Archive for the ‘the Internet’ Category

Shibuya Girls Collection ‘09S/S

Tuesday, 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.

Two-Tiered Japanese Blogs

Tuesday, 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.

The MacroTrends BehindTop Early 2008 Products

Wednesday, 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.

Japan CGM: Is it the system rather than the individual?

Friday, October 19th, 2007

Reading this New York Times article about the potential “big time” success of “Chad Vader” creators — Wisconsin-based improvisational actors Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda I couldn’t help but think their success was not just contingent upon this new piece of technology called “the Internet” but the fundamental organization of the labor market in the American entertainment industry. As we saw in the original Clast piece on Japanese consumer generated media (CGM), there is no bona fide “Chad Vader phenomenon” in Japan, nor a notable number of Net content creators jumping out of the online to make sizable waves in the off-line world. While the lack of high-quality CGM with a broad appeal is one issue, there remains a fundamental question about entertainment industry reception even if Japanese individuals manage to create “break-through” content.

Here is the key quote from the NYT piece:

“[Sloan and Yonda are] an original comedic voice coming off the Web, and everybody’s
interested in that,” said their agent, Dan Shear of the William Morris talent agency, which has represented them for about two years.

There are two underlying assumptions in this sentence which illuminate why the transition from CGM to MSM (mainstream media) is much easier in the United States than Japan.

Assumption Number One: these two “nobodies” from Madison, Wisconsin have representation through the William Morris agency — probably the most well-known agent organization in the U.S. These agents make their money by finding new individuals with promise and helping them connect to possible employers. They are literally “agents” of the individual — hired by an actor/writer/performer and paid a percentage of the employment deals they are able to negotiate. Since they are “agents” of the up-and-coming artist, the artist employs the agent and not the other way around.

In Japan, there are essentially no agents in this mold. The primary organizational intermediaries between talent and the media are management companies — jimusho in local lingo. In reverse of the U.S. model, they hire young talent, whom they treat as employees with steady salaries unrelated to actual gross income. While there are literally thousands of these jimusho in Tokyo alone, only a handful have any sort of access to the top echelons of Japanese television — specifically: Burning Production and its dozens of semi-open subsidiaries (in charge of Fujiwara Norika, Amuro Namie, etc.), Amuse (Southern All Stars), Yoshimoto Kogyo (Downtown), Tanabe Agency (Tamori, Rip Slyme), Up Front Agency (Morning Musume), and a few others. In the traditional model, management companies use financial and human resources to “raise” young talents.  The jimushos then levy access to their current hit starts to force media companies to use new talents in first-rate ad campaigns and television shows. As a result, TV show producers rarely audition in open casting calls: they politely ask which star the management company would like them to use and generally comply with the instructions.

Management companies, however, are so small and specified in their activities that they cannot easily absorb “new talent” that may have come to attention without their help. In fact, I think it is fair to say that jimushos generally see anyone who grew to prominence without passing through the management company system as a threat to their institutional position of supplying new talent.

This leads us to Assumption Number Two taken from the earlier quote: “They’re an original comedic voice coming off the Web, and everybody’s interested in that.” Precisely due to the very oligopolistic jimusho system in Japan, no one (in the industry, at least) is interested in “original comedic voices.” The sources for comedy on Japanese TV have already been established: Yoshimoto Kogyo’s manzai cabal and a few knock-offs in different jimusho. CAA and William Morris may hold a certain level of oligopolistic power in the United States in terms of getting their clients’ feet in the door, but they wield it as agents, not semi-content producers like in the case of management companies. In Japan, new kinds of content cannot be easily absorbed because management companies protect their system in which they control the creation and tone of content and single-handedly groom the pool of celebrity talent. Essentially, the jimushos want to keep tastes stable (or, at the very least, manage the rate of change) in order to preserve the value of the talent they already control.

In the case of Team Chad Vader in the United States, the medium may have changed from TV to YouTube, but the talent scouting system is essentially the same. In fact, the Internet only makes William Morris’ job easier by giving agents a gauge of popular support to measure the future possibilities of potential clients. Selling Yonda and Sloan as “hot” comics is easy when they’ve got six zeros in their YouTube view count rather than a “pretty good” spec script of Scrubs.

CGM is prospering in Japan to a certain degree, mostly where the participants are able to stay anonymous (NicoNico Douga or countless Hatsune Miku videos, for example), but the question is: If someone is willing to put themselves out there as a traceable individual and “break,” will there be anyone to catch them?

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.