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Secondhand Is First Choice in Japan

Fashion: Pawn shops and flea markets have become hip meccas for bargain hunters. It's a switch from the old days, when even used designer items were shunned.


TOKYO — For four months, Rina Ito lusted after a black, bamboo-handled Gucci bag. But the $820 status symbol was way out of reach for a 20-year-old college student working part time at a bar.

So Ito was ecstatic when she found the handbag in near-perfect condition at a Tokyo pawn shop. At a mere $484, it was a steal.

In the high-rolling 1980s, when Japan became a top consumer of luxury brand names, buying somebody's old purse at a pawn shop was not just impossible, but unthinkable.

But the bubble burst, and a six-year economic hangover has sent many Japanese digging for good deals. Recession has helped banish the aversion to used things that sprang up in Japan after World War II. Neighborhood shops that sell used goods on consignment, known here as "recycle shops," are popping up all over Tokyo.

"I used to think used stuff was gross," Ito said, beaming and clutching her new acquisition. "I would definitely buy recycled things again, though, because they're good quality and they're cheap."

Weekend flea markets abound in the city's parks and parking lots. Yoyogi Park's Sunday market, a bargain-hunting mecca for hip, young Tokyoites, attracts up to 30,000 customers over the weekend. And pawn shops have shaken off their seedy, back-alley image by redecorating and adding designer goods to their inventories. Their goal: to entice the group with the most spending power, twentysomething females.

"People simply can't afford things like they could in the 1980s," said Mariko Ikeda, a clerk at Boutique Claire, a small recycle shop in a Tokyo residential area. "They've become much more practical."

Many Japanese are still slaves to fickle fashion, but the "use-and-toss" attitude of the past 15 years has disappeared, said Claire's owner, Noriko Okada. Her year-old, one-room store now sells 50 to 100 pieces of ladies' clothing and accessories a day--as much as a new-clothing boutique might sell in a month.

Customers check out the merchandise daily and drop off unneeded clothes, setting their own price and getting 60% of the return if the item sells. Okada, also an avid thrift-shopper, said it makes sense to get rid of old things, considering Japan's cramped living space. "And it's fun, because then for $10 or $30 you can get something someone bought for $200."

On a Sunday afternoon, Chizuko Sawano, 50, one of about 60,000 bargain hunters at the flea market in Meiji Park, scanned the packed rows of display blankets and open car trunks, all piled with everything from clothing and appliances to dishes and toys. Already laden with four bags stuffed with suits, jackets, sweaters and coats, she was eyeing a $15 two-piece outfit.

"You come once and you get addicted," said Sawano, who saw an ad for the flea market in a magazine. "I finally went, and I bought six months' worth of stuff. I could barely carry it all home."

The lure of deep discounts has pushed many Japanese to lose their loathing of secondhand goods.

"People thought using something that somebody else had used was disgusting," said Hajime Atari, owner of a boutique-like pawn shop that stocks Gucci and Prada handbags. "Now, even if it's a little old, people will buy it if it's cheap."


Japan's aversion to used things was not always just a money matter. A belief that a person's "spirit" can haunt possessions has fostered negative feelings toward secondhand objects.

Japan's obsession with cleanliness is also a factor, said Osaka professor Seiichi Washida. "Clothes are the closest thing to your body, so they are the most private."

And many Japanese long held vivid memories of the poverty of the post-World War II era, when new clothes were out of the question, everyone's belongings were threadbare and pawn shops were frequented by the desperate.

"I've heard stories of used clothing shops after the war where people stood in long lines waiting to sell their kimonos to put food on the table," said Shoji Kikuchi, whose grandfather opened the pawn shop Kikuchi now runs 70 years ago.

So when Japan reached its economic zenith in the 1980s, few Japanese were willing to settle for less than the best.

But today's young Japanese don't remember the deprivation of the postwar era, and their thirst for bargains, especially on brand names, has overridden any lingering aversion to used goods. Even during the '80s, a vintage clothing boom among Japan's youth helped to erode the idea that old clothing was a faux pas.

Vintage clothes, however, were never cheap. At the Monster--a vintage and used clothing shop in Tokyo that stocks used jeans, 1950s American high school varsity jackets and vintage U.S. Army clothing--a pair of 20-year-old gas-station coveralls with "Frank" embroidered on the breast pocket goes for $150.

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