VAN-related Videos

February 26th, 2012


Scene Van Jacket commercial (c. mid-1970s), directed by Kurigami Kazumi 


Scene Van Jacket commercial (c. mid-1970s), directed by Kurigami Kazumi 


Nagoya Ivy Meet-Up (c. 2008)

Trendspotting in Post-Consumer Japan

March 31st, 2009

Whether bullish or bearish about Japan’s long-term prospects, there should be no question that Japanese consumer society has undergone a major transformation in the last decade. A recessionary economy and falling wages have slowly chipped away at a once-vibrant and high-speed trend-driven consumer culture. Sales in almost all cultural fields — music, fashion, manga, DVDs, magazines — have seen serious decreases since the late 1990s. (This may also be true in the United States, but the incredible cultural penetration of the internet in the English-language sphere has somewhat softened the blow.) Now with a cyclical economic crisis in Japan triggered by the global recession, Japanese consumers are becoming extreme parodies of their former frugal selves: choosing Uniqlo over luxury goods and no-brand Chinese electronics over superior domestic products.

So how in the world then do you try to “spot trends” in an unequivocally-declining consumer marketplace? At the moment, the normal trendspotting protocol is not equipped to handle this kind of stagnant environment.

The first major problem is that most trendspotting tends to be overly optimistic; trendspotters’ audiences are mostly corporations, so there is an inherent goal in making the future market appear to have great potential for further growth. After all, no one wants to spend money on a report that tells them their earnings are guaranteed to decline. Trendspotters thus must either highlight the bright spots in the consumer market or spin negative-sounding social change into euphemistically positive phrasing. Non-consumers become “post-materialists.” Obscure tech companies with crazy ideas become banner carriers for the entire industry. Yet something like the current strength of low-price Uniqlo is generally ignored, since this development does not portray Japan as “cutting-edge” nor provides a soothing narrative about the country’s future prospects.

The second problem is that most trendspotting looks in the wrong places: namely, “leading-edge” culture. The real cultural leaders of Japan are now the yankii working class delinquents who control the direction of the ever-growing gyaru and Oniikei fashion subcultures. Their magazines are expanding, and their favorite brands are profiting. But since the former gatekeepers and tastemakers in Japan dislike their aesthetic, the story of their rise is essentially ignored. Cell-phone novels, for example, are portrayed in the media as “innovative uses of technology” rather than as the increased preference for yankii-esque narratives. Articles about the recent popularity of hostess-fashion magazine Koakuma Ageha rarely mention its monthly content targeted towards to non-Tokyo single-mothers working in the mizu shobai world. The “downward shift” of popular culture towards working class values and narratives could be said to be the most significant cultural trend of the last five years, but again, this is not a trend narrative anyone wants to hear.

In a similar way, there is much attention to Japan’s eco-consciousness, but these stories overly reflect the interests and aesthetics of upper middle class Tokyoites who have grown bored with decades of over-consumerism. Looking at the leading companies at this time of recession, however, mass consumers are clearly choosing products based on low price and high cost performance and not on abstract notions of environmental friendliness. The media and urban elite’s pro-environmental tastes are a good start for the green movement within Japan, but hardly tell the true story of basic consumer preference.

Unless the economy recovers dramatically, there is no reason to believe the two major narratives of cultural change in Japan — the erosion of conspicuous consumer spending and the rise of working class tastes amongst the middle class — will come to an end. Trendspotting in Japan must cease being an advocate for culturally-savvy innovation in technology and leading-edge culture and instead become an unbiased examination of the true market.

On this score, Atsushi Miura — author of Karyu shakai (Downwardly-Mobile Society) and the recent Onna ha naze kyabakurajo in naritai no ka? (Why do women want to become cabaret club hostesses?) — has provided the perfect template. For years, he worked at PARCO’s Across — the beacon of leading-edge consumer research — but now writes almost exclusively about youth’s cultural shift towards less urban and urbane values. He went towards the real story instead of trying to fit contemporary Japan into the “traditional” progressive trend mold.

With an unprecedentedly-high product turnover, Japan offers much temptation to concentrate solely on eccentric technologies and quirky new products (ice cucumber soda and QR-code graves, anyone?). Most of these products, however, are total flops or otherwise have only the most minor influence on the wider market. Good trendspotting must ignore these products or at least admit their total irrelevance to the wider consumer market up-front. In other words, trendspotting must stop searching for phenomena that fit the 1990s concept of “trends” and instead work to discover new social patterns and (often uninspiring) hit products. The prolonged Japanese economic downturn has not erased trends; it has just made trends less exciting and “cool” to the normal trendspotter crowd.

Ultimately, trendspotting is not about sexy content and stimulating readers; it’s about telling the true story of the market in order to make accurate predictions for the future. As Japan has shown over the last decade, the near future does not always become bigger, bolder, and brighter than the past. Trends can be depressing, disappointing and maybe even a little boring, but reality turns out to be the best starting point for formulating business strategy.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Interview with Yoshiyuki Morii

March 25th, 2009

This article originally appeared on MEKAS.

Yoshiyuki Morii is steadily becoming Japan’s most famous “personal stylist.” A young pioneer in the field, he works with clients of all ages and all types to improve their style, and hopefully, their self-confidence too. Recently, Morii has published a book Fasshon no Sukiru: Otona no ‘Kyouyou’ (our translation, Fashion Skills: What Adults Must Know) to spread contemporary fashion knowledge to a business audience who may not think they need to worry about the fit of their suit.

We sat down with Mr. Morii in our offices.

When did you first become interested in fashion?
When I was in middle-school or high-school. I went to an all boys’ school, and I liked to go on group dates with girls from the sister school. I was really bad at talking to girls, maybe because I was going through an awkward teenage phase. But I ended up wanting to use fashion to be more attractive to women. At that time, I would have used the kind of personal stylist service I do now had it existed. At that point, the internet had not really caught on, so there was no way I could have found out about personal stylist services. And I am not sure there was anyone doing it anyway. So I thought at that time, I will improve my fashion sense, and when I grow up, I will become a “personal stylist.”

Did you study fashion in college?
I was in the Law Department, but fashion was a big part of my life. But I forgot how much I liked fashion, and after graduation, I found a job as a manager at the English language school Nova. I liked English, but I decided I liked fashion more than English around 2004, and so I started my own home page and started to find customers as a personal stylist.

You did not think to work at an apparel company?
More than just liking clothing, I like selecting certain items out of a lot of choices. I want to find the things that customers are looking for. When you work in a store, you have to find things that fit the customer and also you have to think about the company’s earnings. So if you knew that there was an even better jacket at a different store, you can’t tell the customer. I wanted to create a neutral standpoint from which I could advise customers.

Have there been no personal stylists up to this point?
When I started my business in 2004, I thought no one else was doing it. But I can’t say I was the pioneer of the field, because six months after I started, I discovered that there was already another website called Fashion Rescue doing the same thing. So there were some people who were doing it before me.

Please tell us about what you do as a personal stylist.
Basically, I go shopping with clients who sign up for my services. My standard service is an hour-and-a-half. In that time, we go around to five or six shops. I select clothing that fits the client, and he tries them on. Then he buys what I think fits him and he personally likes and also is within budget. Right when I meet him, I also take a photo. That’s the “Before” shot.

We go shopping together, he buys some clothes, and at that point, I have him cut out the tags and change into the clothes. In the hour-and-a-half that we go around to the five or six stores, the person will have a totally different fashion style at the end of it. So we take a picture again at the end, the “After” shot. I send these shots to the customer, so he can see how much he has changed.

What is the window shopping course? What about the one-day stylist course?
With window shopping, we don’t plan on buying anything, but just try things on at the shop. And since it’s a try-out of the service, it only lasts 30-40 minutes.

The one-day styling course is the basic hour-and-a-half course. But there are some people who want to hear style lectures on top of that, so there is the First “Image Up” Course. The Fashion Sense Course includes first a color examination, and then afterwards we go shopping.

Which do clients want help on ― casual or formal fashion?
Both, but I get more requests for casual. With business suits, most people look good enough, even if they don’t necessarily look stylish. An example of casual: a mid-level manager salaryman will have to go on a group trip with employees. He knows he has no fashion sense, but he doesn’t want to look embarrassing to his staff. So he wants to know how to dress casually in a way that will be okay to the younger employees. I have a lot of clients like that.

Also, one-in-two 30 year-old Japanese men is unmarried. Last year the word kon-katsu (“Marriage Recruiting”) was a buzzword, and these men want me to help them pick fashion that they can wear to parties or clothes to wear to a dating service.

What is the average age of your clients?
The most are in their 30s. They are not all looking for wives, however. There are also a lot in their 40s and 20s. When you are in your 30s, you are pretty busy with work, so you can’t make any time to go and buy clothes. And since pure window shopping is a waste of time, they mostly want to just leave everything to a pro like me. They really need to shop efficiently.

Were your 30 year-old clients interested in fashion when they were younger?
About half of them. Those that were interested in fashion had fun buying their own clothes when they were in their 20s, but now they are busy with work and don’t want to spend their days off shopping. But they know their old clothes don’t work for private events, so most want to make a change. The other half are engineers, for example, and they never had much interest in fashion to begin with. So they have no idea how to choose their clothes. I would say about 20% are those who want me to teach them the basics.

In Japan, a lot of magazines teach you how to be stylish from zero. What can you get from a personal stylist that you can’t get from a Japanese magazine like Men’s Nonno?
Magazines take the position of providing the latest fashion information to those who are interested in trends. Personal stylists are for those who may have been knowledgeable about trends in the past but haven’t followed them lately. The standard for my clients is much lower. They may just wake up to the meaning of fashion after hearing my lecture. You have to know how to read magazines, but it’s very easy and fun to meet with a personal stylist directly and learn while shopping. Magazines are for more active customers, stylists are more passive customers.

Do your clients usually have a style they are trying to achieve?
Most of my clients do not know anything but their old style, so they do not know what is most flattering on them. The style that I usually recommend is “elegant casual.” I believe that 20th century fashion was about “the performance of self” but in the 21st century, fashion has become one of many crucial business skills. So “being in style” means having an appearance that matches the minimum social standard. I think “elegant casual” is best for that because it focuses on expressing style through elegance and playfulness.

There are many Japanese brands that make clothes in the “elegant casual” style. Do you choose which stores you go in regards to the customer’s budget?
Of course. When I have a customer who wants to spend ¥300,000 to 500,000, I first check with him, do you want to buy luxury goods? Or do you want to get some good stuff at reasonable prices?

Do you have shops you always use?
I use a lot of select shops like Edifice and Ships and also reasonably-priced chain stores like Uniqlo, GAP, and Suits Company. I am always researching what they have in stock before I go with clients.

I ask clients about their height/weight, budget, and desired items via email, and then before I meet them, I find styles that fit the conditions they laid out. And then I decide on which shops to use. There are about ten shops In Shibuya that I always consider, so I just choose the ones that fit my customers’ needs best.

How many stores do you hit in an hour-and-a-half?
Five to six. We start in Shibuya and then walk towards Harajuku on Meiji Street.

Do you go to department stores?
No. There are two reasons. First, they are much more expensive than select shops. Also, from the perspective of providing them a service, the department store has already put lots of brands and labels in one place, so the reason for having a stylist guiding you tends to disappear. I always go to standalone stores, because I also want to emphasize the entertainment/adventure part of it.

Do you ever tell your clients not to buy something?
Yes, of course. But usually I just tend to quietly recommend something I think it is better.

What do you do on days when you don’t have clients?
I update my homepage and blog, send out a e-mail newsletter. I also write columns for two or three web magazines. Last month, I published my first book, and in mid-April, my second volume comes out from Tokuma Shoten. So I am writing that at the moment.

Your first book is called “Fashion Skills: What Adults Must Know,” Is the readership of this book similar to your clients?
The book is for businessmen from their mid-20s to their early 40s. Regardless of their work, they want to change their fashion but do not have the time. I am targeting those who do not know what to do fashion-wise by themselves.

You seem to have a very specific belief about the role of fashion in society.
Originally, I became interested in fashion from the objective position of wanting to be attractive to women. The majority of those interested in fashion are interested in expressing their individuality. For them, their clothes should feel good and look good to themselves. Most people engaged in fashion think that way.

My personal goal with fashion was never myself but trying to impress women. Basically, I wanted to wear things that those around me would like, so at that point, it wasn’t at all about individual desires. I didn’t really understand if what I wore was acceptable or not. So I started this service in 2004, and now I have taken over 1,000 requests. The clients who have used me all have the same reaction. Of course, I make a website that says this and they see the webpage and want to use, but they all want to create a wardrobe that makes a positive impression on those around them. It’s not about being trendy or being different or making fashion be art. I am always thinking about what kind of style and selection best matches their needs.

For example, take jacket length. Right now, short jackets are in style, but if you go too short, it becomes a bit too trendy and about showing your individuality. At the same time, if the jacket is too long, it just looks old. So I very procedurally think about what length jacket would seem good to other people but not go too far.

Do you ever act as a personal stylist for women?
I do if women ask me, but I try to just be a specialist for men. If I do both sexes, I will have double the research.

In the book, you write, “Fashion is not about personal taste, but about knowledge.” I also saw this phrase in a recent men’s fashion magazine. For most fashion people, there is a strong belief that it all revolves around personal taste, but in Japan, magazines take the stance that if you follow the rules, you can be stylish. Why do you in particular think it’s not about personal taste?
I think, first of all, that “good taste” means different things in Japan and the rest of the world. When I say “taste,” I mean feeling over rules. Like, taste is, “I can’t explain why I like this but I can just feel it!” Certainly, maybe I am being extreme here, but I think fashion is too complex to just set up a system and logic and explain it that way. If you just say it’s all about “taste,” however, then there is no place for a personal stylist. There is no reason for me to make an effort to help people. I don’t think it’s a wasted effort if I can have those who are not interested in fashion start to use my knowledge and become better dressers.

Where do most clients go wrong with their outfits and clothes?
Silhouette is the number one problem. There are three points about silhouette I think are important.

From around 2000, silhouette became the most important thing in fashion, so if you wear clothes that fit your body neatly, even if you mess up with color coordination, the overall effect is still pretty good. What is too bad, however, is that men and women have a big difference in what they think “fitting well” means. Women put the emphasis on clothes that look very neat on a guy, where the guy only cares about being comfortable and having ease of movement. So if a guy thinks something is the right size, a woman is likely to say it’s too sloppy. I have a lot of customers who don’t realize this.

Right now, a lot of the big suit stores have more slim-fitting suits for young men. Do you think young people are dressing with better fit these days?
Yes, there is definitely a rise in slim silhouettes. But it still depends on the business sector. On average, the sloppy silhouette is still a big problem.

Do you think the “fashion gap” is related to income disparity?
I think it is to a certain degree. Ambitious and curious people rise to the top. So I don’t think it’s about just swallowing what other people say to you, but thinking for yourself. Those kinds of people succeed in fashion, work, and other things. Those people who have no interest and are forced to do it, they don’t succeed in work and fashion. As a result, there develops a gap, and it becomes a gap of character.

Right now, everyone says we live in an age of the ¥3 million salary, but I took a survey of my customers. Their average salary hovers around ¥5 million. I talked to 65 people, and five exceeded ¥10 million and about the same number for ¥8 million. So those who have a bit of money do use my services. But these more wealthy customers are not wearing clothing that fits their salary when I first meet them. In the process of working with them, they start showing a fashion sense more suited to them.

Do you think that fashion can solve the problem of wanting to appeal to the opposite sex?
This is a very important point. What I noticed in doing my service is that I used to think the best merit in changing your external appearance is improving your first impression. But the most important merit is changing the person from the inside. If you wear clothes that suit you, I think that connects to your confidence. Passive people can become a little more active.

After doing a survey of my customers, I found that when I took the 17 who were married or had girlfriends, one-out-of-three got a girlfriend after using a personal stylist. I don’t think that’s just because they improved their clothes, but I do think my service helped. I have had about 300 customers, and two of them have married after using my services. So I think changing their fashion sense helped them get started on that.

Why did you publish your book as a business book instead of a fashion book?
Men don’t really know if book stores have shelves for fashion books. I only figured it out after I started to write books. There are fashion magazines for men, but there are few books. So I realized, even if my book was in the fashion section, those who would want to read it may not be able to find it. I wanted to publish the book as a business book about fashion so that those going to buy marketing books would also notice my fashion book. I picked the publisher PHP Institute because they were so strong in the business area.

Why do you ask your customers not to wear black?
I think black is a very difficult color to pull off. Very fashionable people can use it, of course, but there are so many fashion beginners who think, “As long as I wear black, I am safe.”  So I wanted to reject this idea of black, which always seems to brainwash the people who read fashion magazines and do whatever is written there. Those who understand color know black can have a very distinguished image and feel unordinary. And when black is high-quality it’s nice because it can be matte or shiny. But if you buy a ¥3000 black cotton shirt, it will look really cheap. There is something unpleasant about seeing “sophisticated black” look cheap. It’s discomforting.

Guys who are fashion beginners don’t know how to buy high-quality things and try to get clothes for as cheap as possible. And so they buy cheap-looking black things. So I tell them it’s difficult to make black work.

Women, on the other hand, tend to be much better at style overall. They care about their hair and make-up and have a high-level minimum of what they wear every day. So if you are a woman, you can get away with more of an elegant, special style, meaning that it’s easier to use black. Guys have to be experts to really use black well.

What do women notice first in a man’s outfit?
Everybody always says this, but I think women notice shoes, because shoes are the thing men are most likely to ignore. So it’s very easy to look at a man’s shoe and understand his fashion level, because the guy is likely to think “No one’s looking” and just be lazy about it. Even when guys wear a jacket, if they don’t pay attention to their shoes, women will pick up on it. “He’s trying to be stylish now, but at heart, he isn’t.”

After shoes, it’s the belt. Even if you don’t wear a belt, there are a lot of guys who think that no one will see it. I think that everyone should pay attention to the very things they are most likely to not forget about.

Do you have clients who have “graduated” from your services?
There is no official “graduation” for my services, but after four or five times, clients do start to be able to figure out what I would choose for them. I can feel that they have greater cultivated their own tastes. So I recommend that they now can shop by themselves, but there are people who like shopping with me, so they still use my services.

What is the biggest business challenge for a personal stylist? And do you think there will be an increase in demand in the future?
At the moment, I have about 30 appointments a month. I get about 5-10 new ones each month, and the rest are repeaters. Last year, I had 25 appointments a mont, so I saw an increase of 60 total over the last year. The most clients I could possibly take in one month is 40, so if I get more demand than that, I could not do it by myself. So I am thinking about creating a salon-like select shop where I show clothing that I personally select. I am also thinking about training another generation of stylists.

Shibuya Girls Collection ‘09S/S

March 10th, 2009

At the time of its initial establishment in 2005, Tokyo Girls Collection (TGC) offered a revolutionary alternative to the standard industry “fashion show.” E-commerce company Xavel (now Branding Inc.) founded TGC as a multimedia fashion event focusing on “real clothes” — low-priced domestic brands with an eye towards street trends. Instead of generic foreign drones imported from Eastern Europe, TGC used young models from popular magazines to parade the clothes on the runway. With its winning formula, TGC found quick success and ultimately rewrote the rules for Japanese fashion: choosing inclusivity over exclusivity and immediate relevance over artistic intention. TGC was “real” fashion for “real” Japanese women. Take a hike, “fake” fashion purveyors!

Now in 2009, Tokyo Girls Collection has taken its rightful place as a core institution of the Japanese fashion world, with big sponsors all clamoring to get a piece of the action. Uniqlo has just offered its second TGC collaboration — spring blazers promoted with popular ViVi model Marie. Last weekend’s 2009 Spring/Summer TGC took the brand line-up into totally new territory: select shops Beams, Kitson, and Free’s Shop, as well as originally-American brands Milkfed and Jill Stuart. All five are much more “fashion-forward” in the traditional snobby sense than the usual Shibuya 109 fare. The inclusion of these brands perfectly illustrated the fact that TGC is no longer a niche event for offshoots of the Shibuya gyaru subculture but an event where 20,000 female consumers with open minds and relatively heavy wallets can congregate and party. In just four years, TGC has become completely and utterly mainstream.

The day after Tokyo Girls Collection, Branding Inc. held TGC’s “little sister” event Shibuya Girls Collection (SGC) on the same Yoyogi National Stadium stage. Most wondered whether back-to-back Girls Collections would not mutually cannibalize audiences, but the pre-show buzz had the younger SGC outselling its big sister TGC. By the day of the event, all tickets for SGC had totally sold out. The day of the show, the arena was completely packed — with even the press seats over-run with eager girls. (Although SGC offered a “Men’s Stage” to show Oniikei fashion brands modeled by Men’s Egg superstars, the crowd was ultimately over 90% women.)

The two Girls Collections essentially share the same format, but SGC is a completely different beast than TGC — almost like the young weekend crowds at Shibuya 109 broke into the stadium and threw their own fashion show. As the name suggests, Tokyo GC is about girls’ street fashion in a wide and comprehensive sense, encompassing the diversity of looks found in Japan’s capital. SGC, on the other hand, is all about the specific gyaru style that emerged in the Shibuya neighborhood in the mid-’90s and remains strong. Accordingly, the SGC atmosphere was much more subcultural and niche than TGC, representing a fashion world that remains under the shadows of the “serious” industry. But despite the more narrow focus, the seats were equally packed at TGC, proving that the Shibuya fashion movement is just as legitimate in size and energy as the “mainstream” of fashion.

That does not mean, however, that SGC is particularly comprehensible to outsiders. I nominally cover the girls’ “street” fashion beat, and yet, most of the details of SGC culture are totally alien to me. TGC employs beloved magazine stars with name-value: celebrities who double as dramatic actresses (like Karina), singers (like Yu Yamada), and general TV talent (like Marie). Many are even known outside the confines of the “real clothes” fashion world. The participating TGC brands too, like Beams, are universally well-known.

SGC’s models, in comparison, may draw total blanks even with a hardcore TGC audience. They are total unknowns to anyone besides avid Popteen readers. The “star” model of SGC was Tsubasa Masuwaka — a 23 year-old ex-Popteen model and young mother who is big with the kids in Shibuya but has no connection to the mainstream entertainment industry. (She is sometimes featured on TV shows but only in news stories about her marketing power with teens. Despite her popularity, she is not invited to be a cute tarento on quiz shows.) Tsubasa is just the tip of the iceberg. The crowd’s other favorites — Wei Son, Jun Komori, Yui Kanno, and Kumiko Funayama — also came from Popteen. Admittedly, Popteen is a popular magazine in terms of readers, but representative of a style without much influence on mass culture.

With SGC relying on dokusha “reader” models — young fans of the magazine who volunteer posing and smiling services to magazines for little-to-no money — the model pool was markedly amateur. Most SGC models are about 5′4″ max. Star Tsubasa does not even hit five-foot. The SGC heroes dwarf in comparison to the professional long-legged models of TGC. Of course, these imperfections are what makes the girls so popular with readers: What could be more “real” and imitable than a 4′11″ model? And likewise, opposed to the half-Japanese mania of TGC, almost everyone at SGC is “pure” Japanese. The gap between fans and models at SGC thus becomes incredibly narrow. But since fans pay good money to attend, the models need to look “larger than life.” This needs pushes the girls to ramp up their normally over-tanned and bleach-blond appearance to the maximum degree: dark skin tones, faces caked with glitter, hair curled, crimped, permed, and teased out. They all looked like an army of idealized gyaru robots hot off the beaches of Hawaii.

While SGC’s official cast of characters gravitated towards’ Popteen’s gyaru world, the prevailing fashion style of attendees came straight out of post-gyaru fashion magazine ViVi’s sophisticated and hard-boiled look. The uniform was shoulder-length hair with curled bangs, black leather motorcycle jackets, unzipped hoodie sweatshirts in bright blues, black-and-white horizontal striped T-shirts, high-waist tiered skirts or shorts, big belt buckles, and a man’s fedora. There was also an unexpected outbreak of giant bows propped up in girls’ hair. Perhaps this post-gyaru look is the current style moment for the Shibuya streets — a mishmash of original gyaru surf culture, Ura-Harajuku streetwear, punk influences, high-fashion silhouettes, and the elegant tastes of the original ’90s kogyaru who have graduated from the movement and created their own up-market brands. A more likely explanation is that the hardcore gyaru — those who take the style to formidable delinquent yankii extremes — were not going to shell out the ¥3,000 for tickets. Or maybe they were in the cheap seats at top.

So here was the strange divide: The crowds came to see their Popteen idols up-close, and yet, they choose a personal fashion style much more mainstream than the hardcore gyaru formula. Gyaru style originated in the 1990s as an delinquent upper-class high-school subculture, but as the decade progressed, the rich girls ceded leadership to rural working-class yankii followers. The army of sexy and tan kogyaru transformed into monstrous ganguro. Gyaru has returned to its more aesthetically-palatable roots in recent years, but the movement’s heart and values still stay close to the lower socioeconomic stratum, best evidenced by the large crossover between the style and employees at host clubs and low-priced “cabaret-club” hostess bars. So while the audience felt a step apart from the core gyaru style, the models on stage (especially the male models) generally embrace and embody the yankii delinquent lifestyle. This made SGC feel like an act of selling the allure and rebellion of Japanese working class delinquent subculture to middle class kids. Up to this point in Japan, the fashion industry has rarely indulged in this kind of marketing practice. Usually, elements of delinquent subcultures were forced to do their own marketing.

Most analysis on the two Girls Collections tends to focus on the possibilities the events have for the fashion market, as if Japan Fashion Week or even Paris Fashion Week could take a lesson or two from this real clothes festa. But lumping these “fashion shows” all together misses the true dynamic of TGC and SGC. Sure, there are clothes traveling down the runways, but everything about the event makes the apparel feel like an afterthought. The multiple giant jumbotrons behind the runway zoom in on the model’s face for almost her entire walk down the path, save a single full-body scan.

The press releases always boast about “girls buying clothes on their cell phones right as the clothes hit the runway” but I have never observed this “real-time e-commerce” in the audience; the girls are usually too busy cheering their favorite stars to take the time to buy clothes. Surely brands that participate get a huge promotional bump, but I think the excitement is less about shopping, commercial transactions, and apparel and more about being in the same room as celebrities.

But as much as we believe the Popteen models are the draw, those subcultural folk heroes still lose out to the bigger crowd-pleaser: TV stars. A surprise appearance from Becky — a half-Japanese TV talent who is not a member of the gyaru community by any definition — elicited prolonged and severe screams from fans. After attending a handful of these “real clothes” events, I can tentatively conclude that the crowd is most interested in celebrating “celebrity.” They may love their community icons like Tsubasa, but they go absolutely crazy with the appearance of an honest-to-god variety show regular.

So there is an unconscious tension boiling under SGC between the “gyaru community” and mainstream culture, but while the crowd loves the surprise of celebrity appearance, the 20,000 young women did not show up to Yoyogi National Stadium to see sumo wrestlers and musicians. They want to take part in the Shibuya fashion community. Shibuya Girls Collection proves that there is a huge — and growing — market around the gyaru subculture. Popteen is one of the few magazines to gain readers over the last few years (And the magazine looks more like the deeply working-class hostess-circular Koakuma Ageha by the minute.) As non-community members, we tend to reach for the word “subcultural” to describe SGC’s style and dramatic personae, as if these strange girls are interested in something far removed from our comfortable “mainstream” cultural paradigm.

But in fact, the overwhelming popularity of SGC proves how little influence the entrenched mainstream entertainment and fashion worlds have in the 21st century. The powerful forces of traditional industry now all band together for TGC, but even with such support, the mainstream TGC does not really attract any more people than the niche SGC. When it comes to subcultural affiliation, the gyaru numbers are rising and the generic mainstream plurality is shrinking. SGC is not just popular in its own right, but may be a harbinger of bigger things to come for bottom-up culture.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Interview with Seiichi Mizuno

February 13th, 2009

This article originally appeared on MEKAS.

Seiichi Mizuno served as President of Seibu Department Stores in the early 1990s. As one of the core members of Seibu’s Shibuya branch from 1970 onwards, Mizuno directly oversaw and personally contributed to the rise of Japan’s world-class consumer marketplace. After stepping down from Seibu, Mizuno worked extensively with Netscape, while also serving in the House of Councilors as a member of the breakaway centrist and pro-environment New Party Sakigake. Now head of his own company Institute of Marketing Architecture Co., Ltd, Mizuno is a celebrated author, serves as a Director for some of Japan’s top companies, and campaigns for the protection of the natural environment.

We sat down with Mr. Mizuno in his Daikanyama office.

Tell us about your background before joining Seibu.

I grew up in Tokyo, and I did my undergraduate degree at Keio University’s Department of Economics.

Did you become interested in department stores while a college student at Keio?

I didn’t have any particular interest in department stores per se, but I was very interested in what Seibu was doing as a business. I did not want to work for “a department store” as much as I wanted to work for Seibu. I wasn’t interested in the prestigious department stores like Isetan, Mitsukoshi, and Takashimaya. I had the impression that Seibu was up to a lot of interesting things.

What was the image of Seibu in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

At the time, youth had grown bored with department stores. Seibu was the only department store trying to attract young people by offering the latest fashion.

More specifically, in 1968, Seibu’s Shibuya branch opened a shop called Capsule, which offered cutting-edge fashion. There was no other department store that was opening boutiques of that nature. Seibu sold culture for people obsessed with culture, which let the company express a completely new vision for the department store.

Was Seibu the first to target the youth market?

When I was younger, I believed that youth would take the leadership position in Japanese consumer culture and change Japanese fashion. During my student days, the Japanese brand VAN was at its peak, but the “Ivy Look” was still relatively niche in the total market. Seibu, however, thought VAN was interesting, so when VAN first moved out of Osaka for Tokyo, Seibu was the first department store to sell the brand, other than Hankyu. But since Hankyu did not have a big department store in Tokyo, Seibu was the only place you could really get it.

Isetan and Mitsukoshi didn’t sell VAN. So when I was in school, I was really influenced by the Ivy look and thought it was cool that Seibu sold it. I thought it was really interesting that Seibu tried to capture the feelings of youth. From that time on, youth had the strongest reaction towards new trends. It’s still true today. Youth are better than adults at picking up changes in trends. Compared to the U.S., the spending power of youth, even in that era, was much higher.

That was because the dankai baby boomer generation was enormous, and they became the leaders of consumer society in the post-war recovery. My baby boom generation was born in the post-war, and when they hit 17 or 18, Japan’s economic strength really kicked in and their parents suddenly had a lot of consumer power. When they started to want to live more luxuriously, they took an interest in trendy goods — especially things from overseas.

What’s different about Japan and overseas is the speed at which young people lead the market. In Europe, it’s totally unthought of that young people would spend lots of money on clothing and other goods. For the Japanese, the idea of “trends” is young people spending a lot of money on luxurious things. That started back in the ’70s.

Was Seibu also the only department store to pick up European fashion?

This was the era when Japanese designers started to go abroad, like when Kansai Yamamoto did his sensational show in London, or when Kenzo Takada opened his first boutique in Paris, or when Issey Miyake started to get accolades in Paris.

Even before that time, Seibu had tight relations with many foreign brands. Seibu brought Hermès to Japan and started to sell Yves Saint Laurent haute couture. Seibu is the Japanese company with the longest relationship with the Paris collections. That was one of the company’s strengths, but more than that, when Takada and Miyake came back to Japan after getting famous overseas, they made their triumphant return collection shows at Seibu.

I expected Seibu to become an innovative company in the realm of “information business.” The philosophy of Seibu owner Seiji Tsutsumi resonated with me.

Was Tsutsumi already famous when you were applying to work at Seibu?

He was well-known in the industry, of course, and he had started to attract a lot of attention. But those in old financial and political circles still saw Seibu as a second-rate department store. They only thought it was an upstart.

When I was about to graduate from university, I told my advising professor that I wanted to work at Seibu. He said, “Don’t do it. If you are going to work at a department store, go for Isetan or Mitsukoshi. I will write you a recommendation letter. Don’t go to Seibu. It’s a second class operation.” I told him, “I am not interested in department stores. Seibu is challenging the entire idea of department stores. I think they’re interesting.” We got into a big fight.

So, fashion people and youth all respected Tsutsumi, but the general thought was that Seibu was a second class department store.

What was the basic image of a department store in the 1960s?

Generally speaking, the department store was not for daily use but for “sunny day goods” — in other words, formal goods and non-daily goods. There was a lot of value in the wrapping paper of the department store. The paper showed that the product was bought at a department store, so it was a guarantee that it matched the store’s selection policy. When you sent presents to other people, just the act of buying the gift at a department store would make it very formal. The stores had that kind of high reputation.

Normally, people would not even buy specialty goods at department stores, since it was cheaper to buy them at local shops or big grocery stores. When I started working at Seibu, department stores were mainly patronized by older, conservative customers. Members of the upper classes were quite numerous, especially when it came to fashion. Young trendy people had already started moving away from department stores.

I have often read that department stores had a monopoly on introducing foreign culture to the Japanese public. For example, a lot of the big famous art exhibitions of the ’70s and ’80s were held at department stores, not museums.

Back in that era, there were not a lot of spaces for art exhibitions, so I think department stores were able to have a slight monopoly. And on that score, Seibu was one step ahead of the pack. The other department stores held exhibitions and brought art in from overseas, but the exhibitions were always for very established artists. For example, they would do an exhibition of impressionist art, while Seibu would show contemporary modern artists. Other department stores would do Renoir, and we would do Picasso. So we were able to make a distinction by trying to capture the feeling of the time and offer totally new culture.

And also, Seibu already had all the major foreign brands when the other department stores finally decided to bring them in. For a long time, the other department stores basically had no interest in foreign brands. They wouldn’t deal with them, and they weren’t dealt with. Seibu, on the other hand, was already was importing Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès.

Once I joined the company, we tried to introduce the trendiest stuff from around the world. Once French haute couture and pret-a-porter became too obvious, we went to Italy and found new brands like Armani, Versace, and Missoni. Seibu was the first to introduce them to Japan. Seibu was the first to offer the idea of moving the center of fashion from Paris to Milan. We always had access to the latest information from Europe.

Did Seibu help move the center of Japanese admiration away from America and towards Europe?

After the war, Japan drew almost all of its fashion influence from the United States. So for basic fashion, American style was very strong. Fashion is originally from Europe, however, and in the Meiji Era, Japan took most of its influence from Europe. I think that Seibu helmed the movement to bring the Japanese fashion eye back to Europe. We created an opportunity for that.

Once you joined Seibu, what was the nature of your work?

I joined in 1970, and I was sent to work in the womenswear department of Seibu’s Shibuya branch. I found this interesting for what it was. A year later, I moved to sales planning. I was given a lot of positions to pitch new plans. In 1984 I was made head of the Shibuya branch, and at that time, we opened Seed and Loft. Seed was one of the first high-end select shops. After that, we did the crafts-store Loft, and I acted as the Shibuya branch head for two-to-three years. In 1986, I joined the board of the Shibuya branch, and in 1988, I became a regular Director and moved back to the merchandise department. In 1990, I became the CEO of Seibu Department Stores.

I was a big fan of Seibu Shibuya back when it opened, so my connection to that particular store was very deep.

Was Shibuya always one of the core places for youth culture? 

Yes. And beyond youth culture, Shibuya was the spot for “culture” ― fashion and art. Ginza was for a rich, conservative crowd, but Shibuya was for more aggressive culture people. So, whatever Seibu did, the reaction would be a lot faster in Shibuya. Shibuya had a lot of value for Seibu. A lot of creators and artists lived there, so it was a really interesting market.

How did department stores develop while you were at Seibu?

Things changed. Department stores started to take on the image of “We have everything!” — from food to high-end jewelry to brand goods, but all of these were half-baked. Consumers matured and became unsatisfied with what the department stores offered.

One example: the brand boutiques inside of department stores. The floor-space of these boutiques is limited, so you have to limit the product line. When you do that, consumers will just go to the brands’ flagship stores that have the full product line and much larger selling space. This erases the entire charm of the department store brand boutique.

Also, customers started getting much older, so young people got fed up with the department store selection and started going to specialty shops. I believe these factors have changed the role of department stores. In the past, there was a time when the most cutting-edge customers would come to department stores, but those people have gone away little by little and now it’s only older conservative customers. That’s the biggest problem for department stores right now.

There was a time — about ten years ago — when department stores attracted a very wide swath of consumers, thanks to adding the high-end brand boutiques. But now, all the brands are available everywhere. Louis Vuitton is available in every department store. They spread out too much. So the department stores are again starting to face real hardship.

Do you think the department stores have too many branches?

There are too many stores in general, whether we are talking about supermarkets or shopping centers. Of course, department stores have the same problem. When it comes to Japan’s distribution channels, they have built too many stores. And each one has the same product lineup. Mitsukoshi, Isetan, Takashimaya, Seibu ― they all have the same merchandise. In Shibuya there is Seibu and Tokyu ― so you have the problem of whether you really need both.

When I was head of Seibu Shibuya, I thought department stores would get stuck with too many stores, so I thought we needed to aim to have Shibuya Seibu specialize on fashion or specialize on home furnishing products. For example, a department store is about 3300 m2, but you could split it up and have different areas — five specialty blocks of 660 m2 in the total space. You’d have the fashion area, the home furnishing area, the food area, like a complex. The concept would be completely different than a normal department store, so you bring together five specialty stores and get a completely different selection of merchandise.

But even if you don’t even have 3300 m2, you could just do a specialty store of fashion and home furnishing. If all the department stores are exactly the same and they are competing, whoever is biggest is going to win. Within Shibuya, Seibu can’t beat Tokyu. So we opened Loft and Seed with the idea of doing a complex of specialty shops.

Otherwise, the suburban and urban department stores are all seeing tough times, because there is no difference between them.

Isetan is currently viewed as the leader in the department store battle. What makes them different in your mind? 

Isetan is very strong in the field of fashion.

Another factor: most department stores have a division where salesmen go to the houses of reliable high-end customers. Mitsukoshi is very strong in this field. However, Isetan never really tried to do much of this. Isetan came up from the basic position of selling goods at the store. And today, out of all the department stores, Isetan has the most “own-risk” merchandise and can introduce new products earlier than anyone else. I think they are trying extremely hard compared to the other department stores.

However, if you look at Isetan’s revenue, only the Shinjuku branch is doing well. Isetan built too many stores. You can say this about all the department stores. The stores out in the provinces are doing very poorly. And since they are all competing out in the provinces, no one is a winner. They are all losing.

Can you talk about the role of consignment in department store inventory?

The consignment system has become a big part of all department stores. If you put a Louis Vuitton boutique right on the first-floor facing the road, a lot of customers will come in to buy Vuitton. But the margin that LV pays to the department store is very low. So even though the department stores provide the best space, only the revenue goes up. Profit does not increase. And this practice has only snowballed for the last twenty years. I do not think this is very sensible from a business perspective.

Merely chasing immediate sales means you do not put much energy into the own-risk business, but just push the responsibility onto the manufacturers and brands, who then sell things for you. Then you are in the business of just lending out space, which means revenue and sales both decrease. And when the number of customers goes down, the department store can’t bounce back. The department stores have fallen into a very tough situation.

Young people are not shopping at department stores these days, but they also have a lot less disposable income, relative to ten years ago. Do you think Japan still needs such a massive distribution channel at a high pricing premium? Should department stores lower their prices?

They most likely will be forced to lower prices. Until now, the Euro and Dollar were expensive and the Yen was cheap, so imports were going to be expensive. The last decade has been relatively ritzy so expensive things sold well and prices generally went up. There was also the problem of low yen and high material costs. But Japanese customers weren’t the ones supporting these high consumer prices: it was Chinese and Korean tourists. They would go to the Ginza department stores and buy high-priced goods.

Now with the current economic crisis, there are fewer foreign tourists, and department stores are doing poorly. So part of the reason why department stores have drifted away from their old way of consumption is that they were doing well over the last ten years. The department stores must have a business model where they can easily increase revenue when the global economy goes bad. But presently, the number of customers is down and the department stores are not trying very hard, so I think you can say that they are in an extremely difficult situation.

Lately the department store sector has seen a lot of mergers. Do you think this will lead to a long-term solution?

That’s a difficult question. I think it was inevitable that they started to do M&A.

What is difficult is that department stores each have their own unique internal culture. If you just add them together, there will be a lot of internal tension. And just inside a single department store chain, there are differences in local culture with each location, so even if you standardize them, you are not going to see success by selling the same product or standardizing visual merchandising at each location. Each location has a different culture of daily life, so you have to make the product selection reflect that. But that costs money, which limits how much you can pursue economies of scale. So with the mergers of the moment, will they absolutely improve the business? I think we already see that it hasn’t helped them. They are struggling.

In the 1990s, Seibu was not just a department store but created a special segment of consumer culture you could call “Saison Bunka”: PARCO, Mujirushi Ryohin, LOFT, SEED, WAVE, etc. The tone of that culture was close to the magazines of Magazine House, like Popeye and Brutus, emphasizing sophisticated urban culture and cutting-edge international art. But this culture has really seen setbacks over the last decade. Why do you think there was a decline?

After I left the Saison Group, Seiji Tsutsumi also left, and there was no one in the company to protect that unique corporate culture. It became all about chasing efficiency. Cultural activities were judged as a waste of money and cut. They stopped taking on charismatic products at their own-risk and changed the product line to un-risky things you could get anywhere. Soon there was no difference between Seibu and anywhere else. The “Saison Culture” got watered down. It’s too bad.

Japanese consumers these days do not seem particularly interested in new culture. Everything popular is very approachable, predictable, and low-risk. Japan had some of the most interesting consumer culture at the end of the 20th century, but that desire to keep up with the rest of the world feels a bit diminished.

It’s like you say. The era has changed. And it’s one reason why there are no longer any really novel things out there. Also, young people’s high level of sensitivity towards trends has faded. They want stability, almost to the same degree as the elderly.

As I say that, there are trendsetters in every generation. Even in the past, not all everyone young always knew about the latest things, but a certain faction of trendsetters would react well to new products. Opinion leaders would fly towards something, and it would go from there. Culture would progress in that kind of flow.

Even now, there are young people who have amazing taste, to a degree we could have never imagined when I was young. But I think you can say that department stores and specialty shops no longer have products that impress these youth. Fashion is becoming street fashion, and fashion leaders are becoming media celebrities out on the streets. In the past, the designers were the heroes. There was a time when everyone was grateful to see things the designers recommended, but now it’s changed to where the trends come from the street leaders. That’s a huge change. But I think there are certainly still trendsetters showing up in various fields. If you look at the big picture, we live in a time where international culture is everywhere in Japan. Young people of today should more actively feel excited about this, but compared to when I was a youth, they are definitely more subdued.

Lately, you have been extremely active in the field of environmental protection. Does it strike you odd that so many leaders of 20th century consumer culture are now becoming leaders for a new non-consumerist lifestyle?

I often talk about “culture and civilization.” In the 20th century, consumerism evolved and spread across the world as civilization. In that sense, our lives became very rich, and civilization moved forward. Conversely, however, looking from the perspective of “culture,” little by little we lost our “Japaneseness,” the Japanese lifestyle, and spiritual richness. If you ask Japanese people today, “Do you feel rich? Do you feel blessed?” there are so few people who say they feel rich. I will go to Bhutan this year, and we see the Bhutanese as people living in poverty, but they are extremely happy. From that perspective, I feel like civilized values and cultural values are totally different.

The 20th century only pursued civilized wealth, making things like 24-hour shopping and having light at all times possible. But since we only pursued that, the contradictions led to the development of our current environmental problem. In the 21st century, I think it is critical that we try to go back to 19th century values. I believe, by doing that, we can embrace our problems and find solutions.

Amongst those of us who promoted consumer society in the past, there is a slight feeling of guilt. We did what we did at the end of the 20th century, but in the 21st century, we think it’s necessary to have a different kind of “richness” ― to make a paradigm shift. I believe this will become a spiritual issue.

Do you believe that Japan can lead the world in this area?

Yes, I think so. I believe that Japan has a few cultural factors that make it a great example for the rest of the world. For example, as the Japanese word kachou fuugetsu [the beauties of nature] implies, I think we need to go back to paying attention to nature for completely understanding all the little seasonal changes.

I think we are in a deplorable situation where we are only waking up to the fact that Japan must take leadership after being told the merits of our country by Westerners. When you think about our 21st century environmental problems, Japan is the country with the least amount of natural resources. So I think it is important that Japan presents its values and its idea for a new lifestyle that preserves nature and values seasonal change.

Two-Tiered Japanese Blogs

October 14th, 2008

Last November, I wrote in the essay “Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation”:

The more net culture in Japan progresses, the more it becomes clearer that anonymity is its underlying principle.

A year later, this seems to still be true. Most Japanese blogs (and even social network services!) operate anonymously. Compared to American success stories such as Perez Hilton and Markos Moulitsas, amateur bloggers have not been likely to parlay site success into wider influence.

Japan’s most popular message board 2-Ch is so anonymous that most users do not even use fixed handles. The Japanese internet’s two greatest success stories — the famed protagonist of Densha Otoko and keitai novel author Mika — have never come forward to take credit for their writing in public. Maybe they are intentionally hiding, but regardless, the media accepts their anonymity as part of the phenomena.

While anonymity remains a good starting point for understanding Japanese net sociology, the rule ignores a vital exception. If anonymity were a prerequisite for all Japanese net participation, all blogs would be anonymous. Yet, there is a certain class of blogs in Japan claimed by named, traceable individuals: blogs from celebrities or otherwise already-established professionals.

So while the masses are quietly and discretely blogging and participating on the internet, top designers/creators write on honeyee.com and models/actors consolidate their fan base on ameblo.jp. These “professionals” use their real names and faces, under which they openly state ideas and opinions. Content-wise these are sometimes no different from everyday diary blogs: pictures of food, reports from events, discussion about recent work, etc. The major lesson seems to be, if you are an individual with authority and legitimacy established through traditional channels, you are free to use a name and face on the internet. Everyone else, too bad.

Most likely, non-famous Japanese individuals unconsciously fear some form of punishment for establishing a public identity through a non-legitimized blog or stating opinions without proper self-legitimacy. Of course, Western blogs also are an affront to the social order, but that is exactly why ambitious individuals embrace blogs — to jump around professional barriers and bottlenecks. In other words, the West’s excitement about blogs is that you can create a name for yourself by stating opinions publicly. In Japan, the excitement appears to be that you can state opinions without having a name attached.

The end result is that anonymity blunts the net’s possibility of changing the current social order. The two-tier system of blogs reinforces the fundamental principles of Japanese social organization. Only individuals at the top of the hierarchy are allowed to embrace a public identity, just as it was before Web 2.0.

In terms of taking power from the media, nothing has changed. Net users still perceive too much social punishment for name-linked net activity, so they elect to hide behind untraceable usernames. While diarists may not want a public audience, anonymity even marks popular, intelligent, and professional blogs written by promising young talent. Research has shown that Japanese blog readers exhibit a high level of trust in the medium, and yet there are few “amateur” bloggers willing to take public credit for their work. Stars, celebrities, older professors, and top-level members of top organizations, on the other hand, are blessed with a freedom of identity equal to the standards of the West. The lesson: if you want to be a famous blogger, first be famous.

Of course, the internet has given more voice to the Japanese public. Message boards like 2-Ch have allowed micromasses to better air their grievances. In the case of Mainichi Daily News’ WaiWai column controversy and other incidents, the anonymous “flame” mobs demonstrated a real power to impact corporate behavior. Sure, this is social change, but the mass anonymity only allows for a “negative” policing action — a check against the system’s excesses. But without identifiable individuals challenging and winning new roles within the system, there will be no change to the social structure. At best, 2-Ch can only chip away at the paint of society’s façade, but it won’t crack the structure.

Technology is only a catalyst: It can extend preexisting social principles into new directions, but not give birth to new philosophical values. The “liberating” social changes we expect from the internet in the West are preconditioned on Western values. The Japanese blogosphere will simply replicate Japanese social values online, not change them. So if public identity is two-tiered in wider Japanese society, we should expect blogs to follow.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Beer as Metaphor

August 27th, 2008

Over the last year or so, the Japanese press has been moaning that young people are committing an unspeakable crime against the traditional mores of Japanese culture: they have ceased to drink beer. Generation Y (or alternatively known as Generation Z) have not proved themselves to be big drinkers to start, but they seem to particularly dislike the world’s most beloved malt-and-hops beverage. “It’s bitter,” they explain. “It’s yucky!” they exclaim.

This open disgust with beer may befuddle the older generation, who generally commence every single party, reception, and drinking event with a tall mini glass of Asahi Dry or Kirin Ichiban. The anti-brew sentiment, however, may just be the perfect metaphor for young people’s overall predisposition towards culture and life.

A key point about beer: Almost no one likes it upon their first sip. College students struggle through many a kegger before moving on to drink beer because they actually enjoy the flavor. There are short-term rewards in drunkenness to keep kids on the path to Sudsville, but beer requires a long-term effort. It’s the textbook definition of an “acquired taste.” Learning to like beer has traditionally been a nearly-universal part of growing up.

Today’s current crop of Japanese youngsters, however, has proven averse to anything remotely challenging, anything that requires short-term sacrifice for a long-term payoff. In his book Aiming Downward: Kids Who Don’t Learn, Youth Who Don’t Work, writer and critic Uchida Tatsuru describes a worrying phenomenon with the current generation: When they come to a
piece of information they do not understand in a book or in real life, they tend to skip over and ignore it, rather than take the time to ask questions and solve the mystery. This principle can be extended into cultural life. As a whole, Generation Y/Z have grown extremely confident about what they already know and like, with almost no interest in pushing themselves towards anything too foreign or new.

Over the last decade, the pop music market has drifted away from experimentally-minded, yet popular musicians like Cornelius or Denki Groove to straight-forward, “honest” genres like “seishun (youth) punk.” Fashion must be “real clothes” that bolster current tastes, rather than artistic designer brands that pursue a novelty in expression (which were king in the 1980s, if not the 1990s.) Youth have ceased to watch foreign movies, because they hate having to read subtitles.

While a lot of these symptoms do not sound particularly different from equally-lethargic youth overseas, Japanese culture overall has suffered as a result. There are a lot of insular forces inherent in Japanese behavior and social organization, but these used to be counterbalanced by an enthusiastic curiosity about what was going on culturally beyond Japan’s borders or at its fringes. “Ignoring anything not immediately comprehensible,” however, is the exact opposite of curiosity. “No thirst for knowledge” seems an odd explanation for “no thirst for beer,” but these characteristics fit a pattern.

Oh, kids these days! Why can’t they better dedicate themselves to indulging in alcoholic beverages!?

Image from 1953 Asahi Beer advertisement.

The MacroTrends BehindTop Early 2008 Products

June 25th, 2008

On June 18, Nikkei Marketing Journal (MJ) offered a refereed list of the top 36 products from the first half of 2008 within a mock sumo wrestling ranking chart. (Click here for an explanation of the makuuchi sumo rankings.) The winners were:

EAST

Yokozuna Private brand foods: Ion’s Top Value, Seven Eleven Premium

WEST

Yokozuna Zero calorie, zero sugar beers (Zero Nama, Style Free, Kirin Zero, Sapporo Viva! Life)

Ohseki – ¥50,000 laptops Ohseki – Mobile phones with Aquos-, Wooo-branded screens
Sekiwake – Carbon offsetting SekiwakeGinren Chinese bank debit cards that work in Japan
Komusubi – Bulb-shaped fluorescent lights Komusubi – Konaka’s shower-clean suit
MaegashiraMitsui Outlet Park Maegashira – New train lines: the Fukutoshin (Tokyo) and Green Line (Yokohama)
– Wacoal’s Crosswalker men’s girdle – Uniqlo’s Bra-top
– Nissin’s milk seafood noodles – Lotteria’s “Unrivaled Cheeseburger
– Nintendo’s Wii Fit
Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G (PSP game)
Kuru Toga pen – Takara Tomy’s Pen’z Gear pens made for “spinning”
– Electric cars – Marathon goods
– Kao’s Megurism hot eye mask – Lion’s Kaori-tsuzuku laundry detergent
Clear Force air filter/humidifier hybrid – Digital photo frame
Clorets Ice Moffle (mochi + waffle) maker
“The Elephant Who Makes Dreams Comes True” Kani Kousen proletarian fiction that sold over 300,000 copies
Keshipon stamp that covers up personal information – Bandai’s Bubbly Bubble Bath soap shaped as ¥10,000 bills (a pun on “Bubbly” in Japanese meaning “of the Bubble era”)
Jero (American enka singer) Aoyama Thelma (R&B singer, one-quarter Trinidadian)
Atsuhime (TV show about the Bakumatsu era) Idiot characters (Shuuchishin) and one-man/woman stand-up comics (Edo Harumi)
– First-class on domestic flights – Airbus 380 jumbo jet

Technical Skill Award: Apple’s MacBook Air
Talk of the Town Award: Speedo’s Lzr Racer swimsuit
Consolation Prizes: Gasoline, frozen gyoza

Underlying MacroTrends in this Ranking List

The main macrotrends for these products almost perfectly match those of Marketing Journal‘s last list, suggesting big structural movements in consumer behavior rather than mere fads.

The categories this time:

1)  Middle-Age Consumers Rule

Remember when youth consumers in Japan set all the trends and led consumer culture in general? These days, it’s all about rich retirees and middle-aged men, and these groups’ number one concern is losing belly fat. So, welcome to the world of “zero sugar” beer (to be eaten with fried fatty foods, apparently). Older Japanese are also continuing their exploration into video games with Wii Fit. Those that don’t hit the Wii Fit board enough or run marathons can just wear a Crosswalker men’s girdle and look much slimmer.

In terms of pop culture at large, Jero — the world’s first professional African-American enka singer — is a more about giving new faces to old musical styles rather than youthful innovation. His fans seem to be mostly middle-aged women.

2)  Eco Eco Eco

Ecologically-conscious products are still hitting the market in large numbers, and consumers seem to be reacting positively. More companies are offering carbon offsetting services. Fluorescent bulbs have gained popularity by working 20% longer than traditional bulbs. Electric car sales are up 7% for the first quarter of 2008.

Although not mentioned in this article, eco bags are still a big part of young women’s casual fashion (especially the white-blue-and-red eco bag from select shop Cher).

3)  Class-Bifurcated Market

Like in our last installment, we see two key product price points: those that intentionally target “value” and “savings” and those that aim for conspicuous excess. Private label foods from Ion and Seven-Eleven took the top spot for intentionally targeting “savings-minded” consumers. ¥50,000 laptops from Taiwan are popular for their cheap price. Mitsui’s Outlet Malls in Saitama etc. let shoppers obtain designer labels at bargain prices. The “shower-clean” suit is a technological marvel but not exactly going to be the favorite of Japan’s millionaires. Marketing Journal even dares to link the popularity of proletarian novel Kanikousen (Crab-Canning Boat) with the current conditions of the expanding “working poor.”

On the flip side, the “Winners” of the social class game are demanding first-class seats for their domestic air travel, with 80% of JAL’s premium seats booked and ANA introducing the service in April. Although not exactly “high-end,” Lotteria’s “Unrivaled Cheeseburger” offers luxury beef and natural cheese sandwiches at a somewhat lofty price point. For those who want to act rich at a low cost, Bandai’s “Bubbly Bubble Bath” lets you waste mock money in the bath tub.

4)  Non-Internet Technological Progress

No Internet-related software or culture made the listings. The only piece of pure software was Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G for the PSP. The digital photo frame is a way of bringing new technology into the living room, and the kind of non-computer gadget that Japan is famous for. The phones with special branded screens re-confirm the centrality of “mobile net” over computer-based net in Japanese life. Japanese manufacturers continue to see their job as “making gadgets” rather than making “technology.”

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Louis Vuitton’s Mythic 94.3%

June 4th, 2008

Luxury business experts from around the world gathered in Roppongi’s Grand Hyatt last week for the Financial TimesBusiness of Luxury Summit Tokyo ’08. And what an appropriate setting for discussion about luxury — Tokyo! — the world’s most important site for high-end brand consumption.

But proving this importance requires a catchy numerical figure. So in his opening speech, the FT‘s Lionel Barber told the audience that 94.3% of all Japanese women in their 20s own a piece of Louis Vuitton. This number was then repeated in an article by leading Asian luxury expert Radha Chadha in the FT‘s newspaper supplement about the luxury business: “For example, as many as 94 per cent of Tokyo women in their 20s own a Louis Vuitton piece.” A quick Google search on “94.3 AND Louis Vuitton” will bring up countless news articles from major international newspapers and magazines citing the figure. Even the Japanese fashion newspaper Senken Shimbun repeated the number in its June 2 recap of the FT summit. 94.3% is as good as gospel.

Anyone who has spent a few hours in Tokyo knows that the Japanese deeply love Louis Vuitton. Japan gave the French brand both the capital and the blueprint to become an unprecedented global luxury powerhouse.

That being said, 94.3%!?

Let’s think about what this means. If you collected 100 girls in their 20s at random from all across Japan — from the frozen backwaters of Hokkaido to the beach huts of Okinawa — and put them in the same room, only six of them could claim to possess zero Louis Vuitton items. To be perfectly fair to all the experts who keeps repeating this statistic as unassailable fact, 94.3% is totally and utterly impossible.

So where in the world did this imaginary statistic come from? We decided to track down the original source — a 2003 survey report of Tokyo metropolitan area consumers from the now-extinct Saison Research Group titled “The Image of Foreign Luxury Brands and Actual State of Brand Ownership” 『海外高級ブランドのイメージと所有実態』. And there on the bottom of page 6, we are informed that “94.3%” of girls in their 20s own a product from Louis Vuitton. Above this number, however, we get our first taste that something is amiss with this survey: “109.9%” of women in their 40s own Christian Dior! In this thing we normally call “reality,” ownership rate for any object can never top 100%, but this Saison report is very, very special.

You see, Saison’s researchers decided to simply add up all the percentages for ownership of different item groups (like bags, wallets, scarves, perfume, coats, suits, sweaters, pants, belts, shoes, etc.) for the final ownership rate. So, hypothetically, if 50% of women in their 20s own LV bags, 30% own LV wallets, and 15% own cigarette cases, “95%” would be the final figure of brand ownership. Needless to say, this is an extremely problematic form of statistical analysis. And even the author plainly states: “These numbers are not a strict measure of ownership rates for each brand. For the brands where people own multiple items, the number can surpass 100%.” (厳密には各ブランドの所有率を示すものではない。複数アイテムを保有する人が多いブランドでは100%を越えることもある。)I have no idea why the Saison Research Group ever thought to use this ridiculous measure of brand popularity in percentage form, but I think I know now why they disbanded a year later.

Although Saison printed the caveat along with the numbers, no one apparently paid much attention. The Japanese media happily reported these bogus figures as “strict measures of ownership,” and eventually, the digits made their way into the Western media as well, with no one stopping to ask how 94.3% (or 109.9%!) could be possible for a single brand.


So what would be a more accurate figure for Louis Vuitton ownership?

First of all, there are plenty of fashion subcultures and segments of 20 year-olds that do not place Louis Vuitton in their purchase consideration set. “Street-kei” girls from CUTiE or Zipper are absolutely not LV customers. And girls reading the very popular “girly” magazine Non•no are probably too laid back about fashion to purchase such an extravagant level of luxury handbag or wallet. Certainly, LV is a key brand for the mainstream and enormous CanCam set (the magazine features monthly coverage about the brand), but even the CanCam/JJ faction is merely a large plurality in the market — not a majority.

Moreover, there are relatively good surveys that cover LV brand preference and ownership. The TBS General Preference Survey (TBS総合嗜好調査) asks consumers in Tokyo and the Osaka-Kobe region about established brands. Over the last decade, Louis Vuitton has generally topped the survey’s list of beloved fashion brands for women in their 20s — at around 30%. This year’s rate for LV, however, hit a recent low of 26.7%, with only 19.3% of Tokyo women in the survey saying they like the brand. (Louis Vuitton remains stunningly popular in the famously logo-crazy Kansai region.) Brand Data Bank‘s (national) data tells a similar story: only 15% of surveyed women in their 20s own a LV bag.

The Japanese “conventional wisdom” (echoed here) seems to state that around 40% of women own a LV product, and while this may still be high, it is not even one-half of the FT‘s oft-repeated imaginary figure. Our guess would be 30-40% of women in their 20s own some manner of Louis Vuitton item, with 15-20% owning a LV bag. This is still very, very impressive when viewed in the larger scheme of things, but when 94.3% sets the standard, 15% looks rather humble.

One of the main messages at the FT conference was that the Japanese luxury market has matured and become saturated. Brands can no longer swagger into Tokyo and expect to be profitable without perfectly understanding their customers. Good information is more important than ever. So let’s all take a step into the future and bury the totally dubious 94.3% figure once-and-for-all.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Weezer Ruins the Internet

May 27th, 2008

“PORK AND BEANS”: WEEZER RUINS THE ENTIRE INTERNET

Originally published in Anthem Magazine, 05/27/08

 In June, “alternative rock” band Weezer will release a brand new album of their amp simulator crunch and metronomic drums. And for the third time in six records, the album title will be Weezer. I guess Pinkerton and Maladroit were already taken.

Apparently inspired by the new possibilities of Internet promotion, the band came up with a clever strategy on how to make the video for first single “Pork and Beans” into a full-blown Internet sensation: round up all the other full-blown Internet sensations and coerce them into weaving their one-note shtick into the context of Weezer’s song. So we get the Diet Coke and Mentos guys combining Diet Coke and Mentos to a humorous effect. Tay Zonday – hot off his Dr. Pepper spokesmanship – sings the lyrics to “Pork and Beans” in front of his now-iconic home-studio mic stand. (While we are on the subject, why does everyone give Zonday such a free pass for selling out his polemic anthem against American racism “Chocolate Rain” to a soda company?) Somebody that closely resembles Kevin Federline, possibly K-Fed himself, shows up behind a mixing board. Miss South Carolina – the “map shortage” girl – wields a light saber à la Star Wars Kid because “failed answers to pageant questioning” is not a sufficiently visual gag.

Although a probably candidate for “Buzz Bin” status, the sins of this video are manifold. First and foremost, Weezer outright stole the idea of “internet memes on parade” from the Barenaked Ladies video “Sound of Your Voice” – which is notably less cool than stealing ideas from old Can records or The Cremaster Cycle.

But there is something more fundamentally gut-wrenching about this “mash-up” of rock music and Internet time-wasters. All of the videos’ “guest stars” only managed to ascend to blog-hero status due to a single feat or defeat. I am not being unfair to Tay Zonday by saying he is the guy who moves away from the mic to breathe. As far as the universe is concerned, that is his entire act. Putting all these stray individuals together in the same cramped video is collecting the “I Didn’t Do It” Boys of our generation and asking them to painfully mug their one-hit-wonderfulness for the camera.

The Internet has profoundly changed our concept of entertainment, most directly by making every instance of laughably-amateurish performance from all over the globe available for public consumption. Our collective mockery has forged a new class of celebrities straight from the salt of the earth. But the basic YouTube context is crucial: would the “I move away from the mic to breathe” or repetitive melody of “Chocolate Rain” work as scripted jokes or a Saturday Night Live sketch? The humor requires a palpable lack of self-awareness on the part of the actor. Nothing is therefore less funny than having Mr. Zonday come out from behind the computer screen and get in on the joke. With “Pork and Beans,” Weezer strangles all remaining joy of our new century’s sole cultural innovation by giving these unintentional comics a chance at redemption and self-acknowledgment on cable TV.

Weezer may have meant well. They may have wanted to show solidarity with today’s young nerds. And they can go all the way back to the D&D and X-men references in the lyrics of their 1994 song “In the Garage” to prove the necessary cred on this front. But the use of these new media nerds and their memes in a “music video” does not breed the intended result. Instead of redeeming their guests, Weezer unwittingly reinforces the traditional pop cultural hierarchy. The royal “rock band” has charitably invited these slightly-pathetic YouTube refugees to participate in a televised celebration of their own shittiness. Hey, Weezer could do another video at the Playboy Mansion – they’re rock stars, you know – but they thought it would be more fun to take that “Zay Tonday” guy under their wings for a day. I am sure the catering was great, but when the video shoot is over, Weezer goes back to being a rock band with fans and respect and a master key to Hef’s. Tay Zonday goes back to being the “Chocolate Rain guy.”

Imagine someone famous in 1994 pulling this kind of public cruelty. Like if U2 thought the whole “generation X alternative rock” thing was a cute fad and invited that flash-in-the-pan band Weezer to do a video where they sing Zooropa‘s “Lemon” in their “Buddy Holly” style next to contemporaries Beck (“Loser”) and Radiohead (“Creep”). Slackers would have sent blistering missives charging “exploitation” to the letter bag at 120 Minutes for years to come. But in 2008, the interent [sic] is ecstatic about their double-dip of public derision, “Look, we’re on TV!”

If Sum41 or Ashley Simpson or Avril Lavigne Whibley had done a video like “Pork and Beans,” I would give it a pass, because hey, they might possibly believe in their hearts that “This stupid Internet shit is our generation’s Woodstock.” The middle-aged guys in Weezer, on the other hand, have gotten to that “Uncles of Rock Music” stage, and anything they do with Internet memes is just going to automatically come off as patronizing. Rivers Cuomo is inviting “Mr. 22 million views” Tay Zonday and “Mr. 86 million views” Evolution of Dance Guy to be in a video that so far only has 2.6 million views? What a mensch. If you want to see the real “dawn of the Internet,” wait until Weezer is begging to do a cameo in a Tay Zonday clip.