The square on the north side of Nihonbashi bridge is almost as crowded as the fish market, and streams of people travel back and forth across the bridge on their way to the markets. The road on the far side of the bridge is just as broad as the Tokaido, but the size and elegance of the shops lining the the main street makes it clear that this is a much more high-class district. The people moving through the streets and making their way from shop to shop are dressed in brightly colored silk kimono, and the ladies are carrying delicately painted umbrellas to shade them from the sun.
The main road leads from Nihonbashi into an area known as Suruga-machi This neighborhood is home to one of the largest and most prosperous merchant groups in all of Japan -- the Mitsui Echigoya. This wholesale and distribution conglomerate runs a cluster of high-class stores in the center of Edo, and it has gained a reputation as perhaps the most prestigeous shopping district in Edo.
The Mitsui Echigoya was founded by Mitsui Takatoshi, a merchant from Ise province who got his start selling fine kimono in Edo only a few years after the Tokugawa Shoguns began building their new city. Mitsui was the grandson of a samurai who fought for Oda Nobunaga, and his mother was from a small but reasonably successful merchant family in Ise province. Ise is a good headquarters for wholesaling businesses, especially cloth and kimono merchants, since it is a source of both silk and cotton cloth. The city where the Mitsui family lived, Matsuzaka, is one of the key ports on the route between Sakai (Osaka) and Edo. In fact, one of the Mitsui Echigoya's main competitors is the Iseya, which is also based in Matsuzaka.
Using his connections in Ise and Kyoto, and the money he earned from selling kimono, Mitsui steadily built his family's tonya (wholesale business) into a nationwide conglomerate known as the "Echigoya". Although the business specialised in clothing, it traded many other goods as well. Many of the leading retail businesses in Japan got their start as tonya -- family owned wholesale businesses -- which were founded during the early Edo period, or a few decades earlier.
Conditions in Japan during the late 1500s and early 1600s were ripe for the growth of nationwide trading companies. The country was just starting to settle down after decades of continuous war, and people in different regions of Japan were starting to trade the products made locally for merchandise produced in other parts of the country. For example, lacquer and wood from the far north of Japan could be traded for sugar and indigo from the far south. People from all over the country began to produce a surplus of products, rather than just making enough for their own needs. They could then take the extra goods they produced and trade them for goods made elsewhere in the country.
The only problem was that it was complicated and expensive to transport goods to far-away places. Even rich daimyo found it difficult to organize the large-scale trading networks needed to transport different types of merchandise to the main towns. They needed a rich middle-man who could hire horses and boats, collect products from one region and ship them to other parts of the country. Most daimyo and other local leaders were too busy to deal with all the activities requred to organise trading activities, so they tended to appoint lower-ranking samurai or relatively wealthy local merchants to handle the job for them.
The person appointed by the local daimyo would usually send sales agents to all of the local villages in the area, and buy up all of the extra goods that were being produced in their local region. They would collect a large stock of the goods, and then ship them to markets in Edo, Kyoto or Osaka. They also bought a variety of merchandise in the big cities and shipped them back to the local towns, where they sold the products in their shops. These businesses came to be known as tonya, which roughly translates as "sales agent" or "wholesaler".
At first, most tonya were only appointed to work in a particular region of the country, and specialized in only one or two products. For example, they might be called the "Kotsuke wood tonya" or the "Ise silk tonya". Naturally, the tonya that were set up in important regions, or ones that handled very valuable products, became very wealthy. After a generation or two, these bigger tonya started to expand their businesses and set up "buying centers" all over the country. The most successful, such as the Mitsui Echigoya and the Iseya, started to handle a wider variety of products. They also set up their own retail stores in Kyoto, Sakai and Edo. Today, many districts in central Edo are dominated by these large retail conglomerates.
As Edo grew bigger and bigger, so did the wholesalers. Today, the leading merchants often dominate an entire street, with many elaborate stores selling all kinds of products. The Mitsui Echigoya, for example, operates over a dozen main stores in the Suruga-machi area alone, as well as its major stores in Kyoto, Osaka and Matsuzaka. If you walk down the main street in Suruga-machi, almost every building has large noren (curtain-like draperies) bearing the well-known "Mitsui mark".
Inside the stores are huge halls filled with shoppers, with all sorts of clothing and other products on display. Most of the shoppers are very well dressed. You can tell that most of them are daimyo, high-level samurai, rich merchants, or their family members. The women are all wearing beautiful silk kimono. Their faces are covered with white makeup and lipstick, and their teeth are stained black. This is the typical makeup of high-class women. Fair skin is considered very beautiful, so women do their best to keep their skin looking white. They use powders and lotions, and on special occasions they paint their entire face with a white makeup, which contrasts sharply with their red lipstick.
The main sales room is decorated with colorful displays. There are fine tatami mats on the floor and brightly colored kimono hanging from the rafters. On the walls are large signs announcing the store policy: "genkin kake-ne nashi" (one low price if you pay cash).
All around the room are large cabinets with large wooden drawers. Every now and then, a sales clerk will go to one of the cabinets, take out a garment and bring it over to the client. The client examines the kimono, and if they decide they don't like it, the clerk will go back and get another one. The youngest sales clerks -- only about ten or twelve years old -- bring tea and snacks for the shoppers to eat as they examine the clothes.
Merchants, like craftsmen, have to serve a long period as an apprentice -- usually at least five years but often as many as ten. Since there are rarely enough younger sons and daughters in the merchant families of Edo, many of the apprentices come from the Western provinces, around Osaka, Kyoto or Nara. Typically, a child from a small merchant family in western Japan will travel to Edo at age 10 or 11, and enter service with one of the large stores in Edo. Almost all of the stores in Edo are "branch stores"; the head office being in Kyoto or Osaka. For the first five years of their apprenticeship, the young merchants are not allowed to leave the store. They work long hours almost every day, and do all the dirty work such as carrying boxes and cleaning up the store after it closes. The apprentices sleep in the lofts upstairs, alongside the storerooms where extra merchandise is kept.
At the end of this period, the apprentices can make their first trip home, and at this point they usually decide whether to return to their home towns (usually running a small shop with their parents), or return to Edo for a longer period of service. If they return to Edo, they may earn promotion to assistant sales clerk, and can make a decent amount of money if they are good at selling products. In general, merchants serve about ten years as apprentices and assistant clerks, then depending on how good they have done, they may be sent back to their home villages, be offered a full-time position with one of the stores in Edo, or even be sent back to the "head office" in Kyoto or Osaka. The most enterprising of the merchants will often use the money they have saved to start a business of their own. Sometimes they go out on their own, but other times the merchants they have worked for will loan them some money to set up a new branch store in another town, or an affiliated shop selling different types of products.
Although the merchants are viewed as the lowest class in Edo society, they have the greatest amount of freedom and social mobility. Though they can never aspire to be samurai or government officials, their wealth is often sufficient to buy them respect and favors from the ruling classes. Although the political power of the samurai enforces a political system that is only a bit more progressive than a dictatorship, the economy of Edo, and Japan in general, can be considered a fairly well developed capitalist system.