Archive for the ‘Clast’ Category

Trendspotting in Post-Consumer Japan

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Whether bullish or bearish about Japan’s long-term prospects, there should be no question that Japanese consumer society has undergone a major transformation in the last decade. A recessionary economy and falling wages have slowly chipped away at a once-vibrant and high-speed trend-driven consumer culture. Sales in almost all cultural fields — music, fashion, manga, DVDs, magazines — have seen serious decreases since the late 1990s. (This may also be true in the United States, but the incredible cultural penetration of the internet in the English-language sphere has somewhat softened the blow.) Now with a cyclical economic crisis in Japan triggered by the global recession, Japanese consumers are becoming extreme parodies of their former frugal selves: choosing Uniqlo over luxury goods and no-brand Chinese electronics over superior domestic products.

So how in the world then do you try to “spot trends” in an unequivocally-declining consumer marketplace? At the moment, the normal trendspotting protocol is not equipped to handle this kind of stagnant environment.

The first major problem is that most trendspotting tends to be overly optimistic; trendspotters’ audiences are mostly corporations, so there is an inherent goal in making the future market appear to have great potential for further growth. After all, no one wants to spend money on a report that tells them their earnings are guaranteed to decline. Trendspotters thus must either highlight the bright spots in the consumer market or spin negative-sounding social change into euphemistically positive phrasing. Non-consumers become “post-materialists.” Obscure tech companies with crazy ideas become banner carriers for the entire industry. Yet something like the current strength of low-price Uniqlo is generally ignored, since this development does not portray Japan as “cutting-edge” nor provides a soothing narrative about the country’s future prospects.

The second problem is that most trendspotting looks in the wrong places: namely, “leading-edge” culture. The real cultural leaders of Japan are now the yankii working class delinquents who control the direction of the ever-growing gyaru and Oniikei fashion subcultures. Their magazines are expanding, and their favorite brands are profiting. But since the former gatekeepers and tastemakers in Japan dislike their aesthetic, the story of their rise is essentially ignored. Cell-phone novels, for example, are portrayed in the media as “innovative uses of technology” rather than as the increased preference for yankii-esque narratives. Articles about the recent popularity of hostess-fashion magazine Koakuma Ageha rarely mention its monthly content targeted towards to non-Tokyo single-mothers working in the mizu shobai world. The “downward shift” of popular culture towards working class values and narratives could be said to be the most significant cultural trend of the last five years, but again, this is not a trend narrative anyone wants to hear.

In a similar way, there is much attention to Japan’s eco-consciousness, but these stories overly reflect the interests and aesthetics of upper middle class Tokyoites who have grown bored with decades of over-consumerism. Looking at the leading companies at this time of recession, however, mass consumers are clearly choosing products based on low price and high cost performance and not on abstract notions of environmental friendliness. The media and urban elite’s pro-environmental tastes are a good start for the green movement within Japan, but hardly tell the true story of basic consumer preference.

Unless the economy recovers dramatically, there is no reason to believe the two major narratives of cultural change in Japan — the erosion of conspicuous consumer spending and the rise of working class tastes amongst the middle class — will come to an end. Trendspotting in Japan must cease being an advocate for culturally-savvy innovation in technology and leading-edge culture and instead become an unbiased examination of the true market.

On this score, Atsushi Miura — author of Karyu shakai (Downwardly-Mobile Society) and the recent Onna ha naze kyabakurajo in naritai no ka? (Why do women want to become cabaret club hostesses?) — has provided the perfect template. For years, he worked at PARCO’s Across — the beacon of leading-edge consumer research — but now writes almost exclusively about youth’s cultural shift towards less urban and urbane values. He went towards the real story instead of trying to fit contemporary Japan into the “traditional” progressive trend mold.

With an unprecedentedly-high product turnover, Japan offers much temptation to concentrate solely on eccentric technologies and quirky new products (ice cucumber soda and QR-code graves, anyone?). Most of these products, however, are total flops or otherwise have only the most minor influence on the wider market. Good trendspotting must ignore these products or at least admit their total irrelevance to the wider consumer market up-front. In other words, trendspotting must stop searching for phenomena that fit the 1990s concept of “trends” and instead work to discover new social patterns and (often uninspiring) hit products. The prolonged Japanese economic downturn has not erased trends; it has just made trends less exciting and “cool” to the normal trendspotter crowd.

Ultimately, trendspotting is not about sexy content and stimulating readers; it’s about telling the true story of the market in order to make accurate predictions for the future. As Japan has shown over the last decade, the near future does not always become bigger, bolder, and brighter than the past. Trends can be depressing, disappointing and maybe even a little boring, but reality turns out to be the best starting point for formulating business strategy.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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.

Beer as Metaphor

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Over the last year or so, the Japanese press has been moaning that young people are committing an unspeakable crime against the traditional mores of Japanese culture: they have ceased to drink beer. Generation Y (or alternatively known as Generation Z) have not proved themselves to be big drinkers to start, but they seem to particularly dislike the world’s most beloved malt-and-hops beverage. “It’s bitter,” they explain. “It’s yucky!” they exclaim.

This open disgust with beer may befuddle the older generation, who generally commence every single party, reception, and drinking event with a tall mini glass of Asahi Dry or Kirin Ichiban. The anti-brew sentiment, however, may just be the perfect metaphor for young people’s overall predisposition towards culture and life.

A key point about beer: Almost no one likes it upon their first sip. College students struggle through many a kegger before moving on to drink beer because they actually enjoy the flavor. There are short-term rewards in drunkenness to keep kids on the path to Sudsville, but beer requires a long-term effort. It’s the textbook definition of an “acquired taste.” Learning to like beer has traditionally been a nearly-universal part of growing up.

Today’s current crop of Japanese youngsters, however, has proven averse to anything remotely challenging, anything that requires short-term sacrifice for a long-term payoff. In his book Aiming Downward: Kids Who Don’t Learn, Youth Who Don’t Work, writer and critic Uchida Tatsuru describes a worrying phenomenon with the current generation: When they come to a
piece of information they do not understand in a book or in real life, they tend to skip over and ignore it, rather than take the time to ask questions and solve the mystery. This principle can be extended into cultural life. As a whole, Generation Y/Z have grown extremely confident about what they already know and like, with almost no interest in pushing themselves towards anything too foreign or new.

Over the last decade, the pop music market has drifted away from experimentally-minded, yet popular musicians like Cornelius or Denki Groove to straight-forward, “honest” genres like “seishun (youth) punk.” Fashion must be “real clothes” that bolster current tastes, rather than artistic designer brands that pursue a novelty in expression (which were king in the 1980s, if not the 1990s.) Youth have ceased to watch foreign movies, because they hate having to read subtitles.

While a lot of these symptoms do not sound particularly different from equally-lethargic youth overseas, Japanese culture overall has suffered as a result. There are a lot of insular forces inherent in Japanese behavior and social organization, but these used to be counterbalanced by an enthusiastic curiosity about what was going on culturally beyond Japan’s borders or at its fringes. “Ignoring anything not immediately comprehensible,” however, is the exact opposite of curiosity. “No thirst for knowledge” seems an odd explanation for “no thirst for beer,” but these characteristics fit a pattern.

Oh, kids these days! Why can’t they better dedicate themselves to indulging in alcoholic beverages!?

Image from 1953 Asahi Beer advertisement.

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.

Louis Vuitton’s Mythic 94.3%

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

Luxury business experts from around the world gathered in Roppongi’s Grand Hyatt last week for the Financial TimesBusiness of Luxury Summit Tokyo ’08. And what an appropriate setting for discussion about luxury — Tokyo! — the world’s most important site for high-end brand consumption.

But proving this importance requires a catchy numerical figure. So in his opening speech, the FT‘s Lionel Barber told the audience that 94.3% of all Japanese women in their 20s own a piece of Louis Vuitton. This number was then repeated in an article by leading Asian luxury expert Radha Chadha in the FT‘s newspaper supplement about the luxury business: “For example, as many as 94 per cent of Tokyo women in their 20s own a Louis Vuitton piece.” A quick Google search on “94.3 AND Louis Vuitton” will bring up countless news articles from major international newspapers and magazines citing the figure. Even the Japanese fashion newspaper Senken Shimbun repeated the number in its June 2 recap of the FT summit. 94.3% is as good as gospel.

Anyone who has spent a few hours in Tokyo knows that the Japanese deeply love Louis Vuitton. Japan gave the French brand both the capital and the blueprint to become an unprecedented global luxury powerhouse.

That being said, 94.3%!?

Let’s think about what this means. If you collected 100 girls in their 20s at random from all across Japan — from the frozen backwaters of Hokkaido to the beach huts of Okinawa — and put them in the same room, only six of them could claim to possess zero Louis Vuitton items. To be perfectly fair to all the experts who keeps repeating this statistic as unassailable fact, 94.3% is totally and utterly impossible.

So where in the world did this imaginary statistic come from? We decided to track down the original source — a 2003 survey report of Tokyo metropolitan area consumers from the now-extinct Saison Research Group titled “The Image of Foreign Luxury Brands and Actual State of Brand Ownership” 『海外高級ブランドのイメージと所有実態』. And there on the bottom of page 6, we are informed that “94.3%” of girls in their 20s own a product from Louis Vuitton. Above this number, however, we get our first taste that something is amiss with this survey: “109.9%” of women in their 40s own Christian Dior! In this thing we normally call “reality,” ownership rate for any object can never top 100%, but this Saison report is very, very special.

You see, Saison’s researchers decided to simply add up all the percentages for ownership of different item groups (like bags, wallets, scarves, perfume, coats, suits, sweaters, pants, belts, shoes, etc.) for the final ownership rate. So, hypothetically, if 50% of women in their 20s own LV bags, 30% own LV wallets, and 15% own cigarette cases, “95%” would be the final figure of brand ownership. Needless to say, this is an extremely problematic form of statistical analysis. And even the author plainly states: “These numbers are not a strict measure of ownership rates for each brand. For the brands where people own multiple items, the number can surpass 100%.” (厳密には各ブランドの所有率を示すものではない。複数アイテムを保有する人が多いブランドでは100%を越えることもある。)I have no idea why the Saison Research Group ever thought to use this ridiculous measure of brand popularity in percentage form, but I think I know now why they disbanded a year later.

Although Saison printed the caveat along with the numbers, no one apparently paid much attention. The Japanese media happily reported these bogus figures as “strict measures of ownership,” and eventually, the digits made their way into the Western media as well, with no one stopping to ask how 94.3% (or 109.9%!) could be possible for a single brand.


So what would be a more accurate figure for Louis Vuitton ownership?

First of all, there are plenty of fashion subcultures and segments of 20 year-olds that do not place Louis Vuitton in their purchase consideration set. “Street-kei” girls from CUTiE or Zipper are absolutely not LV customers. And girls reading the very popular “girly” magazine Non•no are probably too laid back about fashion to purchase such an extravagant level of luxury handbag or wallet. Certainly, LV is a key brand for the mainstream and enormous CanCam set (the magazine features monthly coverage about the brand), but even the CanCam/JJ faction is merely a large plurality in the market — not a majority.

Moreover, there are relatively good surveys that cover LV brand preference and ownership. The TBS General Preference Survey (TBS総合嗜好調査) asks consumers in Tokyo and the Osaka-Kobe region about established brands. Over the last decade, Louis Vuitton has generally topped the survey’s list of beloved fashion brands for women in their 20s — at around 30%. This year’s rate for LV, however, hit a recent low of 26.7%, with only 19.3% of Tokyo women in the survey saying they like the brand. (Louis Vuitton remains stunningly popular in the famously logo-crazy Kansai region.) Brand Data Bank‘s (national) data tells a similar story: only 15% of surveyed women in their 20s own a LV bag.

The Japanese “conventional wisdom” (echoed here) seems to state that around 40% of women own a LV product, and while this may still be high, it is not even one-half of the FT‘s oft-repeated imaginary figure. Our guess would be 30-40% of women in their 20s own some manner of Louis Vuitton item, with 15-20% owning a LV bag. This is still very, very impressive when viewed in the larger scheme of things, but when 94.3% sets the standard, 15% looks rather humble.

One of the main messages at the FT conference was that the Japanese luxury market has matured and become saturated. Brands can no longer swagger into Tokyo and expect to be profitable without perfectly understanding their customers. Good information is more important than ever. So let’s all take a step into the future and bury the totally dubious 94.3% figure once-and-for-all.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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.

The End of Gyaku-Yu’nyū

Friday, April 11th, 2008

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, up-and-coming Japanese bands and artists who failed to connect with local audiences usually had to go overseas to get attention back in their homeland. With the Japanese music and entertainment worlds being essentially “closed shops,” innovative creators could leverage the support of foreign critics to get that crucial foot in the door. Yellow Magic Orchestra, for example, were initially ignored by fellow countrymen, but when they made a big splash in Europe and the United States, the Japanese media treated them as royalty upon return. In addition to YMO, New Wave band the Plastics, dance DJ Towa Tei, and reggae collective Mighty Crown all used international success as a launching pad to domestic careers. In fashion, moderately-popular brands like Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto became superstars in the Japanese market after successful Paris debuts. This cultural phenomenon is colloquially called gyaku-yu’nyū (逆輸入) — “reverse importing.”

Although beneficial to Japanese culture’s development in the long run, the gyaku-yu’nyū phenomenon was basically a result of Japan’s post-war national inferiority complex. In other words, Japanese audiences felt obliged to pay attention to internationally-feted artists because they deeply cared what foreigners thought about their own culture. The Japanese cultural elite, in particular, held a snobbish bias against domestic creators, and foreign acceptance was one of the few things that would change their minds.

Since the mid-1990s, however, Japanese audiences have grown extremely confident about the quality of their own pop culture and fashion, and rightly so. The world is currently enamored with Japan, instead of the one-sided love-affair of days past. So how has this change in national dynamics altered the potency of gyaku-yu’nyū?

In short, gyaku-yu’nyū no longer really works. A perfect example is Riyo Mori — 2007’s Miss Universe. Despite being the first Japanese woman since the 1950s to win this international pageant, Mori has suffered much scorn and hostility from the Japanese media and public. They criticized her appearance as conforming to a Western stereotype of “Oriental” women rather than being a real reflection of contemporary Japanese female aesthetics. 2006’s Miss Universe runner-up Kurara Chibana, on the other hand, has etched out a career in Japan and is believed to be “cute” in the mold preferred by Japanese girls. Winning #2 may have been ironically the better result for today’s Japan.

When actress Rinko Kikuchi was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2007, local media forecasted a big career for the actress when she returned to Japan. Things, however, have been mixed. Kikuchi gets a lot of media attention, for sure, and even gave her face for a Chanel ad campaign, but she has yet to really find broad favor with Japanese audiences. She has also received criticism for an overly “Oriental” appearance (as seen in the picture above from the May issue of InRed).

This new-found domestic confidence also works the other way: When popular Japanese artists fail overseas, it does not particularly hurt their domestic image. Hikaru Utada famously flopped with her U.S. debut Exodus, but this only minorly afflicted her standing with Japanese fans. Foreign success is also unable to restore the relevancy of formerly-dominant artists: No one is especially impressed that Puffy (Amiyumi) or A Bathing Ape‘s Nigo are big overseas. And artist Takashi Murakami peaked in Japan long before he started getting $1 mil per canvas in international markets.

Based on this growing disinterest in foreign reception, Japanese audiences no longer appear to rely on the rest of the world’s judgment to create hierarchies for their stars. Japan has a very competitive, sophisticated system for creating and rewarding local talent, and those who succeed do so for a reason. Although certain talent agencies have more sway than others (and can make stars look “popular” through forcing a busy appearance schedule on the media), Japanese girls seem very content with their own star models like Yuri Ebihara and Tsubasa Masuwaka. It is patronizing, to say the least, that they should take cues from the West about whom to like in this day and age. Would Americans ever love wacky Japanese-speaking TV mainstays Dave Spector and Patrick Harlan just because Japanese audiences do?

From one perspective, the new Japanese self-confidence in pop culture is built upon citizens’ healthy comfort with their own identity. No longer do we have as many youth automatically looking to the rest of the world to provide them with the “right” fashion looks. Ironically, however, it is the gyaku-yu’nyū successes like Ryūichi Sakamoto and Comme des Garçons that originally put Japan on the map, eventually feeding back and giving Japan more self-confidence about its position on the world stage. With no one listening to foreign voices, the responsibility to identify and reward new talent that can maintain Japan’s global image is now left up to the internal Japanese system. But, hey, if the world stops being impressed with Japan, it’s not like Japanese audiences would even really care.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Aoi Miyazaki for Emporio Armani

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Long ago there was a simpler age for foreign brands in Japan, where the mere mention of “The West” would conjure up images of luxury, progress, and sophistication within the minds of Japanese consumers. Due to a development of greater domestic confidence in the last three decades, however, European and North American companies can no longer rely on exploiting a national inferiority complex to pull in customers.

But that doesn’t mean that Japanese consumers now unconditionally prefer Japanese things to Western things either. No, the current market requires a well-rehearsed luge run through complex and shifting racial and national semiotic codes that almost no one can perfectly articulate.

As I explained in the previous essay “Race as Fashion Signifier,” “real clothes” magazines like CanCam or ViVi exclusively use Japanese and half-Japanese models to illustrate a plausible context for the clothing. High-fashion magazines like Spur and Ginza, on the other hand, deploy foreign (Caucasian) models to reflect the fact that the center of legitimization for the high-fashion world is “abroad.” Based on this principle, foreign luxury brands have had little reason to not use global campaign advertisements (meaning: non-Japanese models) in Japanese fashion magazines. Advertorial (“tie-up”) can often be used to show readers’ favorite local models wearing the latest season, while protecting the sanctity of the pure ad. But basically, there is an unstated rule that foreign luxury brands never “stoop” to the level of Japanese local culture by using familiar faces.1

Emporio Armani, however, has gone against scripture by conspicuously using popular Japanese actress Miyazaki Aoi in its new print advertisements. By many measures, Miyazaki is the “It Girl” in Japan of the moment, but she should be defined as a celebrated actress within Japan rather than one who has found broader acclaim overseas.  Compare Miyazaki to Kikuchi Rinko — star of Babel. Chanel used Kikuchi in a campaign last year, but this was basically a hedge: Japanese, yes, but an “international” woman who was nominated for an Oscar.

Miyazaki is not particularly “international,” but instead, can only be used to introduce the brand as something that everyday Japanese girls can wear. So while there is glamor in having a “star” model the clothing, Miyazaki definitely brings Emporio Armani to the “Japanese” level. She is “life-sized” (等身大) rather than “larger than life.”

This particular quality of Miyazaki’s celebrity may be a perfect balance for Emporio Armani, however, seeing that the brand is a bridge line. In the context of this strategic goal, she is able to act as a “bridge” between Japanese consumers and this “elite” foreign brand. We can be sure, however, that Armani would most likely avoid using a local Japanese star for the face of its premier Giorgio Armani line. So perhaps the racial hierarchy in Japanese fashion is stable at the extremes (West for high, East for low). All the interesting and innovation in bending these rules exists in the middle of the market, where the intersection of the two worlds can be constantly re-framed and re-negotiated.

1 There are probably counterexamples that come to mind, but it’s not that common.

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.