The rise (and occasional fall) of Hong Kong’s Japanese department stores

Starting with Daimaru in 1960, the city has seen big chains from Japan come and go

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 8:05pm

When Daimaru opened Hong Kong’s first Japanese department store in November 1960, 4,000 guests attended the cocktail party marking the occasion.

The Causeway Bay store was the chain’s first overseas branch, but the retail mix was distinctly global, reflecting the British colony’s cosmopolitan outlook as an old East-meets-West trading port.

“Internationalism is the theme,” the Post reported. Daimaru had a supermarket, international bazaar, Italian tea room and Japanese dining room, with catering prepared by chefs brought in from Japan.

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“The store is ultra modern and streamlined. The goods are attractively displayed on well spaced counters and soft music provides a constant background,” this newspaper said.

The store employed 400 local shop workers, trained in Japanese etiquette by the 15 Japanese managers who supervised them. This high level of customer service was a hallmark of all the Japanese department stores to follow in Hong Kong, as was the international retail mix.

When Matsuzakaya opened its Causeway Bay store 15 years after Daimaru, in 1975, a director told the Post only 50 per cent of the goods would come from Japan, with 30 per cent from Europe.

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The quality of merchandise in the store would be higher than in all other Hong Kong department stores, “except Lane Crawford”, he said, but prices would be competitive.

In 1981, when Japan’s largest department store chain, Mitsukoshi, opened a Causeway Bay branch on King’s Road, company president Shigeru Okada said he was confident there would be enough business for all the area’s department stores. Prospects remained good, he said, and the net result could be that a greater number of shoppers would be lured to Causeway Bay.

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This held true throughout the 1980s, and Sogo became the fourth Japanese department store on the block in 1985, with an MTR exit that helped funnel commuters through its aisles. The wide pavements on the corner of its King’s Road entrance became a popular meeting place for friends – a focal point previously enjoyed by Daimaru.

A number of factors have led to the demise of Hong Kong’s Japanese department stores since the 1990s, including rising rents, recession, eviction and – in the case of the biggest, Yaohan — overexpansion.

Other Japanese stores to have come and gone in Hong Kong over the past five decades include Isetan, Seibu and Tokyu.