A mercantile revolutionDuring a six-day vacation in Japan, I visited traditional markets in Okayama, Himeji, Kurashiki, Kyoto and Osaka. These markets were mainly frequented by locals rather than tourists. Neighborhood markets were clean and had unique stores.
I was especially impressed by a traditional market in front of Kurashiki Station. A small plaza was set up by the merchants’ association to provide a place to rest, and the tiled floor was shiny. The restroom was spotless and had bidets. Unique denim brands from nearby Kojima, the birthplace of Japanese jeans, offered handmade jeans and denim accessories.
Countless Korean civil servants, local autonomous government agencies and people concerned with traditional markets have visited Japanese markets to learn from their example. There have been many reports, but I wonder whether these reports led to any changes.
Japan experienced the collapse of traditional markets decades ago. In 1973, the Large Retail Store Act was legislated to restrict large supermarkets and stores. However, the competitiveness of the traditional markets grew worse after the regulation, so the law was scrapped in 2000 and was replaced with the Large Retail Store Location Act that limits where large supermarkets and stores can open.
Rather than relying on government assistance, markets made efforts to save themselves. Some markets have stores contribute about 60,000 won ($55.80) per month to fund the replacement of the arcade roof that needs to be reinstalled every 15 years. As a result, charming markets like the one at Kurashiki Station become the standard for the Japanese traditional market.
The Moon Jae-in administration is especially interested in reviving small retailers such as local businesses and traditional markets. Regulatory measures such as restricting the opening of superstores and operating hours have been considered. But the beginning and end of reviving the traditional market should be the renewed mindset of the merchants. Success cases in Korea have already appeared. The 1913 Songjeong Market and Tongin Market have been renewed to appeal to the young generation and are attracting customers.
The revival of traditional markets also match the tastes of the ever-evolving consumers. Today, consumers no longer want to buy mass-produced goods that can be bought online or duplicated experiences that can be obtained anywhere.
The revival of the markets will succeed when merchants are the ones to initiate it. The government needs to work on how to support and educate the merchants.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 21, Page 30
*The author is an industry news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.