The Capitol Boutique’s glass doors proclaim the shop to be open “by appointment only.” Usually, the people with appointments are Japanese tourists, fresh from their bus tour’s stop at the White House, only two blocks away.
Owner Mike Yamada explains that he locked the doors of his New York Avenue shop after a few unpleasant bouts with robbers and shoplifters. But one suspects the exclusivity functions on another level as well. No doubt the appointment-only notice comforts jumpy Japanese visitors, allowing them to feel safe from the gun-toting Americans they’ve seen on TV. The boutique presents the United States as the travelers hope to discover it: a winning combination of safety and shopping, America without Americans.
Yamada proudly shows off his boutique’s offerings, a singular amalgam of American tourist kitsch and the kind of luxury goods purveyed by airport duty-free shops. Gold-stenciled brand names circle the walls near the ceiling: Royal Doulton, Burberry, Dior. The decorative touch reveals much about the U.S.’s appeal to Japanese tourists. Our culture reveres material goods as much as theirs does, and our prices are lower.
Japanese shoppers love the gold-wrapped boxes of Godiva chocolates, Yamada says—the $21 box would cost them more than twice as much at home. For the same reason, they snap up the boutique’s Zippo lighters.
The shopkeeper examines his selection of Swiss watches, and notes that since the end of ’93, when Japan’s economy lost some of its luster, consumers there have largely abandoned the most opulent luxury goods. He’s tried to adjust his wares accordingly. For instance, he notes proudly, he now stocks earrings made from polished shells rather than precious stone.
But the transition is far from complete. Silk scarves by Cartier and Nina Ricci fan out across a tabletop. Some command as much as $175; others seem relative bargains at $58. Staffordshire enamel pillboxes glisten inside a glass case; ready-to-wear designer clothing hangs at the back of the shop; and Coach purses occupy their own shrine. Yamada points toward a gold necklace displayed high on the wall. “That one costs $12,000,” he says disdainfully. “Who would want that?”
What everyone wants, it seems, are the cheaper American souvenirs, the standard-issue bric-a-brac corralled in a front corner of the store. A plate embossed with the face of every U.S. president reclines in its display stand; Bill Clinton smiles from his central place of honor. Prepackaged novelty foods such as Texas beef jerky and freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” crowd one rack. Yamada explains that the Japanese are particularly enamored of the American space program; a $12.95 “astronaut pen” ranks as one of his most popular items. Never mind that Washington lies a long way from Houston or Cape Canaveral. Such niggling details do not trouble trinket-buyers.
At the moment, though, no one is buying anything. Sales have particularly drooped in the last few months: Not only is winter the off-season, but the Kobe earthquakes dampened Japanese enthusiasm for sightseeing abroad. Yamada bemoans the recent cancellation of a tour group from Kobe. Otherwise, his dreary week would have been brightened by a bus convoy bearing 300 tourists.
But it’s no use crying over lost souvenir-buyers; he is already anticipating spring. “The season starts in March,” he notes optimistically, gesturing so that his French cuff peeks from beneath his jacket sleeve. “Mike” is embroidered on that cuff, and a seal of the United States of America cuff link completes the maximalist menswear look. Like his store, Yamada combines Japanese sensibility with American flash. Often, flash wins.
Yamada, 47, immigrated from Kobe to suburban Maryland when he was 20. In his adopted country, he taught martial arts, endured ethnic slurs, and earned the nickname “Catfish.”
“I have a mustache,” he explains. “Not too many Japanese have mustaches. And I had a tough time when I got here. The catfish is a tough fish.”
Catfish are adaptable creatures, too. Yamada strides through his office with the brash confidence of a Texas billionaire or a Hollywood player. Now, when he returns to Japan, his friends complain that he’s too Americanized. “I make jokes all the time,” he says. “I’m open. I don’t hide myself. In Japan, a businessman doesn’t cry in front of people. Here, it’s completely different.”
In becoming American, Yamada has transformed himself into an American icon: the immigrant entrepreneur, bursting with big dreams and go-get-’em energy. He opened the Capitol Boutique five years ago, but now spends much of his time chasing grander business ventures. He says he’s received several licenses to market Japanese products in the U.S., and he shows samples of the various gizmos. There’s a gadget that dispenses stickum like the stuff on Post-It notes, and there are plastic notebook inserts to tightly secure either compact disks or computer diskettes.
Dearest to his heart, though, are little ceramic marbles he calls “geostones” or “geoaurax.” In Japan, he says, the white balls have been successfully marketed for more than a decade. He displays a little gold wand in which two tiny stones are ensconced. He then runs two glasses of tap water, and stirs one about 20 times with the wand. The stirred glass does indeed taste different—perhaps less chlorinated, or simply less acidic. Yamada beams, and says that the same process can make a glass of cheap red wine taste elegant and aged, and that simply leaving the balls on a cigarette will improve its flavor. “It’s like magic,” he enthuses. In Japan, the wand would cost the equivalent of $38; here, he plans to sell it for $25.
He offers a sheaf of documents, testaments to geostones’ benefits in every endeavor from dry cleaning to pig farming. An English translation of a Japanese ad proclaims the “miracle stone” to be “a hybrid of biotechnology and ceramics.” Jubilates the ad copy: “If you use Miracle Stone when you have alcoholic drinks (liquors and sake), you won’t have a sickening feeling afterwards or a hangover, and the next day’s bathroom won’t smell as much.”
In his office behind the Capitol Boutique, Yamada keeps a souped-up Brita water pitcher, altered so that geostones replace the standard carbon filter. He says that he’s been “talking with” the Brita corporation about commercially producing such filters. (A spokesman for Clorox, Brita’s parent company, says that Yamada is overstating the corporation’s involvement: “Our people in Brita have a vague recollection of receiving something in the mail,” says Fred Reicker. “But apparently there’s no great interest here.”)
Yamada fearlessly predicts that florists and pet stores will provide his first markets. Near his desk, he keeps a sparkling-clean aquarium with a geostone filter. He can’t name the variety of his perky orange pets; he calls them “Disney fish” because a black stripe on their tails somehow reminds him of Mickey Mouse. But he notes that they’re not catfish—catfish could survive water of even questionable quality. These fish, he says, are far more delicate creatures, more in need of geostones’ magic.
Yamada, of course, is no delicate Disney fish in need of protection. “I think forward,” he says. “I’m still alive because I’m a catfish. If I were a regular fish, I’d be dead.”