This year, Japanese department store Shirokiya celebrates its 350th anniversary. Yes, you read that right. Three-hundred-fifty years. Macy’s can’t beat that. Oh, and if you’ve been to Japan numerous times (or live there) and you’re thinking “Shirokiya? Never heard of it,” that’s because every branch of the store has, sadly, closed, with the exception of the one here in Honolulu.
Shirokiya was founded in Kyoto by Ômura Hikotarô in the 1650s or so, as a lumber and textiles shop, when he was just 17 or 18 years old. The company counts 350 years, however, from 1662, the year Hikotarô opened his first shop in Edo.
The Edo shop, located on a major boulevard just south of Nihonbashi, was a major site, and its distinctive logo can be seen in Edo period ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The Nihonbashi Shirokiya location was, almost from the start, something akin to a department store in that it did not specialize in just one thing, but sold textiles and a wide variety of sundries and so-called “dry goods.”
By 1901, the Edo period shop, with its wooden architecture and noren curtains, as seen in the woodblock prints, had been replaced by a true department store in the modern sense of the word, housed in a building in a style rather typical of the Meiji period. As seen in photographs and photo postcards, this incarnation of Shirokiya’s main store (本店, honten) was a corner store, several stories tall, which combined the stone(?) facade and structure of a certain style of European architecture with Japanese elements such as curving tiled roofs and kara-hafu overhangs; this so-called Imperial style was quite common and popular for some of the largest or most major buildings of the Meiji period, and can still be seen today, for example, in the Tokyo National Museum’s main building.
The honten was renovated around 1910, but was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake which ravaged Tokyo. At some point before or after that (I’m not really clear), Shirokiya expanded, opening numerous branches across the country. Rebuilt and reopen, Shirokiya spawned a subsidiary known as Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute, or Tôtsûken kaisha (東通研会社), which developed and sold numerous household electronics and other such goods, including the first ever electric rice cooker. Tôtsûken kaisha later split from Shirokiya, however, pursuing its own fortunes under the name SONY.
Shirokiya was absorbed in the early 1950s by the Tôkyû corporation, another major department store chain and operator of private rail lines. In 1959, Tôkyû opened the first overseas Shirokiya location – the only one which is still open today – in Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center. Several other Hawaii locations were opened as well, but later closed. In the late 1990s to early 2000s, all Shirokiya branches, including the original 1662/1901/post-1923/post-1945 Nihonbashi location, were closed by the Tôkyû corporation, leaving only the Ala Moana Honolulu location open.
Today, Shirokiya continues to serve the local Honolulu community, with everything from designer cosmetics to sushi, crepes, shave ice, udon & soba, andagi, and groceries, to kimono, tabi and geta. It contains on its two floors a BookOff (used bookstore), a pan’ya (Japanese-style French-style patisserie/boulangerie), travel agency, and a (the?) recording studio of KZOO, the local Honolulu Japanese-language radio channel. I sort of take it for granted now that I’ve been here for a few years, but I am really starting to appreciate how much I am going to miss Shirokiya when I move back to the mainland. Kimono, tabi, zori, Okinawan foods/ingredients, and countless other things will not be so easy to come by back in the mainland.
So, Congratulations to Shirokiya! Best wishes for continued improvements and successes! The store’s already starting to look a lot better, classier, cleaner, nicer just in the last 2~3 years since I first came to Hawaii. I wish I were staying on island, to continue to enjoy the wonderfully easy access you provide to all kinds of Japanese goods.