Archive for the ‘Alcohol’ Category

Beer as Metaphor

Wednesday, 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.

Hoppy and Artificial Nostalgia

Friday, August 17th, 2007

In an age where thirsty masses have abandoned Japan’s regal ales and lagers for fake brew happōshu and malty chemical concoction “third-category beer,” there should be no surprise that Hoppy — the Grandfather of Ersatz Beer — has made a triumphant comeback. Originally intended as a cheap substitute for beer amongst the Tokyo working classes in the immediate post-war, the bubbly beer-like soda is made “alcoholic” with an injection of Japan’s standby white liquor, shōchū. The resulting taste is as close to beer as carob is to chocolate, but not necessarily bad. It’s very refreshing in summertime and much lighter than a real beer. (I prefer the rich “Hoppy Black” since its flavor is strong enough to avoid being drowned out by the shōchū tang.)

Hoppy’s comeback has a few key lessons for the Japanese market:

1) Older inferior goods can be enjoyed in a new way when better substitutes arrive in the market. Hoppy is a classic “inferior good” — a product for which demand decreases when consumers’ incomes rise. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hoppy all but disappeared once economic growth allowed even the bottom of society to afford real beer. In today’s less buoyant economy, we again see the need for an inferior good in the beer market, and the more modern happōshu plays that role. Thanks to the powers of science and technology, happōshu tastes much closer to beer than Hoppy ever did. But this is a very good thing for Hoppy, since the “beer” experience has narrowed to a point where Hoppy can now be perceived as a totally distinct beverage — not just an “inferior” version of beer.

2) Japan has gone beyond “constant progress” and is now “reclaiming heritage.” From 1945 to the end of the Bubble, Japanese consumers were so obsessed with going “one rank up” year after year that no one took the time to look back at what they had abandoned. Who thinks about the joys of Suntory Old when you can afford Johnny Walker Black or Blue? These days, however, few still believe in the old narrative of constant economic growth, and many consumers are interested in other roles for consumption besides proof of affluence and adherence to international standards.

No longer in constant self-comparison to a mythically-wealthy and trendy West, the Japanese media and consumers now are digging deeper into the fertile cultural heritage of the own past. The Fifties rock’n’roll dancers of ’80s Harajuku used to be treated as badly-styled delinquents, but they are now perfect models for cigarette ads. In the same way, Hoppy has become a unique bit of Tokyo Showa culture to explore and re-appreciate.

3) Brands must go away to become reborn. This is true almost everywhere in the world. Even if brands have a rich history, they need to completely disappear from public consideration so that laggards and less desirable consumers do not still set the brand image. Otherwise, targeted groups will not be eager to associate themselves with the products. Hoppy’s descent into obscurity was a blessing in disguise: Without any well-known pre-existing consumer groups, Hoppy was able to completely invent a positive brand image of past drinking culture that fits into modern day consumers’ desires to reconnect to past tradition. Hoppy lets the public buy into the bygone glory of the (possibly imaginary) Showa laborers — the “poor” we were before economic growth.

4) Nostalgia does not have to reflect actual past experiences. Like dagashi (old-timey candy), Hoppy is often met with the Japanese expression, “Natsukashii!” — something like “I haven’t seen this in a long time!” but with an evocative, nostalgic longing underneath. Although most expressions of natsukashisa come from the remembrance of actual childhood experience, it is safe to say that almost all modern-day consumers of Hoppy never drank it in their younger days. But with a skillful branding that places the beverage in a setting of “Showa Japan,” users fall quickly into this artificial nostalgia.

Hoppy shows that brands grounded in unique tradition or colorful history can successfully evoke nostalgia without prior experience on the part of consumers. Moleskine did this with their “19th century” leather-bound notebooks — embracing a product narrative of famous painters and writers that may be partially fictional. Japan is full of historical brands with potential for this re-branding and explicit connection with past culture, and I hope that we see more Hoppies in the near future.

(For more information, see this Japan Times article on Hoppy’s management.)

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.