Traditional retail stores in Japan have been struggling for more than the past decade. In 2015 the retail sector bounced back slightly partially due to the tourism sector and in particular the Chinese tourists. Many department stores have adjusted their product offerings to suit this important market. In 2016, the higher yen and restrictions placed on Chinese travelers by their government has hampered further growth. The Japanese retail sector is still important and should not be overlooked by New Zealand companies wanting to go into Asia.


Department stores

Clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, food
Mitsukoshi, Isetan, Marui 0101 in Tokyo
Takashimaya, Daimaru in Osaka
Sogo in Kanagawa.

Supermarkets and hypermarkets

Food supermarkets and specialized department stores
Aeon, Itoyokado, Daiei, Uny, Izumi, Life corporation, Izumiya, Meada (Rakuichi)

Convenience stores

Open 24/24. General food, drink, everyday products
Seven Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, Circle K Sunkusu, Daily Yamazaki, Mini Stop, am/pm, Seicomart, Poplar

Discount Stores

Clothing (directly connected to well-known foreign brand names) miscellaneous goods
DonQuijote, Mr Max, Direx (Thanks Japan), Trial company, Takeya, Super Center Plant


Home Centers

Gardening, decoration and other items for decorating and fitting out the home
Cainz, Kohnan Shji, Nafco, Homac, Keiyo D2, Komeri, Kahma, Shimachu, Daiki, Tokyu Hands



80% food products and 20% convenience goods and clothing.
Coop Kobe, Coop Sapporo, Coop Kanagawa, Saitama Coop, Miyagi Seikyo, Chiba Coop, JCCU, Coop Shizuoka


Drug Stores

Personal hygiene products, cosmetics, beauty products, detergents, sweets and drinks
Matsumoto Kiyoshi, CFS Corporation, Sun Drug, Turuha, Sugi Pharmacy, Create SDS, Segami Medics, Kokumin


Specialised stores

Specialized by product or by type of customer targeted: clothing (including kimonos), gardening, alcohol...
Clothing: Aoyama Syouji, Aoki International, Haruyama Shoji
Women and children's clothing: Shimamura, Five Foxes, Akachan
Casual clothing: Fast retailing (Uniqlo), Right On, Mac House
Shoes: Chiyoda, Nustep
Alcohol : Yamaya (in Japanese) Kakuyasu
Information technology: Yamada Denki, Yodobashi Camera, Kojima


100 Yen shops: all sorts of products, sold for the one price of 100 JPY.
Daiso Sangyo, Cando, Seria, Ninety-nine plus, Oh three


The Japanese distribution system is undergoing massive shifts due to the following three trends:

1. Protection standards and recourse to a system of licenses and permits impose heavy restrictions on the free development of stores. In particular, the establishment of hypermarkets is controlled by the Large-Scale Retail Store Location Law of 2000 and regulated by local authorities on the basis of environmental considerations.

2. The profit margins of middle-men have been eroded by a deflationist trend in the global economy.

3. Improvements in information technology have allowed producers to stay informed of changes in consumer tastes. In order to react quickly to these trends, producers have invested in and developed Internet sales platforms.

To learn more about trends in Japanese retail trade, consult consumer news on

Other helpful links:

Japan Retailers Association
Japan Department Store Association
Japan Council of Shopping Centres
Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC - RENGO)


Trading Companies

There are two types of trading companies:
1. The Senmon shosha, specialised in a limited range of products.
2. The Sogo shosha, general trading companies. These are large groups which act as importers-exporters of the whole range of products from bean sprouts to airplanes.

Main players:  Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsui Co LTD, Itochu Corporation, Sumitomo Corporation, Marubeni Corporation, Sojitz Holdings Corporation, Toyota Tsusho Corporation, Tomen Corporation


There are two types of wholesalers:
1. Import-export wholesalers. They are particularly useful for their logistic organization, information processing, product promotion and selection.
2. Wholesalers who mainly offer a logistic service, stocking goods so as to supply retailers as they need them.
Nevertheless, the shrinking of the Japanese distribution market, making a more direct connection between producers and retailers necessary, has led to an evolution in wholesaling. Indeed, many wholesalers have opted for a more vertical integration of their activity by even developing their own brand names and retailing goods themselves.

Main players: Clothing: Onward Kashiyama, World, Wacoal,
Fashion accessories: Etoile Kaito, Morit, Kiyohara
Food and alcohol: Kokubu, RYOSHOKU LIMITED - Mitsubishi Corporation, Nippon Access
Lingerie and furnishings: Sangetsu, Lic, Nishikawa Sangyo
Furniture: Francebed, Karimoku Kagu, Oliver
Watch and clock making and precious metals: Doshisha, Seiko Watch, Nagahori
Fruit and vegetables : Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market



More realistic marketing strategy for a small or medium-sized firm. Import agents are often appointed as sole agents for the entire country.

Where to Be Vigilant

It is important to build a personal relationship. Signed contracts have small value

Elements of Motivation

Exclusivity, a limited term of representation, minimum sales, or qualitative indicators of sales efforts. Frequent communication per fax, mail, phone, plus regular visits to Japan

The Average Amount of Commission

-From 5 to 10% for regular business transactions, and from 10 to 20% for occasional transactions
-1 to 3% in the case of bulk materials (iron ore or coal)
-20% or even higher in the case of medical, laboratory and scientific analytical instruments

Breach of Contract

According to each contract

Finding a Commercial Agent

JETRO, Matching business database (TTPP)


The Advantages

Although still costly, establishing a presence and an office in Japan has become less expensive given recent decreases in the costs of labor, office rent, and other expenses.

Representative Office

Such an office can obtain market data and other information and provide necessary promotional and service support. A representative office is not subject to Japanese taxes and establishing an office does not require special approval. However, a representative office must not involve itself in commercial transactions or generate income, and therefore cannot directly handle commercial orders.

Branch Office

A branch office may take and fill orders and carry out a full marketing program, including advertising, recruiting a sales force, and performing promotional activities. A branch office is liable for payment of Japanese taxes. Furthermore, the establishment of a branch office is considered a direct investment and requires reporting to the Ministry of Finance.


Setting up a wholly-owned corporation will involve more time and expense, but it can offer an effective means of guaranteeing better protection for proprietary information, obtaining credit, and penetrating markets which have subtle but substantial barriers to imports.

Market Access Procedures


Import Procedures

Import procedures are subject to a computerised declaration. A list of required documents and the steps to be taken to import products can be found on the of the Japan Customs website.

The Customs Counsellor System assists companies with import procedures.

Specific Import Procedures

Under the "immediate import permission system upon arrival", import permission may be granted as soon as cargo entry is confirmed. To be eligible for this system, importers must file a preliminary declaration online.
For goods whose value is less than or equal to 100,000 yen, a simplified declaration system applies.

Importing Samples

Samples are eligible for duty-free entry, provided they meet the following criteria: 

- the total customs value should be JPY 5,000 or less.
- the words 'sample, not for resale' should be written on the commercial invoice.
- the goods should be marked or otherwise impaired so that they can only be used as samples and not be sold.


Customs threshold (from which tariffs are required)

JPY: 10,000

Average Customs Duty (Excluding Agricultural Products)

Japan applies a customs tariff that is among the lowest in the world (on average, 3%). For a summary of Japanese customs tariffs, please see the following sheet provided by the WTO.

Products Having a Higher Customs Tariff

Agricultural products (one of the highest rate among industrialized countries) and some processed food products, although the duties applied continue to go down; leather and some manufactured goods.



The Customs services are very particular about the quality of packaging and labeling. Correct packing, marking, and labeling are critical to smooth customs clearance in Japan. Generally, labeling for most imported products is not required at the customs clearance stage, but at the point of sale. Consequently, it is common for a Japanese importer to affix a label to an imported product after it has cleared customs.
Packing in straw is prohibited in Japan.

Languages Permitted on Packaging and Labeling

Japanese, English

Unit of Measurement

All imported goods as well as transport documents must show metric units of measurement and weight.

Labeling Requirements

Japanese legislation provides specific labeling rules for certain foodstuffs and textile products, electrical appliances and consumer goods. The regulations are not effective when going through Customs. The necessary information must therefore be added between the moment of importing and that of putting the product on the market.