VOX POPULI: In memory of Seiji Tsutsumi, a defiant patron of the arts

November 29, 2013

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

Around 1980, I used to hang out on Tokyo’s Shibuya Koen-dori shopping street. In the trendy neighborhood that typified the spirit of the era was a Seibu department store.

The department store chain came up with the catchphrase “Fushigi daisuki” (Loving what’s unusual) in 1981. The following year, it introduced “Oishii seikatsu” (Delicious lifestyle).

Back then, Japanese consumers were becoming more interested in acquiring “information” than material goods.

As a head of the Saison Group retail chain of which the Shibuya Seibu department store was part, Seiji Tsutsumi set new consumer trends in motion. He died on Nov. 25 at age 86.

Practically everything Tsutsumi did was of cultural relevance. He hired the most talented and creative artists of the time to produce edgy commercials and advertisements. He built theaters and museums. Music critic Hidekazu Yoshida (1913-2012) lavishly praised Tsutsumi for his contribution to the promotion of the arts. Artists must have found their ideal and most dependable patron in Tsutsumi.

But even Tsutsumi eventually was unable to keep pace with the transformation taking place with Japan’s evolving consumer society. At the height of the asset-inflated bubble economy in 1988, Seibu department store’s ad copy included the slogan “Hoshii mono ga hoshii wa” (I want only what I want). It was as if the retail giant admitted defeat upon realizing that people had stopped being greedy and became bored with shopping for shopping’s sake. In 1991, Tsutsumi announced his resignation as the head of the Saison Group.

Working in his younger years as a secretary for his father who was the Lower House speaker at the time, Tsutsumi remained politically vocal throughout his life. He called for an end to the so-called 1955 political system dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, and pinned high hopes on the LDP-Japan Socialist Party coalition government of the mid-1990s.

A firm believer in the rights of individual citizens, Tsutsumi had no patience with old-school politicians who insisted on teaching “patriotism” to children. And Tsutsumi repeatedly preached the importance of the pacifist Constitution.

In his memoirs titled “Jyojyo to Toso” (Lyricism and struggle), Tsutsumi recalls a big fight he had with a primary school classmate when the latter tormented him because he was an illegitimate child. Perhaps this experience was one of the factors that shaped his spirit of defiance.

Tsutsumi may have experienced defeat in the world of business, but he remained a successful and prolific writer and poet using the nom de plume Takashi Tsujii.

“Think/ Go on a journey/ All alone,” goes a line from a short poem at the end of his memoirs. I think this is an apt send-off for Tsutsumi himself who just set out on his final journey.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 29

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts, social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
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Seiji Tsutsumi (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Seiji Tsutsumi (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Seiji Tsutsumi (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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