Tokyo's Pawn Shops

Women at a Tokyo pawn shop search through designer purses.
I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter from Asia comes from Tokyo. This is a culture where politeness is treasured, and second hand goods definitely are not. Except, when they have what they call around here, the annual pawn shop sale.

They line up for hours for what is billed as the pawnshop bargain rhapsody. When they throw open the doors, you'd best get out of the way, because courtesy gives way to the scramble… for a bargain. Many of these were unwanted gifts sold to pawnshops and were almost brand new. Others come from people who suddenly needed money… and the pawnshop obliged.

It's clear that when it comes to popularity, Louis Vuitton loses nothing by being second hand - not when the tables are piled high with Louis' best at low Louis prices. Take this little fur-lined number, which sells in Japan for something like 76-hundred dollars. Here it comes with a discount of almost three-grand. And there are the Rolex watches which new can cost up to tens of thousands, but we can reliably report that at the pawnshop bargain rhapsody they were selling for four to five thousand dollars each. That was apparently a bargain to someone.

But why is it so unusual that Japanese would flock to a sale? Let's take stroll through a set of beliefs called Shinto. It has a dubious history; used by Japan's militaristic government as a state religion to unify the country during World War Two.

Today, Shinto is less a religion and more a set of guidelines for how to live your life, with shrines all over Japan including this one dedicated to the Emperor. One thing Shinto teaches is about purity of soul and a love of nature. And that often means that things must be new and fresh, not used. Second hand goods don't have the purity of the soul or the fresh beauty of spring.

But not here… no one seems to mind that these are, well, second hand. They only notice that luxury can be had at a deep discount. It's also become a tourist attraction - about 30-percent of the customers are now foreigners from places like Iran or China. "I know it's not a fake if I buy it in Japan," says one Chinese customer. "As for being second hand, once its cleaned off, it's no problem."

And for those keeping count, this year's pawnshop bargain rhapsody netted roughly five million dollars for the dealers who sold their goods. So get those elbows in shape for pushing people aside; this is the place where once a year, Japan's politeness and a love of only the new are checked at the door.