If you’ve ever seen a documentary set in modern urban Japan, there’s a very good chance that they walked around a shop. And there’s a very good chance that that shop was full of quirky, weird and wonderful goods that seem to play right into the ‘Japan is strange’ narrative. If all of the above is true, I can almost guarantee that shop was a Don Quijote.
First the basics: Don Quijote (ドン・キホーテ, affectionately known as just ‘Donki’) is a discount chain store, with about 160 branches scattered up and down Japan. It sells a bit of everything, from clothes to fresh fruit to mattresses to a full-size white tiger soft toys to bling to sex toys.
Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But what makes Don Quijote so unique is how it takes the retail rule book, reads it backwards and then proceeds to use said rule book as toilet paper.
For example, the stores are a mess. No, really: my local Don Quijote is two huge floors of consumer chaos, as if someone’s just filled a refuge centre with the remnants of a garish furniture emporium, splattered it all with pink, red and black paint, and then stacked everything from floor to ceiling to create a maze out of tat. Oh, and you can enjoy the psychedelic experience of walking around a Don Quijote well into the wee hours: nearly all stores are nocturnal, most staying open as late as 3am, some open 24 hours.
And it’s brilliant. I mean that sincerely. Even if I have no shopping list in my hand, I always enjoy a walk around Donki. Because of the higgeldy-piggedly nature of the store, you always discover something new, partly because it’s so easy to get lost in the labyrinth of merchandise, and partly because a typical Donki is so jam packed with stuff. When you take a look inside a Donki you’ll look at the goods stacked from floor to ceiling leaning in on all sides and wonder how on earth these places survive being in the most earthquake prone nation on Earth. The owner of Donki has flat out said that this is all deliberate: that sense of tangled bedlam is to make it difficult for the shopper to find what they want – the exact opposite of retail rule 101.
And yet, not only does Donki survive, it thrives. Donki was established in 1980 and not only weathered the storms of economic turmoil in the 1990s but came out stronger because of it. In this country of stuffy bureaucratic rigidity, Donki is the bad boy, the Ferris Bueller of retail. The store in Roppongi had a rollercoaster built on top of it, though local complaints have left it gathering dust, never used. Donki also challenged and ultimately won the right to sell pharmaceutical drugs too, arguing that most actual pharmacies in Japan close too early and people need access to medicine at night too.
This roguish image is not without the smarts, though: Donki gives their floor staff more freedom than the average chain store. After mere months of working there the staff are given free reign as to what the shelves should be stocked with, as well as how it is laid out. The genius of this is that walking into any branch of Donki is a unique experience – unlike Conbinis where they are all impeccably identical, one Donki will have a pyramid made of snacks while another will have a moodily lit basement dedicated to alcohol. And because the stock is also different you never save your Donki experience for just your local branch – you can’t help but wander into other branches to see what new wonders lie in store. Even if you know exactly what you want to buy, the crazy-yet-clever layout means you’ll get lost or distracted and end up buying a Louis Vuitton bag and garden shears along with the box of cereal that was your only intended buy.
Walking around a Donki is a delightful experience, though, even if you don’t buy anything. Gaudy, seedy, messy – it’s a nightclub crossed with a wholesale store. And the fact that Donki marches to the beat of its own drum, fights crusty bureaucracy and gives more rights to its staff than most, you can actually shop in good conscience there too.
So those TV shows are right: Donki is a strange store, but it is the best kind of strange.