If every time feels a little like the first time, what did the first time feel like? Well, I landed in Japan in 1992 and 1993 into a very particular time, place and culture. Anthropologists of 20th century Japanese subculture call the thing I encountered "Parco-Saison Culture". Press them for more precision and they'll distinguish those terms: the Parco Culture period actually lasted from 1975 to 1985, and the Saison period from 1983 to 1993. So technically, I arrived in "late Saison Japan". All the artifacts I saw and bought (Poison Girlfriend CDs, Sony Walkmans, copies of CUTiE magazine) are technically Late Saison Japan artifacts, bought from late Saison stores (Wave Records, Libro books). Even unrelated phenomena -- the Animal of Airs shop Hibiki Tokiwa kept in Aoyama, the Nadiff bookstore -- had close family ties to the Saison empire. Nadiff, for instance, was started by the manager of the Libro bookshop inside the Ikebukuro branch of Parco. In British terms, that's as if Magma had started life as a spin-off from Selfridges.
The Japan I witnessed in the early 90s consisted of a small hill between Shibuya Station and Yoyogi Park. Here was my hotel, the Tobu. Here was chic department store Parco, and the club where I played my concerts, the Quattro, located (it seemed bizarre at the time) atop a department store and reached by escalators which traversed the deserted sales floors after closing time. Here also were LOFT and OIOI, the Parco art gallery, the record store Wave, and the arty basement bookshop Libro (Saison Culture loves Italian names, clearly). Not far off was Muji, another specialty store owned by Seibu.
I didn't know it at the time, but my first Japan visit was circumscribed almost entirely by a world conceived and invented by one man, Seiji Tsutsumi. A novelist, award-winning poet, and one-time member of the Japanese communist party, the young Seiji inherited the department store business from his father. Yasujiro Tsutsumi founded the Seibu empire in 1912. Typically for Japan, it consisted of a department store (Seibu) and a railway line to bring people to it (the Seibu line). Seiji's half-brother Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, a much tougher cookie, inherited ten times as much as Seiji did when the old man died in 1964, and by 1990 Yoshiaki was estimated by Forbes magazine to be the richest man in the world, thanks to property and transport holdings in bubble-era Tokyo. But Seiji was the artistic one. He retired in 1991, but the Japan I first encountered bore his mark the way quattrocento Florence bore the imprint of the renaissance princes. (Like the princes, these magnates were financially corrupt, allied to the mafia, and autocratic, but that's another story, and one Seiji was well out of by the time the prison sentences were being handed down.)
While his half-brother (and rival) did business the way businessmen all over the world do, refined and cultivated Seiji got to work creating something rather more poetic; a cultural environment in Shibuya, a blend of art and commerce. A department store doesn't need an excellent art bookstore in the basement, its own culture magazine (Bikkuri House, which published 130 issues between 1974 and 1985, and whose readers were called "housers"), a concert venue, or a well-curated gallery. It doesn't need to commission arty postmodern posters and adverts from the likes of Eiko Ishioka, or music from Sakamoto and Hosono. But Seiji wanted Parco-Saison culture to have these facilities, and he had the power to make it happen. It's something we still see today -- look at the way Soichiro Fukutake, CEO of the Benesse Corporation, is revitalising the islands of the Seto Inland Sea with cultural patronage, art tourism, museums by international architects, and a series of commissions.
Seiji Tsutsumi left such a mark on shoppers that one blog account measures the separate impacts he had on a succession of Japanese generations, from the Baby Boomers and the Apathetics to the Juniors and the Blanks, and across a succession of cities (Parco brought Saison Culture to Sapporo in 1990, so the capital of Hokkaido lived its Saison a little later than Tokyo).
The YouTube clips reveal Parco's interest in sophisticated visual culture. I saw some of these commercials on my hotel TV during my first trips to Tokyo, but I didn't catch the earliest, purest phase of them. Art director Eiko Ishioka, for instance, was headhunted to make posters and TV spots for Parco in the late 70s after working for Shiseido. According to The Postmodern Arts by Nigel Wheale (Routledge, 1995): "In 1978 she directed a one-minute TV commercial to promote Parco, a new Japanese department store. The ad showed Faye Dunaway wearing a black dress against a black background, peeling and eating a hard-boiled egg. The department store name was faded up for the last few seconds of the action, and a low-key voice-over uttered a sentence in broken English: "This is film for Parco." The ad was highly successful, and Eiko rationalized its effects in terms of performance art: eating an egg was a totally "global act" done by rich and poor, advanced and developing peoples."
Much later, in 2001, I signed a deal with the Parco label Quattro (located directly across the road from the Loft store on the same Shibuya hill) and made a record for them with Emi Necozawa. It was deeply uncommercial, and sold almost nothing, but the label didn't seem to care. Perhaps that huge empire -- "Saison Culture" -- gave them a certain stability, even if it was achieved by sleight of hand. Four years later the police raided Seibu, and accusations of insider dealing and falsification of share ownership flew. The company was acquired by the owners of 7-Eleven. But Parco still stands on top of that hill in Shibuya. And although the money this time comes from a British University rather than Quattro-Parco concerts, the credit card that paid for my plane tickets carries the Saison logo.