Japan’s strange style symbol: Trader Joe’s merch

During her latest trip to Japan, travel influencer Flor Alfaro made a new friend at a local bar in Tokyo. The two were chatting over cocktails, and when Alfaro revealed that she was from California, her new friend exclaimed, “Trader Joe’s! “

The American grocer has a strange level of star power in Japan, where anyone who’s anyone has a Trader Joe’s tote bag slung over their shoulder. Shopping in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo’s bohemian district, home to funky bookstores and vintage shops, Alfaro also spotted a Trader Joe’s sweatshirt while perusing the clothing racks.

“Amerikajin” fashion, or America-core, in Japan, includes anything from Harley Davidson merch to Harvard University sweatshirts, but the ultimate status symbol is the heavy duck (thick canvas) Trader Joe’s tote.

Trader Joe’s started selling canvas reusable shopping bags in 1977, but in February the grocer released a mini-tote that caused an absolute frenzy, some of which was captured and shared across the internet. The grocer’s Vice President of Marketing Matt Sloan and Marketing Director Tara Miller discussed the brouhaha on a recent episode of the “Inside Trader Joe’s” podcast and revealed that the company had printed hundreds of thousands of mini tote bags, anticipating they’d last for weeks or even months, but all of which flew off the shelves within a week.

Whats behind the $2.99 viral bag being sold for up to $2,999.95?

The miniature version of the classic tote retailed at $2.99, but it’s been popping up on online resellers including eBay, where the current highest listing is selling the tote for $2,999.95 (£2,356.58). Crafty resellers are selling custom mini-totes on Etsy for around £50-£60, embroidered with little strawberries, cherries, flowers and bees. Trader Joe’s plans to restock the mini-totes later this year around August or September.

Americans will pay a pretty penny for Sanrio products – Hello Kitty is practically ubiquitous in stores catering to shoppers under the age of 25. In the US, anime has solidified its standing in “cool nerd” American mainstream culture, and knowing where to get the best ramen or sushi will definitely score you street cred as a proper American foodie. But in Japan, it’s all about the prized Trader Joe’s tote bag, a symbol of effortless style among the upper echelons of Japanese fashionistas.

Kumi Soto, a Los Angeles-based tour guide from Osaka, Japan says she always takes Japanese tourists to Trader Joe’s. “They buy so many bags,” she tells BBC Culture. “In Japan, they have a custom to get souvenirs for their family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors. When they travel overseas, they need to get something for them. It’s a big deal.”

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