Archive for the ‘Young Men’ Category

The Non-Politics of Keffiyeh and Bohemians

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

The big meta-trend for Japanese fashion this spring/summer is “bohemian,” which mainly manifests in loose white cotton tunics and flower-print dresses. Opposed to being a homegrown trend, this new interest in hippie aesthetics is a global fashion industry directive imported into Japan. This year boys got “American/British Trad” and girls got “Bohemian.” As a result, the young Japanese bohemians of 2008 reflect none of the “unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints” inherent to historical Bohemianism (Wikipedia). The trend is purely visual — a relaxed look using loose natural fabrics, ethnic patterns, and Native American headbands. Dropping any sort of philosophical depth has thus allowed the look to fit equally in the pages of serious high-fashion mag Spur and office-lady-friendly CanCam. In fact, there is an inverse proportion at work: the greatest adopters of the bohemian look tend to be the least likely to have an interest in arty things.

Slightly related to the bohemian trend is the prominent use of keffiyeh amongst both Japanese men and women. The traditional Middle Eastern patterned scarves have been popular in hipster circles overseas as well, but the fashion information complex in Japan has once again been able to mainstream a global look to a degree seen nowhere else.

In the West, the keffiyeh have sparked a debate over perceived pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel meanings. In the past, Leftist-types intentionally embraced the keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. Recently Urban Outfitters tried to sell the scarves as simple accessories, but complaints forced them to pull them (before quietly bringing them back in non-traditional colors and a new name: “desert scarves.”) The Japanese industry will not have to worry about such political debates; just as bohemianism is only a visual aesthetic, a keffiyeh is just something that looks cute with a sleeveless t-shirt and work-pants. Moreover, Japanese retailers aren’t even calling them keffiyeh (クーフィーヤ) but “afghan stoles” (アフガンストール), based apparently on the “afghan”-style in which they are worn. (An internet search for the word “keffiyeh” in Japanese points to its historical definition rather than a shop list.)

With the item’s name redefined to point miles away from the Palestinian conflict and the patterns reformed to embrace trendy houndstooth-check, Japanese shoppers have few reference points to connect their fashion choices back to a global political context. Many argue that all Japanese culture inherently detaches the signifier from the signified, but this is not entirely true. Japanese punks may not be delinquent enough in behavior, but they are clearly attracted to the aesthetics of punk anger and rebellion. In a similar way, keffiyeh were very popular around 2001 amongst Ura-Harajuku street fashion boys, who found a tough militaristic meaning in the scarves to match their camouflage pants. They may have not known specifics about the PLO, but the context of armed struggle played into the item’s styling.

The keffiyeh used in this year’s fashion, however, are completely politics-free, primarily a result of the process of importation and mediation. Fashion magazines and retailers could easily explain or reference the historical backdrops to both bohemianism and keffiyeh, but they intentionally do not. Why? The broader cultural context would only make these trends’ adoptions more difficult for consumers. If the item is specifically shown to signify a philosophy or political position, the consumer would then be making a “statement” in choosing to wear it. CanCam girls would suddenly have to worry about whether they are “bohemians” instead of “in style.”

In general, Japanese fashion is not about statements: it’s about following a set of seasonally-changing rules within a chosen subculture. So the industry is best off pretending like these fashion items are just trends, eliminating all possible barriers for consumers. Depth and context are minefields for selling Japanese fashion.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Generation KY

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Ever since the term “KY” topped the Buzzwords of 2007 at the end of last year, a million adults now cruelly and painfully abuse this popular youth expression in an attempt to sound au courant. KY (pronounced kei-wai) is an abbreviation of the phrase “kuuki wo yomenai” 「空気を読めない」— a pejorative description of someone who fails to “read the atmosphere.” In other words, those branded KY do not act properly in context of their respective social situation. If you are really bad at breaking the mood, you can be deemed “SKY” for “super KY” (pronounced like the English word “sky.”) There is now even an entire book dedicated to explaining this kind of romanized Japanese slang called 『KY式日本語—ローマ字略語がなぜ流行るのか』(“Why are KY-form romanized Japanese slang words trendy?”)

Japanese youth make up a smaller and smaller proportion of society every year, but they are still managing to confound their parents in unexpected ways. Both magazines Takarajima and Senden Kaigi have recently published special issues all about young Japanese, and opposed to tirades against wayward children from the past, the editors do not decry kids’ new and devious forms of delinquency, but struggle to explain their lack of creative social destruction. Kids are criticized as being uninspired, lethargic, and non-confrontational. Despite a social and economic system stacked against them, they aren’t fighting society, nor even amongst themselves. Drinking and smoking are out, as is conspicuous consumption. Since parents are no longer evil authority figures, Omotesando is filled daily with young daughters happily shopping with their mothers. In this new social paradigm, marketers and commentators no longer know how to research youth motivation. An interview with social psychologist Kayama Rika in Senden Kaigi boasts the telling article title: “Why can’t we read the minds of youth?” 「なぜ若者の心が読めないのか?」(It is telling that marketers once thought they could.)

In this backdrop, adults have thus latched on to the word KY as a clear linguistic expression of young people’s internal group dynamics. If being “KY” is the number one fear for teenagers, surely this suggests a “herd mentality,” where no one wants to stick out and adherence to implied social rules is critical for maintaining human relations. So thinks Narumi Hiroshi — Associate Professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design and fashion history expert. While previous fashion movements such as hippies, punks, and the head-to-toe black Karasu-zoku (“crow tribe”) dressed to express an anti-social statement, he sees the current fashion emphasis on “real clothes” and “cleanliness” as a product of pressures towards conforming to a group standard. Narumi believes that young people generally prioritize harmonizing with their close friends over self-expression.

KY thus becomes a very convenient way to sum up all of the identified attributes of Gen Y in a single phrase: a lack of curiosity and motivation, an obsession with “life-sized” (等身大) media figures, a satisfaction with being average, an emphasis on immediate social groups, and a disinterest in being anti-authority.

Although this current discussion posits the KY traits as “new” to the current generation, the standard Western criticism of Japanese society reads almost identically: i.e., over-adherence to group norms trumps individual expression. I find it hard to believe that Generation Y invented this concept of “reading the air” for the entirety of Japanese culture. Surely previous generations have also fallen prey to similar pressures. Other post-war generations, however, enjoyed countervailing forces to foster a sense of curiosity, a will to individual expression, and a desire for social change. Being under the imperialist American pop cultural umbrella created an inferiority complex that pushed Japanese artists towards higher and higher standards. Radical Marxism became a rallying point for political activity in the 1960s. Hyper-consumerism in the 1980s and 1990s gave wealthy kids an incentive to manufacture new aesthetic modes to set themselves off from an increasingly trend-conscious mass market. Now with politics and consumerism dead and a reaffirmed self-confidence in Japanese culture, youth no longer possess an ideology that encourages “change.” Japanese social critics seem most confused that today’s kids are starting to backtrack from 50 years of greater “individualism,” reverting to more conservative forms of Japanese social organization.

No one seems to mention, however, that the collapse of the cultural markets (music, fashion, etc.) have created less opportunities for young artists to stand out on the national stage. In other words, even if kids break out of this “herd mentality,” how would we know? Unlike the 1990s, there are no more investors handing out stores to club kids, nor masses of consumers to support niche indie labels. Without any incentives or rewards for young people to break the social rules and stand out, why do we expect them to do so? The fear of KY may be a very old condition for Japan, but the natural social antidotes have all dried up.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Shibuya-kei vs. Akiba-kei

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

The new compilation CD AKSB is making headlines by bringing together two Japanese taste cultures generally considered as incompatible as oil and vinegar: the anime-obsessed otaku world of Akihabara (aka “Akiba-kei”) and the 1990s super-chic internationalist music, fashion, interior, and design movement referred to as “Shibuya-kei.”1 In this spirit of union, French lounge DJ legend Dimitri from Paris provides the theme song “Neko Mimi Mode” for the anime series Tsukuyomi -Moon Phase- while Pizzicato Five‘s Konishi Yasuharu — the Godfather of Shibuya-kei — remixes the theme song for cartoon Sgt. Frog (「ケロロ軍曹」). Besides those two icons, few superstars of Shibuya-kei make an appearance on the record, but with “Akihabara Pop” (aka “A-Pop”) carving a profitable niche in the doddering music market, the remaining few practitioners of the Shibuya-kei sound were probably happy to affiliate their genre with the otaku cash-cow.

Despite the “kei” designation (generally meaning “style”), Akiba-kei and Shibuya-kei are very different beasts, occupying different sections of the consumer spectrum and the schoolyard hierarchy. Shibuya-kei was basically a musical movement amongst an indie elite, while Akiba-kei describes a wider subculture of nerdy fantasy obsession. They both, however, have received media attention for “defining” their respective eras, and the differences between them help illustrate how Japanese pop culture has changed in the last 15 or so years. If Shibuya-kei represented the 1990s, what does Akiba-kei culture have to say about the first decade of the 21st century?

Both subcultures strongly share one thing: The members are “nerds” in the sense of being deeply obsessed with pop culture. Shibuya-kei pioneers Flipper’s GuitarOzawa Kenji and Oyamada Keigo (aka Cornelius) — made waves in the early ’90s market by introducing esoteric elements of British neo-acoustic, Madchester, French pops, Italian film soundtracks, late ’60s Moog records, ’60s mod jazz, and Brazilian bossa nova into Japanese-language pop songs. When asked about the source of their cool, they would offer, “We are basically just music nerds (otaku),” an honest self-reading. But because they were more knowledgeable about exciting foreign musical genres than almost everyone else, the media framed them as style leaders for young fashionable types on the lookout for the newest thing.

Akiba-kei fans are also obsessed with collecting and amassing information about pop cultural items, but notice the difference in interests: Instead of importing unknown foreign materials into the domestic cultural pool, Akiba otaku are interested in ruminating about domestic items and creating fan works based on these existing elements. Akiba culture is generally focused around the insular “uchi” — a term in Japanese encompassing the concepts “us” and “inside” and “at home.” The famously-introverted Akiba otaku not only confine their gaze to mostly domestic product but consume it privately or within confined social groupings. Shibuya-kei, on the other hand, focused on the “soto” — the “outside” world in the sense of both the wider “trend community” and international culture at large. Although there has always been a certain level of social discrimination against adults obsessed with video games, comic books, and cartoons, the main otaku culture has rarely been able to take on a “leadership” position for the media in that they do not offer or produce new elements for non-otaku to enjoy. They enjoy locally-produced Japanese culture, and for the media, this is old hat.

So the question is, why is Akiba-kei so “successful” at the moment when it had been perpetually dismissed as (slightly dangerous) nerd culture in the past? Shibuya-kei’s moment is much easier to explain: They were the latest elite in a general post-war Japanese trend of introducing “superior” foreign culture to a hungry consumer society. Akiba culture today still endures the same social prejudices since its dawning in the early ’80s, but suddenly the Japanese media has decided that “otaku are cool.” Some of this may be a misunderstanding of the “Japan Cool” concept: Since those foreigners think the cosplay guys, toy collectors, and goth-loli girls are “a super rad dudes,” I guess we should also pay them respect as our cultural leaders.2

More likely, however, is that the classic Japanese consumer trait of hoarding and collecting items has become rarer in recent years due to reduced consumer spending. At present, the Akiba otaku are the only widespread, definable group whose culture remains based on purchasing lots of items as a means to demonstrate fandom (ignore the New Rich’s conspicuous consumption for the moment). The media and producers celebrate the otaku as “model consumers,”3 secretly hoping that more mainstream Japanese will learn a thing or two from their passion for culture and consumerism. More importantly, things have gotten so bland in the contracting youth culture world that the “every-day-is-Halloween” weekend excitement of Akihabara beats everything else in terms of pep and pomp.

The developments in the media environment have also changed the cultural role for niche groups. The internet has made an “information-based elite” like the Shibuya-kei posse obsolete. When information was highly-valued, the individuals behind Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five could claim faster access to more foreign cultural information than the general population. The Net destroys this power imbalance by extending access to niche information and shortening the time lag between trend-setter cultural adoption and “majority” adoption. Due to this simple fact, the global fashion elite have always maintained a sort of disdain or nonchalance towards the Internet. (A certain ex-Shibuya-kei star is currently organizing grass-roots concerts by passing around fliers and asking fans to not mention the details on the Web.) Instead of fighting technological change, Akiba-kei otaku skillfully use the internet as a way to discuss and consecrate their favorite cultural items and disseminate new works to their community. This has only made the subculture stronger. In fact, Akiba-kei culture is the most appealing content attraction for the Japanese Internet at the moment.

In the end, the Akiba-kei subculture has won a top spot in the contemporary pop landscape because its culture has been least affected by the last decade’s democratization of media and the decline in the culture markets. Shibuya-kei’s aesthetic sense now seems passé, but moreover, the media complex no longer has much use for that breed of cutting-edge indie culture engaged in obscure international art and music. Insularity is not just limited to Akiba-kei in contemporary Japan, but defines the youth generation as a whole. With everyone dropping out of Cool Race 2000, predictable melodies and melodrama are the safer bet than trying to outcool your audience.

No one embodies this cultural shift more than young producer Nakata Yasutaka, who launched his unit Capsule in 2001 as a “Neo-Shibuya-kei” project trying to update Pizzicato Five’s bossa nova dance sound with modern music technology. Despite massive major label backing, he did not really gain much of an audience until abandoning the dated ’90s production and signing up as the producer for very-Akiba-kei “techno idols” Perfume. His cutesy digital robot pop propelled the girls to stardom and made Nakata a hero to obsessive otaku idol fans around the country. In the 21st century, international hipster cool cannot hold a candle to dancing, singing robotic Japanese dolls.


1 O-nii-kei magazines like Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle have started using the word “Shibuya-kei” in reference to their own style. This is accurate in a certain sense — this style is based in Shibuya — but confusing since the original Shibuya-kei already staked out that geolexical terminology. Maybe this is like the word “Emo” first describing bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring in the 1990s and then the sonically-unrelated My Chemical Romance in ’00s.

For those wondering why “Shibuya-kei” was called “Shibuya-kei” in the first place, the word came from the popularity of certain “Western-sounding” Japanese musicians at HMV and Tower Records in Shibuya. The neighborhood itself never really embodied their ’60s-revival aesthetic.

2 I don’t want to harp on this point, but Japan Cool contains at least three disparate elements — otaku culture (Akiba-kei), cognoscenti culture (including the Shibuya-kei stream), and youth subcultures (Kogyaru, Bosozoku, etc.). Anime can be cool in certain contexts (album covers for rap artists, etc.), but this does not mean that the genre has been able to transcend its nerdiness outside of Japan. Being really into Takashi Murakami or really into Naruto are still not equal within the snob hierarchy.

3 Yes, this is a pun.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Being Cool Means Being Hot

Friday, August 10th, 2007

In our post on Cool Biz, we may have given the impression that the corporate business world forces Japanese men against their will into wearing sweat-inducing black wool suits in the oppressive humidity and heat of the summer months. A walk around Omotesando yesterday in the 34º C swelter, however, reminded me of something I have noticed for a long time: Quite a few Japanese teens plan out their Tokyo shopping wardrobes with very little regard to the temperature outside. Dark jeans, boots, a t-shirt on top of a long-sleeve shirt, topped with a vest, and scarf-like shall may fit well with a breezy Autumn day, but even in the depths of summer, this layered look provides no challenge for the Harajuku petit-fashionistas. (Women can easily stay cool and stylish with their cotton one-piece dresses and higasa parasols.)

Practically-speaking, coordinating an outfit in the latest trends and hottest brands is extremely difficult when clothes are kept to a minimum for concerns of bodily-comfort. The lackluster Brooklyn hipster uniform in July usually involves a single t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops — only three measly pieces to prove sense of style or subcultural affiliation. And something is fundamentally unhip about flip-flops and short pants to start with. This stripped-down approach is hardly enviable.

Pundits may often overstate the effects of Japan’s three main religious/philosophical traditions Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism on contemporary society, but let’s think about this fashion phenomenon in these terms for a moment. First, we have to disqualify Buddhism from this mental exercise for its abhorrence of materialism in total. The worship of natural environment in Shinto, on the other hand, may be a central part of Japan’s seasonal festival culture — the change in clothing, cuisine, and visual motifs based on the yearly changes in weather. Judging by the adoption of heat-beating male wardrobes in the past — yukata, tanzen, or samue — Japanese teens do have a historical, semi-Shinto precedent for slagging off the normal uniform to keep cool on the streets.

So what is overriding the Shinto-friendly summer reduction in clothing and advocating the long-sleeve, double-tee? Perhaps Confucianism’s need for individuals to visually represent their group-identification and position within a hierarchy through standardized uniform trumps any lingering notions of Shinto seasonalism. Individual needs to stay cool cannot overpower social needs to show off adherence to contemporary fashion. Of course, there are plenty of kids who can skillfully find wardrobes that do both, and outside of Tokyo, young people tend to go off the fashion radar to adapt to the blazing heat. I think it is fair to say, however, that Harajuku — the center of fashion in Japan — attracts the most willing to sweat it out in their Sunday Best. And we should commend them for their selfless dedication to fashion even in the most uncomfortable of times. This twisted-Spartan struggle shows a triumph of character. With such a prideful disassociation between clothing and climatic comfort as a part of adolescent socialization, no wonder Cool Biz is laughed off as a indignity to standards in male dress.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Non•no vs. CanCam: Girls’ Girls vs. Boys’ Girls

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Non•no faced a rough lead-up to the 21st century. From a peak circulation of 971,020 in the second-half of 1995, the famed biweekly female fashion magazine bled readers until reaching 324,736 in the bottom of 2005 (Audit Bureau of Circulation figures). After adding Tanaka Miho (田中美保) as mascot model in early 2006, however, Non•no appears to have stopped the readership hemorrhaging and has successfully moved back up to a 440,870 circulation (2007 printer-certified). The June 22 copy of daily fashion newspaper Senken Shimbun featured the front page article “Feminine & Layered: Young Brands are Recovering,” citing Non•no‘s revival and Tanaka’s popularity as key reasons behind the increased sales of young women’s casual brands.

Thanks to the tried-and-true technique of using senzoku models to create relatable personages who represent the magazine, Non•no has again become competitive to the “red-letter” (赤文字系) magazine genre represented by CanCam, JJ, and Ray. While the Non•no average reader age does not differ much from that of CanCam, the former attracts a broader range of readers than the narrow band of college students and OLs who read the latter. According to Senken, the brands featured in Non•no still attract women in their 30s who enjoyed a similar style of layered street fashion in the 1990s.

In terms of content and editorial, however, there could not be a wider gulf between the two magazines. Non•no has no clear overarching narrative in the way that the serious pursuit of an affluent boyfriend/husband underlies every single page of CanCam. There are almost no references to boys in an entire issue of Non•no. For example, two of the main Non•no models  visit Disneyland in the July 5 issue for an advertorial spread as a pair — rather than on a date. Overall, the contents of Non•no tend to create a private consumer world for young women where boys, occupation, and social pressure do not intrude.

This sets the tone for the fashion pages: Non•no mostly concentrates on “cute” but ultimately casual outfits, where skill is demonstrated through a mastery of complex layering techniques. The CanCam buzzword “elegance” is not an appropriate descriptor. There is a total lack of European luxury brands in Non•no, which almost seems to protect readers from such adult issues as social status and socioeconomic class. If CanCam is about the proper ascent into adulthood, Non•no is about the quiet avoidance of growing up. All in all, the editors of Non•no seem completely unconcerned with advising their readers on how to conform to the standards and tastes of other parties, organizations, or individuals. Girls just want to be girls. Wardrobes don’t fulfill functional roles of work or love — they just are fun.

Tanaka Miho perfectly embodies this more nonchalant and personal approach to fashion and lifestyle. She may not top the lists of Japanese men’s favorite model, but she is not positioned for such competition. She’s a girl’s girl. If Ebihara Yuri from CanCam represents the “perfect embodiment of Japanese men’s desires,” Tanaka Miho is the standout “every girl” who is cute in her “everyday way.” The Non•no look is often described as “feminine” — but this suggests “female-consumed ideas of femininity” rather than a construct for men’s desires. CanCam readers imitate Ebi-chan in their aspiration to reach her powerful levels of attractiveness, but Non•no readers gain self-confidence and respite from seeing Tanaka Miho’s unassuming charm as one close to their own.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Intentional Rudeness in Japanese Retail

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

In books like Robert M. March’s Honoring the Customer: Marketing and Selling to the Japanese, Western observers often proclaim the existence of a “Japanese” style of over-polite customer relations. This is seen as a natural outgrowth of Japanese culture and not based on marketing management decisions. March’s idea suggests that the philosophy embodied in the famous expression “the customer is God” (「お客様は神様」) drives sales clerk behavior at an unconscious level. Certainly, this ethic materializes in most retail experiences in Japan: The shopping pageant usually opens with the staff screaming out the welcoming phrase “Irasshaimase!”

While this may be the conventional mode of consumer relationship, the theory above has little explanation for the large numbers of high-end fashion boutiques and brand shops in Japan where intentional rudeness is a well-honed strategy. Walk into the Comme des Garçons boutique in Aoyama, for example, and breathe in the deep, stylish silence of calculated alienation. Not only do the staff sternly hold back on verbal greetings to customers, the managers often flash you a look of utter disbelief — as if your presence caused massive disruption in the spirit underlying the brand ethos. I can partially blame this treatment on my own insufficiencies in living up to the proper sartorial and styling standards, but the frigid atmosphere and Medusa gazes are also curiously directed towards the store’s largest consumer base: fashionable young people.

A Bathing Ape and some of the other Ura-Harajuku street brands famously followed the same rudeness strategy in the 1990s, which worked to add an adequate cachet of elitism to counter any detrimental image effects resultant from the relative low price of the clothing. This was unlike the typical antipathy of American street brand store staff, however: Bape employees were never surly as much as they seemed like worker bees programmed to not appear too helpful.

There is something decidedly uncool about deconstructing this practice of cold silence and service deficit. Viewed within the context of that deep-seeded conviction that “being cool” comes naturally to a privileged few and involves no rational decision-making, assuming that marketing policy sets the tone of staff behavior is outright presumptuous. Greeting the customer with smiles and offers of help implies that (1) the store/brand wants to assist customers and (2) the store/brand is interested in playing that dirty, low-rent game of “selling” things. This attitude is common across the entire global high-end fashion industry, but perhaps its presence is much more striking in Japan where the “average” level of service is so consistently high.

The technique of customer alienation apparently went mainstream in Japan the mid-1980s when the super-elite artistic designer brands were suddenly swamped with “average kids” who threatened to weaken the retail environment’s appeal to the original core of up-scale consumers from the art and fashion worlds. Although few brands could resist the huge increases in revenue by expanding market reach downwards, they had to devise a way to take the sales of unideal consumers with one hand while continuing to maintain brand integrity with the other. As a solution, the staff was instructed to treat the young consumers with total derision.

And it worked. First, the treatment reinforced the fact that the kids were being into something “above them” rather than on their own level. Second, specifically-targeted customers would very clearly receive better treatment, bestowing on these special consumers a sense of importance. As long as the cash-heavy young consumers do not interpret the neglect as arrogance, the strategy makes sense. Moreover, this customer relations style has become so internalized within the high-end sector that being nice has ended up being a strange, contrarian measure. (I can anecdotally state that it sometimes works well to be polite and attentive to customers who expect to be contemptibly ignored.)

As we saw with the consumer demand driving the Tokyo Girls Collection, younger Japanese women do seem to be put off by the elitism at heart in high-end brand’s rudeness. They want comfort and ease, and one of the appeals of the brands located in the Shibuya 109 shopping complex is that the staff generally resemble the shopper. Relations are friendly — not just in terms of politeness, but the shop staff is positioned to act as the best friend or older sister of the customer.

At this point, high-end brands and restaurants would gasp at the idea of abandoning the alienation strategy since it is hardly within the reach of intentional decision-making. But brands on the border — those looking to entice mass Japanese consumers with a high-quality product — may want to reconsider the effects of making average customer feel like he is illegally breaking and entering into the retail space.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Dokusha Models and Charisma Clerks: Transferring the Aura of Authority

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

In a very large number of cases, Japanese mass consumer culture diffuses in a top-down manner. Manufacturer conglomerates work closely with oligopolistic ad agencies and shadowy production companies to determine the It Girls and Hit Products of the Year. There are, however, many contradictions and complications that challenge the singularity of that conspiratorial narrative. Very little may rise straight to the top in a grass-roots manner, but the presence of dokusha model (読者モデル) and charisma clerks (カリスマ店員) shows that the top needs to recruit those at the bottom to speak their message more directly to the target audience.

Dokusha models (literally, “reader models”) are amateur models used in youth fashion magazines. They are either scouted on the streets or chosen from readers who have sent in letters to editors offering their services. Dokusha models are as likely to be aspiring hairdressers, stylists, and artists with good fashion sense as aspiring “models.”

Magazines like to use these models for several reasons. First, they are much cheaper than “real” models. Second, they usually lack management, which makes them much easier to work with. Third, they give readers “life-sized” idols onto whom they may project themselves. Fourth, they can sometimes break these models as “stars” which reflects very well back upon the status of the magazine.

Charisma clerks are members of a popular store’s staff (usually sales, but sometimes PR) who become famous from their appearances in the media. This became a particularly big boom in the young women’s fashion based around Shibuya 109 — with girls flocking to stores to meet these minor celebrities in the flesh.

Some dokusha model and charisma clerks have been able to make the leap from amateurs to professionals. Most famously, the charisma clerk Yoco Morimoto went on to form her own brand Moussy and several other spinoffs. Kaela Kimura became the face of Seventeen and then a successful Sony recording artist. Visual artist Asami Kiyokawa was often seen in issues of CUTiE in the late 1990s.

Even those dokusha models and lowly clerks who do not end up using their sudden fame as a way to jump to the big time generally experience a very intense celebrity with magazine readers. Part of the idea of “charisma” is that kids show up at stores and ask the charisma clerk to pick out their wardrobe — relinquishing most decision-making to the famed store employee who could not possibly do them wrong. In this way, “charisma” has little to do with the Western meaning of “being charismatic” and is more about the possession of petite authority within a specific sphere.

The charisma clerks and dokusha models generally benefit everyone in the commercial chain. The semi-celebrities themselves enjoy the respect and fame, especially those in trendy low-level jobs that do not offer high financial rewards. (Here is a guide book for aspiring dokusha models hoping to be “discovered.”) Young consumers like having normal, “everyday” celebrities who they have a good chance of meeting in person and asking for shopping advice. Or at worst, they can least steal practical styling tips from afar.

Manufacturers and brands also see the value in giving the dokusha models celebrity status. Senken Shimbun reported that popular male dokusha model Yuya Nara can no longer go into his favorite stores without the staff offering to give him items for free (4/18/07 「親しみ覚える選択眼」). By using these readers as human billboards, brands hope to legitimize their own products through these free agents without dipping into the promotional budget. Media always win points for identifying trend-makers before they blow up, and they get extra points for creating fame out of thin air. So by picking individuals who embody the styles they champion, they can create an army of closely-related comrades who keep the magazine’s curatorial ethic alive and well within their target audience community.

Everybody wins, but it hinges upon a consumer base accepting these non-celebrities as possessing a certain amount of authority and stature. This may seem somewhat difficult to achieve in the West, but in Japan, the dokusha models and charisma clerks fit nicely into a systematic hierarchy of style and consumption.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Changing Brand Value of Bape

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Fourteen years ago this April, two Japanese twenty-three year-olds straight out of vocational colleges with little in the way of professional experience opened up a small boutique fittingly called “Nowhere” in the quiet back-streets of Harajuku. One of the young men was Jun Takahashi — who used his half of the shop to sell his own avant-punk designer brand Under Cover. On the other side of the shop was Nigo — who would soon become the total director behind the international wünder-brand A Bathing Ape (Bape). For the first few months of Nowhere’s existence, the Nigo-side sold adidas and other select import goods, but pressured by the almost instant success of Takahashi’s label, Nigo realized that he needed to start an original brand of his own. Brainstorming with his graphic designer friend Skatething, the two came up with the semi-English phrase “A Bathing Ape in Lukewater” as the brand name and appropriated the gorilla face from the Planet of the Apes films for the visual icon.

Within two years, those ape heads could be seen on half the t-shirts in Harajuku, and the success of Bape ushered in the Ura-Harajuku style moment in Japan. This look combined the casual vibe and comfort of street clothing with the rarity-factor, celebrity-connections, and high price points of designer fashion. Bape’s continued domestic success in the 1990s eventually led to international acclaim. For many years, however, Bape could only be found outside of Japan on the backs of Nigo’s foreign music and graffiti allies and had thus attained a mythic status as the ultimate prize in the hunt for limited-edition apparel (The Face in 1999 called the brand “Truly underground,” totally incognizant of the brand’s mass status in Japan.) Starting with the 2002 opening of Bape’s Busy Work Shop London, however, the brand began its remarkable journey from being a super-rare insider commodity to becoming the clothing of choice for the American hip hop elite and a prop in every other video on MTV.

Although Nigo may not frame his story in marketing language, A Bathing Ape is absolutely an exemplar branding case study for the Japanese market. Nigo is not a fashion designer, nor does he make claims on such titles. His success has been a product of his impeccable skills in marketing and curation: i.e., it’s about what he sells and how he sells rather than what he “creates.” There are probably ten-thousand small T-shirt companies in Japan that use images and themes from Western popular culture and old sci-fi movies, but Nigo was able to masterfully leverage his celebrity connections in the media to create a total lifestyle around the clothing. Bape was never just apparel — the “brand” encompassed concerts and record releases from musicians in Nigo’s orbit, collectible toys, and self-produced media. By only selling clothes through directly-managed retail outlets, Nigo controlled the entire shopping experience from the background music to the architecture (courtesy of Wonderwall) to the long lines and intentionally-unhelpful staff. Instead of fitting his brand to a pre-existing consumer subculture, Nigo just invented his own. And the kids fell into line accordingly.

The Big Change in 2001

Bape’s success stood upon three strategic marketing pillars that emphasized the “underground” brand image at every turn: limited-edition supply, obfuscated stores, and a rejection of traditional advertising. This worked wonders from 1993 to 2001. Everything changed overnight, however, with Bape’s collaboration with soda brand Pepsi. Suddenly, the brand’s trademark ape-faced camouflage was in vending machines all the way from small towns in northern Hokkaido to beach-side huts in Okinawa. Regardless of any intentions of ironic subtext, here was an open acceptance of commodification after a career based on decommodifying the T-shirt and jeans. Although some at the time claimed that the move was not a “sell-out” because of Pepsi’s “outsider” status in Japan (see the similar idea behind the October 2001 Relax issue on Pepsi), the move loudly signaled a new direction for Bape. Nigo no longer seemed apprehensive of going too mass, and large-scale aspirations rerouted his once modest strategy.

Around 2003, Nigo made friends with Pharell Williams from the Neptunes, and this connection made the Bape brand (especially the Bapestar sneakers and colorful camo hoodies) must-haves for hip-hop royalty in the United States. Bape subsequently became a hit item there — a market Nigo had willfully ignored in the ’90s because he had believed selling to Americans was too “mass market.” By the early Aughts, however, his values had changed from emphasizing brand cachet-über-alles to wanting the bling-bling cash-out in the short-term. He could have engaged the American hip hop market while staying true to the limited-edition concept, but once Nigo crossed the Rubicon, he never really even half-heartedly withheld supply to demanding parties besides constructing barriers with the high product prices.

So Goes the Brand

Nigo seems to justify this change as “brand growth/expansion” but this new direction unfortunately created points of radical difference to the original and established brand image. The following outlines the changes to the total brand experience for BAPE:

Consumers: By obviously going for the mass market, Nigo abandoned his core base of fashion-forward teens who had previously believed to be buying a certain level of “safe exclusivity” in A Bathing Ape. Once Nigo started selling to the Chinese cultural sphere in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japanese fans saw their brand being consumed by a group which they fairly or unfairly considered lower on the global style hierarchy. Even though Bape found a fan base in first-tier American rappers, most Japanese kids in the hip-hop subculture remembered Bape’s old market position too well to be able to use the brand to express belonging to their particular subculture. Before the globalization of the brand, Japanese core consumers only saw the brand being consumed by the proper parties who understood its meaning. The willful abandonment of the founding principles to market to other countries confused this message on the home front.

Supply: Nigo was very careful at first about selling to the Chinese market. His first Hong Kong store had been “by appointment only,” but the brand’s introduction into the Chinese-language world coincided with the mass production of fake Bape by counterfeiters in China and Korea. I remember an Ebay in 2000 with a maximum of three A Bathing Ape t-shirts. Today there are more than 2000 — few of which are real. The supply not only increased over time, but the counterfeiting problem degraded the aura the brand enjoyed in which low quantity implied high quality.

Retail Locations: In Japan, there are Busy Work Shops in almost every major (and minor) metropolitan center. Overseas, New York and London have been or will be soon joined by Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Taipei. Tokyo once had a few select locations, but now there is a surplus of Bape-branded ventures — the BAPE Cuts hair salon, BAPE Café, and a Bape Kids children’s clothing store — each spreading the customer base thinner and thinner. The shopping experience no longer feels special and exclusive or has the air of destination shopping.

Now certainly, we should admit that A Bathing Ape would not have been able to forever keep up the ruse of selling on a mass scale while claiming an underground credibility. Nigo changed the brand partly because he had nowhere left to
go. Nigo himself often claims that “times have changed,” and he is right that “limited-edition” (限定) was a bit of a ’90s phenomenon that outlived its usefulness.

The ’90s phenomenon of exclusivity, however, was core to his brand, and since he will never be able to charge Dior-like prices for his street clothing, abandoning his artificial attempts to control supply (or appear to be doing so) means a decrease in the exclusivity still necessary for his semi-luxury goods to work. Marketing for short-term success and creating a durable brand value are polar opposites, and while anyone would be hard-pressed to write off the current state of Bape as a “failure,” the brand value at least appears to have struggled for the last five years in Japan. As a clothing line that once famously attracting huge lines on the weekends, the Tokyo stores are often quiet, and when populated, have an image of being populated with Chinese-speaking tourists. (Some of the rural locations apparently still attract a large fan base.)

Japanese fashion editors in the 1990s spent year after year privately pronouncing A Bathing Ape “dead,” but the brand kept growing stronger and stronger. I do not want to suggest that Bape has come to any sort of end, but in sheer terms of brand value, Bape has gone from a model of perfection in the Japanese market to a confused hodge-podge of messages, images, and subcultural affiliations. A Bathing Ape’s success in the 1990s Japanese fashion market should be attributed to their brand-centered marketing, and although Nigo was right to abandon some anachronistic parts of his strategy, I can’t help feeling that the concept of unified brand has fallen by the wayside.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

LOHAS by Default

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Don’t drink, don’t smoke
What do you do
Subtle innuendo follow
There must be something inside
– Adam Ant, “Goody Two Shoes”

This This Nikkei Business Online article summarizes some recent trends in the consumer behavior of Japanese men under-35 (U-35男子). According to the NB‘s findings, the older generation resents younger men (U35男子) for not following the accepted patterns of adult male recreation: namely, indulging in coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, paid sexual services, and gambling. The article may be too overreaching — any trip to a Tokyo bar will remind you that many U-35 men drink in excess and enjoy chain smoking — but the basic message seems to echo a lot of what we are hearing about the somewhat ascetic lifestyle of “young people” in Japan these days. Young men are being called “shirafu danshi” (素面男子) — “sober men.” One would think that the underemployed and undermotivated “freeter” and NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) would at least be drowning out their boredom and career failure in cheap booze and bummed cigarettes, but apparently, they have rejected both as a lifestyle choice.

They don’t like drinking with their bosses or haunting traditional Japanese izakaya. Some of this is a prideful resistance to being lectured by their seniors, and some of it is just a fundamental desire to pass time alone. However, the change in behavior does not seem to be based on a new set of moral values opposing these “sinful” recreations. The question is more of aesthetics and economics. Young men are bewildered why you are supposed to spend so much money to listen to old men chat in loud and smokey places. The U-35 male does not see the need to go visit semi-legal prostitutes when he can just rent adult videos or meet (fake) girls through online dating sites. Tobacco and coffee are out because this new generation is not down with the smell. (NB believes this aversion to stench comes from a spoiled childhood of clean flush toilets.)

Refreshment is the ultimate desire — whether that be from mints, quiet places, aromatherapy, or a nice tea. Walking and talking with friends is important for building human relations — not the marathon shochu sessions of yore.

In the last few years, LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) has been a strong buzzword in the Japanese media — with dozens of magazine titles like Sotokoto appearing on the scene to cater to this supposed heightened interest in environmental-friendliness and “slow life.” Broadly speaking, this Nikkei Business stereotype of the U-35 man seems to suggest a lifestyle focused on health. These men, however, are not embracing the tenets of LOHAS from a philosophical angle as much as falling into the set pattern of the movement by default. A need for refreshment is not necessarily a dedication to health or the environment.

Many producers seem to be now marketing towards young people through a LOHAS perspective, seeing that the LOHAS aesthetic most closely fits this new pattern of behavior. I have yet to see, however, any real success stories — outside of small service industries like yoga. Marketing towards the U-35 group is not so simple as just framing everything as LOHAS — where the locus of consumption shifts from “unhealthy” to “healthy” items — because these younger males are not specifically nor actively changing their behavior in order to adhere to LOHAS rules. Young people in Japan — especially males — have just grown up in a long recessionary environment and have adapted their behavior away from the joys of spending money. They find joy now in abstention, in the free walk around the block.

This may mean that some products like tobacco could be headed towards a long-term decline, but others like alcohol have a chance of revival. The challenge now is to create new cleaner and fresher contexts for the products which generational and environmental associations have ruined. Alcohol may only be “unrefreshing” because of the traditional locations in which it is served and the general manner in which it is consumed. Since the U-35 crowd are only passively-LOHAS and partially anti-consumer, they could possibly be brought back to the table — if the table is nice and clean.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.