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Japanese Imports 

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Arlington Heights, an "Illinois Certified City," is home to the Arlington International Racecourse and to the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame, could be the site of a new stadium for the Chicago Bears, and just recently saw the opening of a shopping mall. Among these places perhaps the shopping mall would seem to hold the least promise, but it just might be the most intriguing spot in the entire certified city.

Not far from I-90, unobtrusive behind a row of young evergreens, the mall advertises its existence to passing traffic with a sign displaying a green-and-white globe girdled round the middle by the word "Yaohan." From the Arlington Heights Road side the mall looks something like an industrial park or some kind of corporate building. Driving by the entrance on Algonquin Road the low structure is more colorful. The decoratively shingled roof is blue, support columns and an oriental arch are red, and the building is wrapped around with white facing.

This may be the only mall in the midwest where the shopper won't find a Madonna CD or a pair of Calvins or even a burger and fries, but on a recent overcast Saturday morning the parking lot was full. The grocery store does sell cookies shaped like miniature cheeseburgers, and the toy store does stock Gameboy. The bookstore carries the works of some best-selling authors--it sells a whole set of Shirley MacLaine's channeling books, for instance. But unless you can read Japanese or remember how from a previous life, Ms. MacLaine's words will remain incomprehensible. The new mall in Arlington Heights is a Japanese import. Most of the goods in its shops, most of the corporations that own them, most of the fast food, the employees, and the customers are from Japan.

The mall was built by Yaohan U.S.A. Corporation, a subsidiary of the Yaohan International Group, which moved its headquarters last year from Japan to Hong Kong. Yaohan manages the mall and runs the food court and the grocery store, which is about the size of an average Jewel but stocks such items as dried seaweed and a breath mint called Partner With Your Mouth. The public bulletin board at the grocery store advertises English lessons along with the usual used cars. The sign at the entrance prohibiting smoking and bare feet also prohibits picture taking.

Across the aisle from the grocery store is the food court: eight fast-food stands laid out in a square with seating in the middle for a couple hundred. It's supposed to look like a village square, each stand with its own version of the blue shingled roof seen outside. Frank Sinatra and Heart play over the PA system, and yes, they serve sushi and beef roll. Several signs read "No Alcoholic Beverages." At 11:15 a couple of uniformed fast-food servers lounge in the smoking section puffing Marlboros. One of them wears a green-and-white official-looking badge that says "BREAK TIME--15 MINUTES."

Mall management conducts tours for anyone who makes an appointment. Four adults and ten kids trail a woman named Midori, who is from the Arlington Heights area, and the store manager, Yukio Sawada, who is from Japan and does not yet speak English. Midori refers all the difficult questions to Mr. Sawada, interpreting his answers for the group. They're heading for the toy store, Pony-Go-Round.

Some of the toys at Pony-Go-Round are familiar, and the packaging is too, but generally it's splashier and bolder than what Americans are used to, with illustrations that look like parodies of our obsessions. Cartoons promote toys, cookies, candy--pictured on some boxes are big, bright clouds and pink-cheeked, round-eyed Caucasian children. Impossibly elaborate go-bots and robots do death-ray battle with entire cities; yellow teddy bears dance with green pigs; everyone will recognize the assortment of Godzilla buttons, key chains, and water pistols. One of the kids on the tour is holding a box of cookies his parents bought at the grocery store. It shows a pair of pink-haired tots sitting on a big white bone suspended in the sky. A close examination of the wrapper shows that these bone-shaped cookies are made of sugar, millet, jelly, and bone meal. This doesn't bother the kids. The cookies are sweet and crunchy.

When a kid picks up a battery-operated tomahawk and chops down hard on the glass display shelf, it shrieks. Lying next to it is a rubber hammer; when whacked by another kid, it reproduces the sound of breaking glass. The imported screaming tomahawk and hammer are $16.50 apiece, and after the adults give them a try, they're left where they are.

It's a slow day at the video store, where all the movies are in Japanese and there are no subtitled films. The bookstore next to it is the only store here that's entered through a doorway--the shops are almost all out in the open, like stands in a very clean and orderly bazaar. Across from the toy store is a golf shop, and next to that, behind a counter, is a travel agency. In a nook there's a stationery store, and beside the next aisle, across from a liquor stall, is a small pharmacy called Super Health. Its border is formed by massaging chairs and boxes of other goods. Lots of Japanese products besides Super Nintendo are "super" in one way or another. One of them, Super Lemon, is the strongest sour ball on the face of the earth.

Mr. Sawada says, through Midori, that about 30 percent of the customers at the new Arlington Heights Yaohan mall are Japanese immigrants, another 30 percent are curious Americans, and the rest are Chinese and Korean people from the area. Before opening last November 15 the mall sent flyers to the employees of Japanese corporations throughout the midwest. Many of their regular customers travel from Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin to do their weekly shopping. There are six other Yaohan malls in the United States, five in California and one in New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from Grant's tomb. At the other American malls a much larger percentage of the shoppers are Japanese, usually as many as 90 percent.

Yaohan owns shopping malls all over the world in fact, all of them similar to this one. From its new Hong Kong headquarters Yaohan operates malls in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. The mall in Bangkok is its largest. It has recently opened malls in Vancouver and in the suburbs of London. It owns a ranch in Brazil, a farm in Costa Rica. And while one of its stated missions, besides being listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is to increase cultural understanding between Japan and the host countries, the bulk of the business at most of the malls comes from employees of Japanese corporations. In a sense a Yaohan mall is like an American PX, only the army it serves is corporate.

Some employees at the Arlington Heights mall have been transferred from the other Yaohans in the United States. The woman managing the Gem Stationery Store moved from LA, and the man working the counter at the J.P. Golf Shop came here from the Yaohan in Edgewater, New Jersey. The shops themselves are not owned by the Yaohan corporation; they're chain stores that were invited into the mall. Pony-Go-Round has a shop in New Jersey as well as in Japan; Gem has stores in California but none in Japan. "Help wanted" signs are up in several shops, all of them with "Japanese Speaking Preferred" written underneath in both English and Japanese.

Many of the products sold at the Yaohan mall are similar to their American counterparts, but they reveal unexpected twists in design and application. Buy ear swabs at the grocery store, and one end has the usual cotton while the other has a plastic scoop. Displayed next to the disposable razors are little one-inch pastel-colored eyebrow shavers. You will search in vain among the crockery for a coffee mug with a handle. It's not surprising that management feels the need to conduct educational tours and hires people with a Japanese background.

At the stationery store one of the adults on the tour picks up an envelope. There's only one in the package, elegantly embossed with a snarled vine and flowers in full bloom; like a gift it's loosely tied with black and white strands of ribbon. The tourist brings the envelope up to the counter and the young salesman laughs. "But do you know what this is for?" he asks. "Japanese people send money in these for help with funeral expenses. Are you sure you want this?" The shopper thinks about it for a moment, then with a what-the-hell shrug says yeah.

Everybody on the tour gets a brochure from Midori and a good-bye wave from Mr. Sawada. They tote their packages out the sliding door as John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" plays on the sound system; one of the kids pauses to listen. When Yoko adds her voice to John's in harmony, the girl cocks her head, surprised at the sound. Years ago, when it first came out, many shared that surprise. But now the song's a standard.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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