Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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.

The Koda Kumi Plurality

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Judging by album sales and general media attention, Koda Kumi is the “biggest” female pop star in Japan at the moment. From the late 1960s onward, this was one of the most astute positions to attain in the entertainment world hierarchy. A couple of months into her Pop Queen reign, a young singer would start to enjoy the rewards — myriad product endorsements, unbridled cultural influence, and eventually, male lust, and a permanent place in the grand narrative of music history. Okinawan dance-pop idol Amuro Namie’s fame in the mid-1990s was not just limited to the world of music; she used the platform of pop to usher in a programme révolutionnaire of chapatsu brown hair and mini-skirts for teenage girls all across Japan.

Since peaking in 1999, however, the Japanese music market has experienced yearly negative growth and a weakened position in the public sphere. Even with the general economic growth of recent years, the music industry (including musical instruments and records) suffered one of the only negative growth rates among consumer product industries in 2006 (according to Nikkei’s Marketing Journal). The only industry performing even less robustly was gofuku (呉服) — traditional Japanese clothing like yukatas and kimonos. Does this mean that J-Pop too is a relic of a previous cultural era? And does it follow that the Pop Princess crown is a meaningless heirloom of a past empire?

The best-sellers of today require only a fraction of sales that the best-sellers of the mid-’90s needed to take the top spot. For example, Koda Kumi’s latest album Black Cherry has sold 998,230 copies (Oricon figure) — making her the #2 best-selling album artist after Mr. Children so far this year. In 1999, this level of sales would have placed her at #23 on the final chart for yearly album sales.

Titles, awards, and public acclaim, however, are all doled out relatively, not absolutely. The biggest stars remain the “biggest stars” — the standards are just lower. And even if the music industry is not performing well sales-wise, the J-Pop idols and singers still contribute a great deal to the entertainment world at large through their appearances as guests and actors on television programs. (A more cynical observer may comment that the Japanese music industry’s main responsibility has always been to produce general “variety television stars” and “disc-shaped fan club goods” rather than “musicians” and “CDs”). So at the end of the day, even if Koda Kumi’s sales are not as impressive as her predecessors, she has still managed to win the implicit title of “Most Important Singer” from the media, and as a result, has received her fill of product endorsement jobs from mobile phones to chu-hai alcoholic beverages. At this point in time, I think it is fair to say that the shrinkage of the music market does not seem to have an impact on general media treatment of its star artists.

Nevertheless, we should remember that the music market is so fractured and fragile that Koda’s journey to Number One did not require the levels of “mass support” previously necessary for the top spot. In a very similar manner, most of the Top Ten Oricon Singles these days are from Johnny’s Jimusho boy bands, who understandably are reliant upon a narrow niche market for their sales. Although currently #1 in a broad sense, there is no real evidence that Koda enjoys support from a wide range of demographic groups and taste segments.

Like Hamasaki Ayumi before her, Koda Kumi fans do not include panting males but are mostly young female admirers. She is most associated with a revealing post-gal fashion look called ero-kawaii (erotic cute) often seen in ViVi, which is understood to be less about male attraction and more about female self-confidence. Overall, Koda Kumi’s fans form a plurality of total consumers rather than a majority, easily giving her the top spot through concentrated action in a sluggish marketplace.

Koda Kumi, however, is not just quietly tolerated by the remaining social majority — she is widely scorned and loathed. Although not an objective indicator, she was voted the #1 “Celebrity I Want to Go Away” on Internet gossip site Tantei File in 2007. Shukan Bunshun included her in a list of recent female celebrities who are not considered attractive by the older generation (“Doko ga ii no?” Imadoki no Bijoron, 8/2/07).

Koda represents a commodity that should be quite common in the near future — the “mass star” who has widespread recognition but only appeals to a specific niche. While the quantity of Koda Kumi’s activities in product promotion are on schedule with her predecessors, the quality of her roles bespeaks a different advertising usage. Her core fans come from a singular taste culture. Therefore she is not used by companies to breed general goodwill for a product but to specifically target a product to her narrow plurality of rabid female fans. This may explain why Koda very prominently works with kimono manufacturer Nishizen Shoji to produce a special line of high-priced Koda Kumi Collection kimonos.

More telling is Koda’s new personal model of Sankyo pachinko machines called “FEVER LIVE IN HALL.” Although Koda Kumi’s public persona generally channels a low culture chic close to the world of pachinko (when her Best Of album hit 1 million sales in late 2005, she rented a small bar in Ginza and became the “mama” for the night in celebration — an act that rooted her even closer to her mizu shobai-esque image),1 Sankyo must be plotting this tie-up to lure in younger female customers.2 More mass-marketed singers may have held reservations about creating brand associations between themselves and what is widely-understood as a gauche and gaudy gambling playtime for a less sophisticated spectrum of society, but this was a good match for Koda Kumi. Those who would be turned off by her pachinko sponsorship aren’t fans anyway.

With no need to impress the masses, Koda Kumi can forgo being bland, un-threatening, or over-trendy like past idols and just constantly re-affirm her personal taste culture to shape herself as a finely-honed marketing weapon. Overall low sales in an important media market can bring the niche star into the limelight  — thus becoming an icon for one specific taste culture, market segment, or demographic group rather than the blunt instrument of the widely-beloved pop stars of yore.


1She also claimed that she would have also liked to have been a bar “mama” in another life.

2The Cohan Research Group in April 2006 reported that:

Women currently form over 20%+ of the total user base. The population of women is higher than men in Japan (65 million women compared to 62 million men in 2005). This offers an opportunity for pachinko operators to increase the participation of women in the game. Furthermore, the average days of participation of female players in the game are 32 days per year, as compared to 45 days per year by male players. The improved public image of pachinko and the availability of exciting new machines provide operators with the opportunity to grow their women customer base. According to Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute Limited, women spend about ¥2,000 more than men per visit to the pachinko parlor.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.