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04/29/2012

American Antiques find a second life in Tsudanuma

Making the 30 minute plus commute into and out of Tokyo everyday may be something of a nuisance when you are in a rush or doesn't enjoy feeling like they are packed into a sardine can, but it can be a great way to see parts of the city if your train affords a view. I have ridden the JR Chuo Sobu line almost everyday over the past few months, and particularly when I lived with a homestay family in Chiba prefecture, I never grew tired of the hour-long trip because there was always something new I hadn't caught before. Tsudanuma, one of the JR train hubs in Chiba prefecture, is one of those places I saw everyday. I would often look for the appealing signs for what looked like small novelty or thrift stores I had noticed at some point during one of my first few commutes, but whether it was because it was so close to my last stop or because schoolwork caught up with me, it took me awhile to actually get out and take advantage of a stop along my route to and from school.

When one gets off at Tsudanuma station, nothing really seems to stand out in comparison with other JR station fronts; yet walk a few blocks to the northwest parallel to the train tracks and you will understand that it is in the small corners and backstreets of Japanese cities that hold some of the more charming spots. Luckily for me, one of those small pockets was in plain sight if you pay attention as you pass Tsudanuma, and with a little patience for going out of my way, I was able to find it. 

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What awaited me on this sidestreet was a row of antique shops dealing with what might be considered a kind of fashionable Japanese novelty: American antiques. I had heard before I came to Japan that in the past few decades certain iconic elements of American pop-culture had become wildly popular in Japan; for example, interest groups about cowboys (with members in full costumes) are apparently still going strong (see one group called Real Western's website for more). However, the sheer amount of these antiques was a bit surprising to me at first.  To be sure, there is a lot of clothing and accessories to peruse in some of these shops; in fact, when I first entered some of the stores, I thought that was what they primarily dealt in. Judging by the amount of clothing some had, that might be true, depending on the store; but what really caught my eye was the collections of American pop culture relics from bygone fads of decades past. More than anything else, this array of foreign antiques, and store owners with interests to match, is what ties these shops together in my mind.

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Garage Sale's storefront was one of the shops that originally attracted my attention one days that I rode the JR sobu line.

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Garage sale's huge selection of clothing, with some shoes and luggage thrown in for good measure


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Looking around each of these stores, one comes to realize that it takes a special group of people who all share an odd fascination to create such an unusual gathering of novelty items. The owner of the first shop I entered, called "Naked," has been to America over fifty times, and knows more about several states than the average American (such as myself) does. Others, like the owners of "Garage Sale" and "Jokers" travel to America frequently on antique hunts or make requests of friends to bring them new products.

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Garage sale's owner proudly overviewing his eclectic assortment of used clothing, knick nacks and American antiques

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"Jokers" storefront

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"Jokers'"'very friendly owner also boasts an impressive selection of iconic American merchandise from years past 

The cluttered shops (Joker is no larger than a shed) are really pleasant, and have a lot of charm per square inch.  From classic Peanuts figurines to Star Wars merchandise, as well as Elvis memorabilia and old election buttons from the '50s and '60s can be found aplenty. I had some expectations that prices on these antiques might be high, but the price of a single model "Lego" car at Jokers confirmed it. Antiques can certainly be expensive in America, but the premium these shops put on them indicates the sort of fashionable, value-added image they have here (at least for those willing to pay for them). 

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I thought cars lost value when they were driven off the lot...

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I've grown to expect that Japan will constantly surprise me, and the antique stores in Tsudanuma are a perfect example. Although it was certainly different from the image I had of a typical thrift store in Japan, I feel now that it is a more accurate representation of those kind of stores that are filling niches in the market here. It's quite a trip to walk into a store where you are nearly knee-deep in iconic American pop-culture images of the past when you grow used to the normal patterns of everyday life here, but that made it all the more interesting for me to get a sense of what Japanese people consider appealing in antiques. For most Japanese who buy these antiques, their knowledge or personal connection with the original context of their purchase may be pretty distant, but perhaps that is precisely what makes it fashionable; the fact that they are so removed from it, and that it represents quintessential of another time and space. If you're an American, you'll be well acquainted with most of these emblems, and its very interesting to see new life breathed into them as fashionable accessories and house decorations for Japanese with an urge for a little something from the States. 

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