IN THE GRIP OF STATUS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They have long, elegant straps or funky square metal handles. They come in canvas, cotton or luxuriously heavy paper, in seemingly every hue and pattern. Some are even made of purple bubble-wrap.

Perhaps nowhere on Earth does the lowly shopping bag rise above its utilitarian functionality more than in Tokyo, where it is not only a moving advertisement but an essential fashion accessory and status symbol.

At the fashionable Isetan department store that is home to hundreds of Western and Japanese designer and confectionary boutiques, for example, a customer could theoretically emerge from a shopping excursion with more than 400 widely different shopping bags.

Shopping bags in the U.S. are toted around the mall briefly, tossed in the trunk, then relegated to a closet or the trash; they have a far higher-minded purpose--and longer life span--in Japan. In this mass-transit-geared society, customers might carry the bag around for hours, then "wear" the bag five or 10 times thereafter--in effect serving as mini-billboards.

In-the-know Western designers catering to the lucrative Japanese market usually use thicker, more expensive paper than they do in the U.S., while making the straps more elegant and more durable, ensuring that the bag can stand up to the snow in northern Sapporo, the heat in southern Okinawa and the rain that pelts the entire country in early summer.

These days, shopping bags are as integral to Japanese culture as the tea ceremony, says Yasuo Tanaka, executive director of shopping-bag-maker Tanaka Sangyo Co. in Tokyo, referring to the refined, scripted ritual in which flowers and hanging scrolls are thematically aligned with tea bowls and dry sweets.

"The bag is part of the total coordination of the day--shopping, dinner, a film before returning home on a long train ride: The image of the shopping bag can't be lacking."

Just as Japanese consumers often buy a car first and foremost for its exterior finish, products here are definitely judged by their cover.

"If the shopping bag is nice, the quality of the merchandise is probably nice," says Aiko Teraoka, 55, a graphic designer shopping in the Tokyo's Isetan store recently. Draped across her arm was an opaque white plastic shopping bag with long, gray ribbon-straps from a store called Airpapel, which sells travel merchandise and clothes. Teraoka loves the store, in large part because she loves its bags.

The premium that Japanese put on their shopping bags explains why clothing designer Yohji Yamamoto produces striking, yard-wide bags of coarse fiber in Crayola blue, with his name scrawled in black script. And why Sony Plaza, an imported-products and accessories chain geared to young women, uses dozens of different, multicolored bag designs each year--for Valentine's Day, Christmas, even special aloha-wear promotions--and decorates its shelves and store windows with the bags as well.

In fact, getting the bag sometimes is the main objective of a purchase. Young women such as Noriko Kato, 26, sometimes shell out the equivalent of $50 to $100 for Chanel makeup, just to get the prestigious bag--a bargain, considering that buying a piece of apparel from Chanel could set a customer back hundreds.

Does she ever frequent discount stores? "I'd never go to one because I wouldn't get the shopping bag," Kato grimaces.

Most popular: small shopping bags, just big enough in which to tuck some makeup and a blouse to be worn under the "office lady" uniforms that women change into when they arrive at work. Young women wear the paper shopping bags like an accessory on the subway or out on dates, color-coordinating them to match their outfits.

On a recent day, college student Naoko Yamada, 19--clad in a light-blue suit and carrying a small glittery purse--was toting a recycled light-blue paper shopping bag with the logo "Vicky," into which she had tucked her cosmetic pouch and an address book. Why not invest in a leather purse big enough to hold everything? "I'd never do that," she retorts. "Small, nice bags catch the eye."

Yamada has a collection of a few dozen bags and puts a premium on how their colors blend with her attire; but if the label of the brand isn't elite enough, she puts her purse in front of it. "When it's a prestigious brand, I want to show it off."

Bags serve as moving advertisements for hotels and businesses as well. On weekends, throngs of wedding guests tote their ubiquitous parting gifts home on the trains in typically glossy-white shopping bags with imprimaturs of the reception hall such as the Palace Hotel or Imperial Hotel.

Even the post office has its own shopping bag, in a rich, laminated green made at a cost of about 80 cents per bag.

Great effort is expended in designing the perfect bag. Consider the deliberations that U.S. investment bank JP Morgan Japan went through to design the perfect "seminar bag," used to tote documents and presentation materials--often too large for a briefcase--it dispenses at seminars.

Its bankers are very particular about the bags they use. Too flashy and they feel uncomfortable. Too down-market and they risk embarrassment.

"The bottom of the bag is lightly flared to allow for more documents," notes Atsuko Yoshitsugu, JP Morgan's taste-and-business-etiquette arbiter. The design is "a distinctive black and white bag, which reflects our global advertising campaign, with the JP Morgan logo. The bags have an elegant plastic lamination, black plastic handles [rope ties are considered to be for shopping or for gifts, and are less stable with heavy documents]. In the bottom of the bag we put our Web site URL."

The lust for the paper labels has created a second-hand market on the Internet: One site sells Egoiste bags, which are all the rage with high school girls, for $7 apiece. Noriko Hirai, 28, an office worker who moonlights running another site selling Chanel, Prada and Hermes bags she and her friends harvest from their own purchases, speculates that her customers buy the bags to get "a vicarious feeling of superiority; even if they can't afford the prestigious brands, they can appear as if they do."

Eager shopping-bag owners grab the hottest bags from the relatively small inventory of 30 to 40 labels as soon as they're posted on the Web site. Desperate customers even put in advance orders for their favorites.

Brand-image is everything in Japan. Weak economy or no, Japanese still buy an estimated 40% of the world's luxury goods, such as designer leather bags and wallets.

"Here, there's not so much difference between rich and poor," says shopping-bag maker Tanaka, referring to Japan's largely middle-class society. "Everybody is more or less the same. So we have to make something to distinguish ourselves from others."

In the post-World War II rubble, his parents started making bags out of old newspaper and magazines for food and vegetable stores. As Japan's affluence rose, the company began targeting elite brands, which now spend as much as $3 apiece for their richly colored and unusually designed bags.

Shopping bags go hand in hand with gifts--to bosses, clients, relatives, teachers, even the matchmaker who introduced your spouse--during summer and winter gift-giving seasons. Presents--often swaddled in tissue paper or wrapping--are expected to be delivered in the name-brand maker's bag.

There's no sneaking off to a designer outlet to buy a name-brand sweater, put it in a used department store box and wrap it up in gift wrap from a card store, as you could easily do in the U.S. If you buy a Polo sweater from Ralph Lauren, the gift is expected to be handed over in the Ralph Lauren shopping bag, with the item tucked inside in nice liner paper.

"If it's brought in a different bag, not the original bag, they're not happy because it doesn't show that it's from Ralph Lauren or any designer shop," says an executive of Polo-Ralph Lauren Japan Co., whose 400 department store boutiques and 10 free-standing stores produce 20% of the firm's worldwide revenues.

In the U.S., customers receive Ralph Lauren shopping bags only if they buy the designer's products at a Ralph Lauren store, not at a department store. The designer makes its rich-looking navy-blue bags with straps of gold acrylic in Japan, whereas those handed out in the U.S. and other countries are made in Mexico or Southeast Asia.

"In Japan, customers expect a lot from a designer's shopping bag, so they expect to have it made in Japan," says the Lauren executive, who declined to be named.

In fact, another Japanese shopping-bag maker, Superbag Co., opened a Tokyo store featuring the generic gift-shopping bags like those multicolored, multipurpose bags sold in card and discount stores in the U.S. The company opened a trial store in Los Angeles called US Pizazz to learn the ropes, but the concept failed miserably in Japan.

Most of the typical gifts of sweets and food come already wrapped in thin paper bearing the department store's logo. The buyer then hands over the shopping bag, as is, to the gift recipient.

"It's easy, because the gift relies on the prestige shopping bag or paper," says Shugo Tobita, who worked in the U.S. for Superbag and is back in Tokyo. "It's giri, obligation."

But it also takes away the element of surprise, he says. "I remember American movies of kids ripping off wrapping paper, wanting to enjoy it because they don't know what they'll be getting. But in Japan, because of the shopping bag, they already kind of know what they're getting."

Rie Sasaki of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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