Inside the railway station gift shop

Saigo Takamori stares out from a box of peanut cookies at passengers arriving at Kagoshima’s Central Railway Station. Saigo is probably the most famous son of Kagoshima: He played a key role in the Meji Restoration and was immortalized as Japan’s “last samurai” after taking a fateful stand against the new Meji government in 1877 but today, like many other historical figures in Japan, he plays a key role in selling his home town to tourists at the railway station gift shop.

Alongside Saigo in the gift shop you will find boxes of miniature cakes representing Sakurajima, the very active volcano that looms over the city from across the harbour, giant radishes grown in the mountain’s volcanic soil, air-dried ham and a wide variety of other meat products from the region’s famous black pigs and cattle, plus Satsuma shochu, made from local sweet potatoes.

Saigo Takamori cookies and Sakurajima cakes on sale at Kagoshima Central Railway Station

The Kagoshima railway station gift shop does an excellent job in highlighting the region’s local produce and attractions. However, just one hour up the line by Shinkansen, the gift shop in Kumamoto station is doing exactly the same thing, as is just about every other railway station gift shop across Japan: Showcasing local agricultural and artisanal products, in particular sake, noodles, confectionary and lacquerware, famous landmarks such as mountains, lakes and hot springs as well as local celebrities and historical figures like Saigo, all rebranded and repackaged as products for consumption.

Each individual gift shop stresses the uniqueness and special qualities of the region you are visiting but the more railway stations you visit, the more you start to see the similarities rather than the differences. In every gift shop, you will find the same neatly compartmentalized display cabinets and meticulously stacked boxes attended by courteous uniformed sales staff. The packaging and presentation of the products on sale is strikingly uniform, conforming to a clearly defined aesthetic that combines traditional calligraphy and cute cartoon characters. Even the local heroes are similar. In Aizu Wakamatsu, more than a thousand kilometres to the northeast of Kagoshima, we see countless representations of the White Tigers, a group of teenage warriors who like Saigo committed ritual suicide during the Boshin civil war rather than be captured by the forces of the Meiji government: Both are remembered for their heroic sacrifice and loyalty to the cause they fought for, virtues that are lauded as part of the Japanese national character, not just the region’s local character.

Local and regional identity is important in Japan but only as a part of national identity. All the products on sale at the railway station gift shop are immediately and primarily identifiable as Japanese, with the local characteristics secondary. In some cases, it seems a bit of stretch to identify any really special or unique local products at all but that does not inhibit the gift shop marketing drive. In the small town of Onomichi, near Hiroshima, for example, the railway station gift shop proudly sells Onomichi ramen, which is basically indistinguishable from any other soy ramen in Japan, save for a dash of fish sauce and a drop of lard. Ramen, incidentally, is identified today as peculiarly Japanese but was originally imported from China.

Onomichi ramen on sale in the gift shop

The little details that distinguish one town’s ramen or one region’s sake from another are important in Japan. The appreciation of subtle differences in taste, aroma and presentation have long been a defining characteristic of Japanese culture, perhaps precisely because that culture tends towards heterogeneity and conformity. One just has to look at the ubiquitous uniforms in Japan to understand the importance of the conformity, of subordinating the individual to the group: Salarymen and office ladies, manufacturing company employees, sports teams and school students as well as adherents of kawaii culture, even hikers, all have their own uniforms. The nature of a uniform is that it clearly signifies the group identity of the wearer but also allows for miniscule differences in pattern, colour and labelling that can signify the sub-group such as the specific company or school the wearer is affiliated to.

There has been a concerted attempt in the last two decades by scholars and commentators in Japan to downplay such homogenous “national characteristics” and stress the country’s diversity instead. This move was largely a reaction to the populist discourse of Nihonjinron (theories on the Japanese) which claims that Japan a unique and peculiarly homogeneous society. Although Nihonjinron has been largely discredited by its failure to convincingly define what a Japanese person actually is or to demonstrate how that differs from people in societies and cultures outside of Japan, the conformist, group orientated, tendencies evident in Japan should not be dismissed out of hand. There is obvious diversity in Japan in terms of local culture, ethnicity, class, age and gender but – just as within the railway station gift shop – that diversity exists within clearly defined parameters. One only has to look at the history of Hokkaido to understand those parameters and appreciate the limits to difference in Japan.

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