Archive for the ‘Older Men’ Category

J-Bobos in Paradise?

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

American conservative political pundit David Brooks is finally making his long-awaited impact on Japanese pop culture!

A Japanese translation of Brooks’ pop sociology on the “New Upper Class” Bobos in Paradise has been available since 2002, but the term “Bobo” (an abbreviation of bourgeois bohemian) evidently needed a few years to really penetrate the public consciousness. Brooks uses the word Bobo to describe a certain segment of upper middle class Americans who rebelled against the establishment as college students in the 1960s but eventually parlayed their countercultural values into capitalist success.

Luxury marketers in Japan have been quietly intrigued with the concept for a while, but the Bobos looks like they have finally hit the big time with the appropriately-titled magazine — Bobo’s — “Magazine for Creative Class” [sic]. I can definitely understand the motive behind inducing publication: Advertisers must salivate over this discovery of a new species of wealthy sophisticates willing to spend lavishly on “culture” and niche products rather than the standard luxuries. But even with this magazine on the market, a very important question remains: Do Japanese Bobos really exist?

I sympathize with the marketing temptation to keep distinguishing different sub-units of Japan’s increasingly important wealthy classes, but I have long been suspicious that Japan has anything approximating the cultural outgrowth of the original U.S. Bobos. Brooks’ New Upper Classes grew up in the specific historical context of the late 1960s, supporting Romantic revolution against the technocratic society and vanilla consumerism of the immediate post-war period. With these progressive values intact, they slowly made their way inside the business system and transformed it into a compromise between profit-orientation and social-meaning. Some of this may just be mere window-dressing — superficial aesthetic changes to capitalism rather than structural changes — but the Bobos did indeed succeeded in introducing new values of wealth usage, for better or worse.

In the 1960s, Japan experienced similar student uprisings at elite universities, but these were primarily humorless and violent Marxist clashes with the government, university officials, and rival student ideologues. Romantic counterculture flourished in certain pockets but never made the critical intersection with mass culture needed to spread a new kind of aesthetic values throughout a generation. Most critically, Japanese youth in the late ’60s had yet to experience enough consumerist messages and white-picket prosperity to desire a more “soulful” alternative. True prosperity was still a half-decade away. And with an ultra-tight labor market and low rates of entrepreneurialism, most of the ’60s generation had little choice but to completely abandon their Marxist ideology to take white-collar jobs in traditional companies.1 Today, the Baby Boomers (dankai sedai) do not overflow with ex-radical Romanticists who have transformed capitalism to make their fortunes, nor did Japan experience a wave of new companies like Body Shop, Starbucks or Apple Computer with a corporate philosophy grounded in ’60s ideals.2

From the contents of Bobo’s alone, there already seems to be quite a deviation between Brooks’ original conception of the “bourgeois bohemian” and the Japanese equivalent. For starts, the Bobo’s tagline is “for men who live rough and simple” (ラフ&シンプルに生きる男たちへ) — echoing the oversimplified calculus often heard in Japan that “Bobos = LOHAS + New Rich.” From Bobo’s mission statement (translation ours):

In contrast to the conservative and traditional upper classes, the Bobos came to prominence by working outside of pre-existing frameworks and freely doing things their own way. They are the new elite for the information age, succeeding in society by doing exactly what they want in ways previously seen as being contrarian. […] Bobos have spread through the world, and now they are beginning to attract attention as “consumers with discriminating tastes,” even in Japan.

So in theory, the J-Bobos are part of a broader global Bobo movement comprised of rebellious Baby Boomer capitalists with an eye to cultivated consumption.

Due to glossy magazines’ primary function in Japan as shopping guides rather than “reading material,” many foreign social movements imported to Japan tend to hit the mainland as consumer subcultures with the underlying ideology stripped out. In the case of Bobos, however, they are so much defined by consumption that the group should theoretically mesh well with pre-existing Japanese consumer culture. Central to Brooks’ book is his Bobo “Code of Financial Correctness”:

Rule 1: Only vulgarians spend lavish amounts of money on luxuries. Cultivated people restrict their lavish spending to necessities.
Rule 2: It is perfectly acceptable to spend lots of money on anything that is of “professional quality,” even if it has nothing to do with your profession.
Rule 3: You must practice the perfectionism of small things.
Rule 4: You can never have too much texture.
Rule 5: The educated elites are expected to practice one-downsmanship.
Rule 6: Educated elites are expected to spend huge amounts of money on things that used to be cheap.
Rule 7: Members of the educated elite prefer stores that give more product choices than they could ever want but which don’t dwell on anything so vulgar as prices

Simply put, Bobos created their own style of subtle conspicuous consumption based on elitist aesthetic principles as a challenge to the simple nouveau riche values of demonstrating wealth through obvious big ticket items. The Bobos may equally indulge in luxury as their predecessors do, but they justify their spending using a very different ideology.

So if we may judge the hypothetical Japanese Bobos by the products in the September issue of Bobos, this fledgling group seems to break many of Brooks’ essential rules. Right off the bat, the main ads introduce readers to Maserati sports-cars and bejeweled watches from Icetek. (There is an also ad for beefy Dodge trucks, but Bobos are not allowed to slum it in ways that intersect with the real lower classes in the Heartland.) An ad for Dyson’s industrial strength vacuum cleaner does seem to fit Rule 2, but otherwise, the companies in attendance do not build a case for a “different kind” of luxury consumption than what is seen in similar magazines. I mean, how Bobo can things really be when you don’t even hit the prerequisite Volvo feature until page 108! Most importantly, the J-Bobos in these Bobo’s pages seem to have an interest in cigars and golf, which fundamentally fail the Bobo mission of using leisure and consumption to distinguish oneself from traditionally taste-impaired rich people. And I am not sure John Belushi — profiled in seven pages — is a key Bobo icon either.

(Another observation: the magazine either targets single men exclusively or assumes that their wife and children are antithetical to their hobbies, because the concept of family life never once enters into any articles.)

Whether Bobos, Preppies, and Yuppies, the group name may come from the media, but the taste segment itself is a product of socioeconomics, educational patterns, and cultural environments. We should not assume that these factors blend together in a similar way in other nations. In the case of Bobos in Japan, the Japanese media can do little more than create an imaginary “class” of Bobos with the hope that the more “creative” members of the Dankai generation move into the new category because they want to think of themselves as Bobos. Recruiting Japanese Bobos means speaking to their pre-existing tastes, and this explains why the Bobo’s Bobos look a lot like an older version of the Upper Middle Class cadets seen in Brutus or elsewhere.

If there really were Bobos in Japan, you wouldn’t need to invent a magazine called Bobos; they’d already have their own magazines and boutiques. What we do see, however, is the media-producer complex’s establishment of a new aesthetic direction for the wealthy classes. The target men may not naturally be Bobos in Brooks’ mold, but we will soon learn whether this is a lifestyle they are interested in aspiring to.


1 You can also make the point that revolutionary Marxism had less applicability to capitalist enterprise than the general hippie mode of Romanticism tied to a pacifist leftism.
2 The best example would be ex-Communist poet Tsutsumi Seiji and his Saison Group — Seibu, Parco, Wave, Seed, FamilyMart, and Mujirishi Ryohin (MUJI) — but Tsutsumi was of a much older generation that experienced university life right after the War.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Coca-Cola Zero Channels Saigo Takamori

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

In the first Japanese television spot for Coca-Cola’s zero-calorie soda Coca-Cola Zero, a bald, middle-aged salaryman sits amongst his fellow coworkers in a large corporate meeting hall. The company president stands on stage and lectures the rank-and-file on something called “Next Cool Biz.” We can only guess that this is the latest stage in the Ministry of the Environment’s Cool Biz campaign to dress-down the workplace in the summer months to reduce excess air conditioning usage. Coke’s cruel parody takes this progressive business casual look to a comical extreme — pants shredded all the way to boxer short length matched with jackets reduced to shoulder pads. In all of their excitement, the Boss and his gushing subordinates do not seem to notice that they have lost all dignity to this beastly new uniform. The audience gasps.

As in the print ads, the protagonist wears the Coca-Cola Zero bottle on the back of his head to form a makeshift samurai chonmage. He stands up, takes a drink from a bottle of Zero and boldly raises his hand to tell the company president from the back of the conference hall, “Sir, I object!” Electric guitars fill the soundtrack, and the evil Boss scowls at our hero.

The slogan for the Zero campaign is “Japanese men! Don’t hesitate!” (日本の男よ, ためらうな。) This commercial chooses to illustrate that slogan by showing a Japanese man taking no hesitation in standing up and calling out the idiocy of the powers that be.

In an earlier post, we discussed the failure of Cool Biz to reach full diffusion due to the importance of apparel-related propriety in organizational relations. Lately, however, Cool Biz has become something of a lightning rod — a symbol for a certain type of unwanted “restructuring” to the classic Japanese workplace culture. In the Coke commercial, Cool Biz has moved past being “a good intention impossible to implement” to become something loathsome in its own right. If I were in the Ministry of the Environment, I would be livid: The commercial has taken the rationality and pro-environmentalism behind Cool Biz and twisted it to such an extreme that the uniform appears to be nothing but a total humiliation upon the individual worker.

While questionable from a pro-environment perspective, the advertisers have very skillfully used the Cool Biz issue as a way to build sympathy with their target audience. Instead of trying to graft the overly-American “individual fights the system” spirit onto a Japanese ad campaign, they have used the Cool Biz backlash to define the conflict so that “rebellion” against the top actually represents a protection of traditional values. The “bad guys” (the executives in silly outfits) advocate an outrageously dumb progressive agenda. Thus opposition to the Next Cool Biz is not insubordination, but merely a cry for the return to the classic black suit-white shirt-black tie uniform.

The Coca-Cola Zero message essentially finds its passion in reactionary zeal. Dressed as a modern day samurai and fighting against the excesses of reform, the protagonist resembles Saigo Takamori — the heroic Japanese soldier who hoped to save the samurai class by leading a rebellion against the Westernizing Meiji government in 1877. In a corporate climate besieged by neo-liberal globalizers and shareholder-right advocates, Japanese salarymen have began to tightly embrace their old corporate traditions as endangered customs. Just as Saigo tried to protect the samurai way of dress against over-eager Westernization, Coke Zero’s salaryman/samurai army clings to their black suits in a similar protest. If one cola will quench male thirst in the struggle against progressive social change, it shall be Coca-Cola Zero.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Cool Biz

Friday, June 8th, 2007

In 2005, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment launched the quite admirable Cool Biz campaign to convince white-collar businessmen to shed the suit jacket and tie in the summer months so that companies can reduce the energy wasted in excess office air-conditioning. The campaign has been somewhat successful, but diffusion seems to have hit a wall. Two years in, Cool Biz has yet to become the “standard” for the business world in July and August.

The barriers to Cool Biz’s widespread adoption can be explained with the Prisoner’s Dilemma model as originally developed by Merril Flood and Melvin Dresher at the RAND corporation in 1950. (A simple explanation of the Prisoner’s dilemma can be found at Wikipedia.)

For our Cool Biz example of this classic game theory model, let’s say there is a face-to-face meeting between representatives from Firm A and Firm B. The workers at these companies have two options: They can wear a dark wool suit in summer to the meeting or wear a Cool Biz-approved button-up shirt with no tie and jacket. There are two factors in this decision. The comfort of the worker and the propriety of appropriate uniform to convey respect for the other company. Let us assume that each worker would be more comfortable wearing Cool Biz attire but wants to show proper respect to the other company in order to create favorable conditions for commerce. The second factor is much more important than the first, however, because the worker in Japan has traditionally prioritized being a good representative of his company over his own personal comfort.

We will use a theoretical scoring system to demonstrate the reasoning using in the endeavor — with 0 points being the status quo and positive or negative points being better or worse than the status quo, respectively. Wearing Cool Biz nets the worker 5 points compared to 0 points of the standard expectation to sweat through the muggy heat of the summer in a suit. The propriety factor is more complicated: an asymmetry of uniform causes chaos in the meeting and an asymmetry of power in negotiation. If both workers show up in the same uniform, everything is normal and there are no points scored on either side. However, the worker scores -10 for showing up in Cool Biz if the other worker is in a proper suit. The suited worker, on the hand, gets +10 points due to the improved position in utilizing the disrespect of the other party to his company’s advantage.

If both workers show up at the meeting in Cool Biz attire, both workers gain 5 points — they are comfortable (5 pts. each) and they show each other equal respect by wearing the same kind of clothing (0 points). If one worker shows up in a suit and the other shows up in Cool Biz, however, the worker in Cool Biz nets a -5 points (5 for cool biz, but -10 for disrespect) while the worker in a suit nets a score of 10 (0 for suit but 10 points for the advantageous power imbalance). If both show up in normal suits, the net score is 0 for both.

In table form (the first digit is the score for the worker from Firm A, while the second is the score for the worker from Firm B):

Firm A
Cool Biz Suit
Firm B
Cool Biz 5,5 10,-5
Suit -5,10 0,0

The solution to this problem is that they will always wear suits, because they would both rather wear be uncomfortable in suits than risk the penalty of showing up in Cool Biz at a meeting with a suited employee from another company.

Face-to-face interaction is still very important in Japanese business culture, and Cool Biz is not seen as a clothing style that demonstrates proper respect for meetings. Currently, Cool Biz does much better in the non-sales departments because of the absence of this inter-firm interaction dilemma. But since most Japanese companies still direct the majority of manpower into sales (営業), Cool Biz will never make inroads until it is condoned for outcall sales teams as well as for office workers.

How could Cool Biz be better promoted now knowing how the dilemma works? If companies had a better idea of which partner firms adopted Cool Biz, there would be less confusion in the decision to wear a suit or Cool Biz to a meeting. There could then be silent coordination to go towards the solution of both workers wearing Cool Biz: a net gain. Greater promotion of the style could also reduce the misunderstanding that wearing Cool Biz to a meeting is a form of disrespect. With the current psychological conditions, however, most workers will decide to go for suits even if they know they should be doing Cool Biz for the good of the environment and their own temperature control.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Leon: The Cult of the Italian Middle-Aged Man

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

Coming in at an almost equal gross weight as Can Cam every month is Leon — a fashion magazine aimed at Japanese men in their late 30s and early 40s. The name comes from the Luc Besson film Leon to perhaps channel the good looks and charm of its French middle-aged star Jean Reno (the [now defunct] sister publication for women is naturally called Nikita.) The magazine began publication in 2002 and has attained a certain notoriety in recent years. Although it only runs at a circulation around 92,275 (2007 printer-certified figure), Leon’s identification/creation of an exciting new market segment for bad-boy middle-aged men has made it the center of much social attention.

Leon employs the 45 year-old Italian expatriate Girolamo Panzetta as its cover model and official mascot, and just like with the Can Camsenzoku models,” the suave Neapolitan appears in countless pages of the magazine to show off specific apparel items for readers. Forget the long-held strategy of selling youth to the older generation: most of the models in Leon are older men proudly displaying cases of male pattern baldness and a week’s worth of stubble. Unlike other magazines on the market, not a single Japanese model appears in Leon — except when accidentally used in adjacent advertisements. Most women’s magazine readers aspire towards Japanese celebrities who may indirectly aspire towards the West, but the Leon man’s aspirations are directly pointed towards (white) Western men (and perhaps, the young blond women on the white models’ arm). Many Japanese fashion magazines skim the streets of the world’s major cities for street snaps of the latest international trends, but Leon looks to only one specific foreign locale: Milan, Italy. The magazine is filled with photos upon photos of well-groomed Italian men, and other sections include longer interviews with Italian “experts” on various topics. Leon firmly establishes the original homeland for the self-confident, stylish middle-aged man squarely in the Apennine Peninsula.

Unlike the standard men’s magazine in the West like GQ, Esquire, or even Playboy, Leon has very little in the way of general-interest material, interviews with celebrities, or long-form articles. Almost 95% of the magazine is product information — with a majority of the content veering into unabashed advertorial “tie-up.” All the major luxury brands are represented. For suits, the range spans from Ralph Lauren to Paul Smith to obscure Italian tailors. Few items gain attention outside of apparel — only cigars and whiskeys, but even these generally appear as accessories to a wardrobe rather than areas in which the gentleman should develop expert knowledge.

Some of the content veers so much towards (Japanese perceptions of) Italian male customs that the advice may not be particularly practical within Japan. In the November 2006 issue, for example, Leon recommends spraying a little cologne on your suit jacket label — something I would guess is too aggressive for famously scent-conservative Japan. But the overall Leon styling is not interested in “classic” nor “traditional” looks to begin with. The editors create contemporary and fashionable ensembles that work to enhance the best qualities of the older, masculine male. Watches are enormous. Street wear is acceptable as long as it is classed up a bit, like hooded sweatshirts with fur inner lining. Sometimes this veers into the absurd: Their exemplar burly men often don crocodile skin vests and envelope their girlfriends in long black capes.

The Leon man is a “choi waru oyaji” — a term for a middle-aged man with a bit of a bad-boy charm. Unlike the desire for subcultural “uniforms” seen in youth fashion magazines, Leon does not offer readers a group-specified conformity. The ideal reader may not be a traditional success at a first-tier company, but Leon shows him how to set himself apart through world-class clothing and conspicuous success with younger women. Since most of the readers are men in the 40s, or at least, younger men aspiring to look older, the magazine is more interested in instructing methods of distinction rather than proscribing socially acceptable outfits. Leon readers already know fully well how to wear a blue-suit and not be seen. They are going out of their way in response to conformity to find themselves something with a little more edge. An advertorial piece for Ermenegildo Zegna in the Nov. 2006 issue has the headline “差が付く休日の過ごし方” — the way to pass time on the weekends to separate yourself from others. Leisure is no time to relax in this grand social competition!

Like the young women reading Can Cam, the Leon man feels a need to purchase luxury goods, but his two main purposes for those goods are not “fitting in” to a social standard. He wants differentiation from his peers and the ability to attract younger members of the opposite sex. Although the Leon movement does not have the readership numbers of the Can Cam explosion, that may be for the best: If all the Japanese middle-aged men became a little bit bad in this quasi-Italian imitation, that would only make it that much harder to stand out.

You may not see so many real-life “choi waru oyaji” prowling the streets of Tokyo, but Leon has made itself relevant by creating a sexy, yet plausible consumer subculture that well-reflects the spirit of our time. As Japanese society gets older and teens don’t have the spending power of the previous generation to make society-wide trends, middle-aged men have to pull up the slack. Leon lets them do this in style.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.