs (actually, this is a “toilet sheet” for dogs):

Dog nappies Dog nappies

And here is another one:

Dog nappies 2 Dog nappies 2

And he is yet another one – this is the actual dog nappy section:

Dog nappies 3 Dog nappies 3

And here are yet more “dog toilet” sheets:

Dog nappies 4 Dog nappies 4

I could not see any adult nappies, but mail order adverts for them do appear in the Nikkei Shimbun.

Tissues command a relatively large display-front:

Tissues Tissues

Lastly, some observations about vegetables.

Poor selection here:

Seyu vegetables Seyu vegetables

And here:

More Seyu vegetables More Seyu vegetables

And here:

Yet more Seyu vegetables Yet more Seyu vegetables

And here:

Still more Seyu vegetables Still more Seyu vegetables

And here:

Even more Seyu vegetables Even more Seyu vegetables

In total, the entire supermarket has 10 aisles on the ground floor (US: 1st floor).

This consisted of:

Miso (stock for making miso soup): 0.5

Soy sauce: 0.5

Rice: 0.5

Noodles: 0.75

Fermented soya beans + tofu: 0.5

Frozen products: 1

Prepared meals: 1 to 1.25

Drinks: 2 to 2.5

Bread: 0.5

And the rest was made up by meat, fish, tea, etc.

…and, the best insight of the whole exercise: dogs are the new children.




{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Grant October 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Dog nappies in supermarket: Affluent area
Old people nappies in supermarket: Not so affluent area


admin October 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Well noted.



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