Collecting: London's balance of trade with Japan: Jonathan Glancey visits a London shop which holds a special appeal for Japanese tourists

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THE public relations woman from Sogo, the first Japanese department in Europe, is insistent. 'You mustn't let your photographer take pictures of just Japanese people,' she says, adding, 'Sogo is an international store.'

But the Japanese have become international people. According to the Japanese embassy, there are 23,123 Japanese citizens resident in London, many of them living in Lady Thatcher's old constituency, Finchley, and something like 500,000 Japanese tourists are expected to visit Britain this year.

The tourists, in a hurry to 'do' Europe in a week, spend an average of 1.7 days in Britain. London (Harrods, Simpsons, Dunhill, Liberty) will take up one of these; the other 0.7 leaves time for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and a tour of Stratford-upon-Avon.

With so much of the West to photograph in so little time, Japanese tourists visiting Britain are forced to sit not just in air-conditioned coaches, but also on the horns of a dilemma: how can they pack in a day's serious shopping for traditional British goods (heritage export gifts and labelled couture) and still manage to video the Changing of the Guard?

Enter Sogo department store, opened by Baroness Thatcher on Tuesday. The new store is located on two floors of a brand new post- modern block on Piccadilly Circus. Tourists, out-of-town daytrippers and curious Londoners shuffling between Eros and Leicester Square enter Sogo at street level. Japanese tourists are led into the basement through a back door in Jermyn Street. A parking bay has been provided for three coaches.

Inside, Japanese shoppers are bowed to before facing a treasure trove of British-made goods tailored to Japanese tastes and physiques. Along with golfing accessories and 'musical boxes, model cars straight from a typical British nursery', here is Burberry, Mulberry and Lyle & Scott. Over there are shelves of Wedgwood, Worcester and Spode china. All this and subtle lighting, high-quality shop-fittings, high-speed tills and immaculate, smiling staff.

Upstairs there are risks to be taken. The more style-conscious Japanese tourists can flirt with a Jasper Conran frock, a Paul Smith suit or a Vivienne Westwood bustier, all typically British and very cheap compared with Toyko. After this excitement, there is comforting green tea to be had on tap from a vending machine, a sushi bar and direct-dial telephones to Japan. The homesick can snap up Tachikichi ceramics, Sofue lacquerware and Yoshitoku dolls.

Sogo's PR people might disagree, but this is a Japanese store and all the better for it; an intelligently planned and well-made shop designed for the needs of high-speed Japanese tourists.

'It's actually much smarter than the Sogo stores back home,' says Fumiko Ashida, a financial analyst who lives in Hendon, north London. 'Most older Japanese tourists travel in well-organised groups; they are largely immune from local surroundings and I think they are happier that way. The young are different; they like the excitement of foreign cities. Sogo is not really for them.'

The Sogo store has been shaped by McColl, designers of the new- look Leeds, Abbey National and Halifax building societies and the traditional-style street furniture marching along Regent Street. McColl has immersed itself in Sogo's corporate philosophy and, given a larger budget than an equivalent British client would have considered, has created a convincing slice of Tokyo retailing abroad.

Sogo is an old company. Starting life as Yamatoya in Osaka in 1830, it changed its name to Sogo Gofukuten in 1908 and opened its first department store in Osaka in 1919. Today it has 36 stores (10 abroad) and a turnover of pounds 4.3bn.

But, if Sogo is a 'traditional' shop for traditional Japanese tourists, where do the younger Japanese, particularly those living in London, shop when nostalgia threatens? 'I go to the new Muji shop in Covent Garden,' says Fumiko Ashida. So, it seems, do the fashionable young British.

While Sogo has been created by British designers principally to sell international British goods to Japanese tourists, the design direction for the Muji 'No Name Brand' shops in London (one in Carnaby Street, the other in Shelton Street, Covent Garden) is by the Tokyo team Super Potato. Harper Mackay, London architects working under the eye of Super Potato, has come up with a convincing concrete and recycled- timber look that seems Japanese to the British; the Muji directors from head office, however, thought it looked British.

Where Sogo is soft-focused, Muji is hard-edged; where Sogo offers no brand of its own, Muji sells only its own goods. Sogo is awash with labels; at Muji there are none (well, just one; Muji's bicycles, including the most expensive object in the shop - a pounds 650 shaft-driven design - are forced, by law, to carry tiny brand-names).

Muji bustles with young British shoppers; they come in baggy shorts, unisex pigtails and cosmetic stubble. They look like designers, architects, photographers and graphic artists. They appear to have all the time in the world to explore the beautifully made, but strictly functional and minimalist Muji goods. Muji sells Japanese workwear, shirts and pasta-tins to the British. The Japanese shop here as if this was Marks & Spencer for no-nonsense socks, tights and underpants. Everything at Muji is on open display and shoppers are allowed to touch; there is nothing to break. At Sogo, jewel- encrusted goodies are locked away in secure cabinets.

Muji, unlike Sogo, is a young company. Founded in 1980 as the 'No Brand Goods' store, it was a clever reaction to the Japanese obsession with labels. It opened its first shop in Tokyo in 1982 and its turnover is now just over pounds 100m. It opened its first shop outside Japan in association with Liberty in London in 1991; Covent Garden followed a month ago and the company plans a third shop in Glasgow later this year.

The reason British shoppers like Muji and come here to buy rolls of plain brown paper, cardboard boxes, tin trunks and Japanese toothbrushes is because it is unashamedly Japanese in character, because the shops are fun to be in, and because Muji goods hold a promise of timeless chic. They are also good value. Sogo and Muji are the chalk and cheese of Japanese retailing abroad.

'Take any pictures you want,' says Alison Pyrah, head of Muji in Britain. And if the photographs show only Japanese tourists? 'We'd love to see them,' she says.

(Photograph omitted)

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