Judit Kawaguchi

Words to Live by: Shibuya 109 shop clerk Natsuki Maeda

Interview by Judit Kawaguchi

Shibuya 109 shop clerk Natsuki Maeda, photographed by Judit Kawaguchi Natsuki Maeda, 19, is a shop clerk and a charismatic fashion leader in Tokyo’s world-famous Shibuya 109 building, the epicenter of fashion for girls and for women, who regardless of their age, would like to look as young as they feel. Working in one of the 100 shops here is synonymous with celebrity status, as sales staff doesn’t just sell clothes at 109: they create trends that are followed by millions, not only in Japan but all over Asia and beyond. All through high school, Natsuki has adored the clothes at baby Shoop, a brand known for its sexy B-girl hip-hop style. Now, having gotten a job at their 109 shop six months ago, still feels like a dream that she would rather not wake up from.

If you want to get a job, do something different so the people in charge of hiring will remember you. My high school teacher, Mr. Uehara, told me this when I was asking for advice on how I could beat the competition. I wrote a two page handwritten letter explaining why I loved the baby Shoop brand so much and how much I wanted to work here. I begged them to interview me and they gave me a chance.

Great people inspire one to follow in their steps. I used to come to 109 after school and although I had so little money, the staff here at baby Shoop were so nice to me for years. They had taught me how to mix the one piece I could buy with the little money I had, with my other clothes. I just loved all of them and always thought that I wanted to be as nice and as sexy and knowledgeable about fashion as they were. Now I am in those shoes and let me tell you, my feet hurt! Just kidding, but I feel proud and also filled with responsibility. I am still a student, yet I am already teaching.

Not all parasite singles want to live off their parents. I wish I could pay rent and contribute to my family each month, but my paycheck is eaten up before I can give them any. I buy four or five outfits from our brand per week, because we must model our clothes when we work. But since we get only three or five pieces in of each design, we sell out very quickly. Let’s say, I buy a pink dress from our spring collection, the minute we sell the last identical pink dress, I can’t wear it to work anymore, even if we still have a yellow dress for sale. Also, each staff must sport a different look, since customers want to dress like we do, and they often buy the clothes they see on us. We get a discount, but since our clothes are a bit pricy to begin with, in most months I can’t give anything to my parents except thanking them.

Beauty takes time and costs a lot. Shibuya girls have tons of beauty aids: color contact lenses to match our clothing, hair extensions and permanent waves. I wear three sets of eyelashes on top of each other and spend about 20,000 yen a month on my hair.

Shibuya 109 shop clerk Natsuki Maeda, photographed by Judit Kawaguchi
Shibuya 109 shop clerk Natsuki Maeda, photographed by Judit Kawaguchi

People who have less to start with, try harder, and often end up more attractive than natural-born beauties. I think Japanese girls are the cutest and most well put-together in the world. That’s because we Japanese have so many complexes about our bodies since our faces are rounder than other races’ and our legs tend to be shorter, so we make a lot more effort to look gorgeous. I say, it’s working!

To sell something, one must know the brand’s beauty inside and out. We wear what we sell, so we experiment with looks all day on ourselves. We change the display and our own outfits at least daily, but sometimes more than once a day. Managers from our main office come and we do role-play when we pretend to be customers and they explain the attraction of each design element in the clothes, until we really understand how cool and fun it is and how to mix our clothes up with basic items customers might already have.

Can’t tell a shopper by their looks. Many types of people stop by our store, about 30,000 a year and I put all my energy into each person, regardless of their age or looks. I just want to introduce our brand, show them how fun it is and try to find looks that suit the person. I am not pushing them to buy. There is no way to predict who will fall in love with our line and purchase lots of clothes.

Customers are very important, but my coworkers are even more precious. There are three to five of us working in a 30 square meter space that is designed to resemble the closet of a successful diva, so it is filled with clothes. The space is limited, so unless we get along, customers would notice the air between us was bad, and we would all suffocate. We respect each other and are good friends. I look up to the others who work here longer than me.

Men should take care of women much more. I see many young single moms whose boyfriends or husbands ran away from the responsibility of taking care of a wife and raising a child. My dad’s generation was much more responsible than today’s men. I guess these young guys were spoiled by their parents, so they are children even in their 30s. It’s time they grow up.

Girls need to protect themselves more. Japanese women are not taught to think that way, so most girls never buy condoms and easily let boys get away with not using one.

Party while you can. My limit is age 20: once I pass the ceremony on Coming-of-Age-Day ( Seijin-no-hi) on January 15th, I will make more effort to be responsible. Step one is to contribute to my parents, at least pay some rent, and start cooking for them a few times a week. I am already learning from my mother and can make a good oyakodon, a rice dish with chicken and eggs, which is my favorite food.

Dress for those you are with. When I see my grandma or go out with my parents, I look very different, much more conservative and simple. I don’t want them to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable because of my hair or clothes. It’s just good manners to adjust to the people and the place and not stick out. But in Shibuya, anything goes, so I feel great wearing sexy clothes at work.

Shibuya 109 shop clerk Natsuki Maeda on the right & journalist Judit kawaguchi on the left.
Shibuya 109 shop clerk Natsuki Maeda on the right with journalist Judit Kawaguchi.

Men and women have very different taste. My dad and my boyfriend like my face without make-up, and they both prefer me dressed in simpler, less sexy outfits. But my girlfriends love my Shibuya 109 look. So when I go out with guys, I adjust to their taste and tone down my colors.

A man who is kind to others is a treasure. My boyfriend is nice to everyone, so I respect him a lot. He lives close to my house and when I miss the last train, I call him and he picks me up in Tokyo, even though it takes him two hours to drive into the city, one-way. Last time he got into town at 2 am and it was 4 am when we got home.

Falling in love is great, but when we make a mistake, all we have is our parents to fall back on: They never let us down. My friend is 22 and has a 3 year-old child, already divorced and her parents are raising her baby. Another friend is 23, has a six-years-old son. In both cases, although their parents opposed the relationships, when the kids were in a jam, the parents ended up coming through, and taking care of them.

Listen to your parents, or better yet, your grandparents. My mom married my dad against her and his parents’ wishes and they divorced soon after I was born. My step-dad had the same experience with his first wife: both sets of parents were against their union and they promptly divorced. Yet when my mother and stepfather wanted to get married, everyone supported them. The elders were right: my mother and him are a great match and my stepfather is the best parent I could ever ask for. The lesson here is that both of them could have saved a lot of trouble by following their parents’ advice. I will try to keep that in mind when I am ready to settle down.

Shibuya 109 girls are no fools, even if we look like one! Many people underestimate Shibuya girls as easy and silly, but those who survive at 109 are strong, responsible and serious. Even getting a job here is so difficult, not to mention reaching the high sales targets. Managing the tough schedule requires iron nerves while prancing around in high heels and sexy getups in an open-floor environment where each store blasts its own super-loud music, like in a club complex.

Business schools can’t beat real work experience. I went to a private school but it never occurred to me to apply for university. I knew that one day I would like to own a store, so working at 109 is the best choice for me: 30,000 customers visit this store a year and among our 17 branch shops we have the highest sales. At 109 I can become more adult and responsible, and develop a mind for business and beauty.

Show some respect to your parents. When my father comes home, I always go to the entrance to greet him. Same when he goes out, I follow him to the door to say good-bye to him. It feels natural.

When we have a dream, we barely need sleep. I live with my parents in Chiba, a good two-hour commute from Shibuya 109. I get home usually after 1 am, eat dinner, take a bath, and it’s already at least 3 am when I go to bed. I’m up at 6 am, get ready and come to Tokyo. That is my life five or six days a week, so my skin is in such bad condition from the lack of sleep but I feel so happy working here that I never feel tired. I read on the train or just keep thinking how lucky and thankful I am working here. I am learning a lot and one day I will open my own store.

A version of this interview appeared in the Japan Times.

This Quote

Shibuya 109 girls are no fools, even if we look like one! — Natsuki Maeda