Archive for the ‘Clast’ Category

Race as Fashion Signifier

Friday, October 5th, 2007

Last time, we discussed Japanese fashion magazines’ obfuscation of Tokyo scenery to create appropriate atmosphere for consumer fantasy. This dodged a more immediate element for establishing proper context: the actual fashion models. But before even considering which individual model to use, Japanese editors make a more general decision on the race of the models representing the feel of the magazine. Historical factors and a self-identification as a “monoracial nation state” makes race a much more potent signifier in Japan than in places like the United States where a pro-diversity philosophy has intentionally de-emphasized the idea of implicit meanings in skin color.

Due to the senzoku model system, Japanese magazines hold a stable of exclusive models to represent the magazine. Other than the high-fashion magazines, editors rarely just pull together a certain group of well-known individuals from a “pool of models” to fit certain stories. They generally assemble a semi-permanent “team,” and the average racial composition of this team is linked to the magazine’s fashion category.

Magazines in the “real clothes” genre — like CanCam — aim to reflect the “real lives” of their readers. This means models who are not excessively tall, and ultimately, “pure” Japanese. CanCam uses almost all 100% Japanese models (we’ll count Yamada Yu as Japanese rather than a distinct “Okinawan” and ignore the half-Japanese Mine Erika as a rare exception.) When compared to the overwhelming number of half-Japanese/half-white models used in JJ and ViVi, this should be seen as an intentional decision. CanCam‘s power, however, is in its ability to create sympathy and self-association between readers and models. Since Japanese office ladies and junior college students have no fantastical aspirations towards the artistic side of the fashion business over in Europe, they are happy to see themselves in Ebi-chan’s shoes. Gyaru magazines like Popteen or Cawaii! are fundamentally similar in aspiration. Since Japan is the locus of legitimacy for that particular fashion, foreign or half-Japanese models would only confuse messaging.

High-end fashion magazines, on the other hand, mostly feature clothing from European houses and luxury brands, pegging the center of legitimacy in the West. In order to ensure that the presentation harks back to the larger Eurocentric fashion world, magazines like Spur or Ginza — almost without exception — use non-Japanese and mostly Caucasian models. This prevents Japanese female readers from self-association, but that’s the point. Like the old Groucho Marx quote, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member,” Japanese high-fashion fans do not want to see the clothes they desire on real-life Japanese people. There may be a tad bit of self-effacement in this sentiment, but it generally questions more elite Japanese consumers’ feelings about their own locale. The fantasy, therefore, requires an army of non-Japanese models.

ViVi and Glamorous‘ overwhelming use of half-Japanese and three-quarters-Japanese models like Fujii Rina, Hasegawa Jun, and Iwahori Seri begs a more pointed question: What does race mean when it’s not a pure reflection of either here nor there? These magazines are not targeting some massive half-Japanese readership, nor do these models look foreign enough to recenter the magazine atmosphere outside of Japan.

Herein lies lingering issues of perceived racial inferiority. I’ve been told numerous times in Japan that “clothes look better on foreigners,” by which they mean “white or black people.” This is not objectively true (nor subjectively true, in my view), but editors have long used half-Japanese models on this principle to bridge the gap between Japanese self-association and cool “foreign” fashion. A half-Japanese model looks “foreign” enough to enhance the image of the clothing, but close enough to the reader to send a message of commonality. Things are changing, however. Male fashion magazine Popeye previously used only half-Japanese models but moved to more foreigners once readers voiced less need for racial similarity in considering the clothing.

An underlying point remains: Race still has an important textual quality in Japan that impacts companies’ branding and messaging. The natural increase in racial diversity seen in Western countries, mixed with post-’60s progressive politics, has worked to de-emphasize the use of race as a personality/lifestyle determinate. I doubt that Calvin Klein’s choice of Djimon Hounsou as their spokesman was intended solely to say something “black” about Calvin Klein or limit the messaging to African-Americans. The political correctness of “neutral” race — combined with a need to emphasize inclusion to target multiple communities — has led to the “Benetton approach” in ad campaigns (except for the occasional lack of black and Asian models at NY fashion week). In Japan, however, there is still a strong idea that a Japanese face can rarely legitimize a product for which the aura is located abroad. CanCam is showing that Japanese readers often want to see Japanese models, but this only works within a narrow context of establishing horizontal commonality.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Where Are You?

Friday, September 21st, 2007

There are many Japanese fashion magazines, each representing a specific style niche somewhere between high-fashion, street wear, and office attire. And in these magazines, the fashion spreads work very hard to make readers think to themselves: Where in the world were these pictures taken?

For the most part, the answer is just Tokyo. With a hectic photo schedule sometimes requiring a single model (like Ebihara “Ebi-chan” Yuri) to appear in 150+ distinct outfits on a monthly basis, trips abroad are generally out of the question. Summertime may see some bikini shoots in Saipan or Guam, and New York is popular for a special feature on autumn trends, but generally, Tokyo and its environs are the only practical choice for backgrounds.

In these spreads, however, Tokyo never looks like anyone’s normal spacial conceptualization of Tokyo. If CanCam was the only visual record for the city, a first time visitor would expect the megalopolis to look like a dainty pastiche of Paris, London, and stately manors. Obviously, Edo’s usual concrete and tile bonanza sitting in the background of a photo shoot would kill all the fantasy surrounding fashion. (I mean, really, do Dior suits look better or worse in front of a 1998 Honda Civic hatchback?) But I find it interesting how each magazine’s visual approach not only creates the proper environment for appreciation of the clothing, but submerges the reader into a slightly-upgraded, aspirational version of his/her own reality. On average, Tokyo may be a lot of lazy form-follows-function-minus-design, but there is enough architectural diversity for photographers to crop out a fitting spatial universe to present to readers.

For example:

High-fashion magazines (Spur, Ginza) — Mostly interior or studio shoots, high-contrast lighting. Sites may be within Japan, but always sport the chairs and cabinets of Scandinavian residences.

Akamoji-kei (CanCam, JJ, Ray) — Mostly outdoor shots of urban locales, which emphasizes the public-ness of the OL lifestyle. Locations, however, never ever look like contemporary Japan. Lots of French cafés, girls sitting on Vespas, standing in front of double-decker London buses and U.K. “Underground” signs. Aux Bacchanales must earn substantial income from lending out their store as a location. Interesting antique shops in Setagaya-ku or Daikanyama also work well. If Japanese text accidentally makes it into the background of the shot, the photographers make sure to use a short-depth of field to blur out all linguistic reminders of daily life.

Women’s Casual/Street (Spring, Fudge, Mini) — Outdoors, out-of-the-city, back-to-the-wilderness. Lots of Rinko Kawauchi-esque washed-out colors. Delicate girls, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This makes parkas look great. Girls also lounge on wooden porches and big green lawns that are hardly common, at least in Tokyo.

Men’s Street Fashion (Smart) — Models on the rooftops of three-story buildings. Urban, yet a bit grimy. They don’t even try to hide the uglier parts of Tokyo, seeing that the clothes match the rough and tough life of growing up on the Tokyo streets.

Men’s Business Fashion (Gainer) — Tokyo skyscrapers! Glass and steel! How will this gray pinstripe suit look when I start working at a big-league company with its own building? For some reason, there is also always a girl in business attire standing nearby, as if to make sure a suit would also look good in the context of burgeoning office romance. Other people are critical to the landscape as well.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Black Ships

Friday, September 7th, 2007

When American bikini babe Leah Dizon became a Japanese celebrity last year, the media light-heartedly referred to her as the “kurofune” (黒船) of the gravia idol world. Kurofune means literally “black ship” and is a direct reference to the sidewheel steamers under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry that opened Japan’s ports by threat of force in the 1850s. The metaphor is relatively clear in the case of Dizon: an American woman “opened up” a business once completely occupied by Japanese females. Although Dizon came to her fame through a Japanese company, the media has playfully indulged in this idea of “invasion” as part of her product narrative.

The September 4 issue of DIME magazine has expanded the use of “kurofune” to the world of mobile phones. In the article 「黒船ケータイ」のデザイン力 — “The Design Power of Kurofune Cell Phones” — the editors have chosen the phrase “kurofune keitai” as a category name for Apple’s iPhone and LG’s Prada and Chocolate lines. Seeing that LG is Korean and Prada is Italian, kurofune is no longer limited to American products nor even Western ones. In fact, foreignness alone may not be the key to a place in the dark armada. Nokia, for example, has never had a kurofune reputation in their past attempts to break the Japanese market.

DIME essentially uses kurofune to connote “a foreign product that is a threat to a market generally controlled by Japanese firms.” There is an implication of a power imbalance, with Japan on the losing side. Despite the fact that the iPhone will not arrive on Japanese shores for a while, Japanese consumers have shown enough interest in the new gadget to send shivers down the spines of Japan’s oligopolistic phone manufacturers. Critics may argue that the iPhone is not particularly more innovative than current Japanese models (it lacks a TV tuner, for example), but DIME‘s deployment of “kurofune” is a quiet admission that the iPhone has struck a psychological blow to the Japanese cell phone market. In the last five years, we have seen the iPod take over what has traditionally been a Japan-dominated portable music market. Apple’s gizmos are no longer just “imports,” but strong-armed devices with the possibility of changing Japan by force. And like Perry’s gunboat diplomacy, the psychic impact of unwanted entry can have longer terms effects than what actually happens during the landing.

The recent use of “kurofune” at least confirms that the Japanese media still sees consumer markets in terms of nation-states. In other words, the success of foreign products in Japan has implications for Japan’s self-identity. It is certainly unwise to read too much nationalism into the sudden popularity of labeling pop cultural developments with reference to the Perry’s humiliating visit of 1853, but now in an era of expanded globalization, there are definitely more kurofune floating towards Japan for the media to identify in their spyglass.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

“Makise Riho’s Boyfriend”

Friday, August 24th, 2007

We can’t help but make some comments on A Bathing Ape (Bape)’s T-shirts for the annual Nihon Television telethon “24-Hour Television.” This collaboration was certainly the most effective tool for cementing Bape’s image as a mass market brand in Japan, and the charity work gave that iconic simian logo huge promotion among the grandpas and grandmas that make up the bulk of Japan’s viewing public. This unprecedented union of street fashion and variety TV seemed to bring immediate results: The telethon T-shirts have already raised ¥420 million for some lucky environmental concerns. (At ¥1400, the T’s may have been the cheapest BAPE shirts ever made outside of a creaky factory in godforsaken regions of mainland Asia.) Whether in support or mockery, everyone was talking about A Bathing Ape last week, reflected in fashion blog Elastic giving A Bathing Ape a spot on their “Mote Brand” list for late 2007.

Looking at Bape’s recent 2007 Spring/Summer Collection magazine, I realized that the label does not necessarily seek to shun the underground to make peace with the masses. Nigo really just wants to appeal to everyone everywhere with every possible kind of celebrity: models, American rappers, third-rate comedians, wrestlers, and indie musicians. Total inclusiveness, however, is quite literally the exact opposite of exclusivity, and selling 300,000 yellow Ape face T-shirts in a single week to anyone with a TV set and the internet and enough money for three beers probably doesn’t have a positive effect on the more premier pieces in the Bape line.

Ironically, Nigo’s greatest achievement with the Japanese public may still have more to do with his love life than his fashion empire. In this Yahoo! News article on the success of the “24 Hour TV” shirts, Nigo is introduced first and foremost as boyfriend to idol Makise Riho and the second as a fashion designer. As much as his critics paint him as a part of the establishment, he clearly has some ways to go before being a real mass market icon who needs no introduction through his belle.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Hoppy and Artificial Nostalgia

Friday, August 17th, 2007

In an age where thirsty masses have abandoned Japan’s regal ales and lagers for fake brew happōshu and malty chemical concoction “third-category beer,” there should be no surprise that Hoppy — the Grandfather of Ersatz Beer — has made a triumphant comeback. Originally intended as a cheap substitute for beer amongst the Tokyo working classes in the immediate post-war, the bubbly beer-like soda is made “alcoholic” with an injection of Japan’s standby white liquor, shōchū. The resulting taste is as close to beer as carob is to chocolate, but not necessarily bad. It’s very refreshing in summertime and much lighter than a real beer. (I prefer the rich “Hoppy Black” since its flavor is strong enough to avoid being drowned out by the shōchū tang.)

Hoppy’s comeback has a few key lessons for the Japanese market:

1) Older inferior goods can be enjoyed in a new way when better substitutes arrive in the market. Hoppy is a classic “inferior good” — a product for which demand decreases when consumers’ incomes rise. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hoppy all but disappeared once economic growth allowed even the bottom of society to afford real beer. In today’s less buoyant economy, we again see the need for an inferior good in the beer market, and the more modern happōshu plays that role. Thanks to the powers of science and technology, happōshu tastes much closer to beer than Hoppy ever did. But this is a very good thing for Hoppy, since the “beer” experience has narrowed to a point where Hoppy can now be perceived as a totally distinct beverage — not just an “inferior” version of beer.

2) Japan has gone beyond “constant progress” and is now “reclaiming heritage.” From 1945 to the end of the Bubble, Japanese consumers were so obsessed with going “one rank up” year after year that no one took the time to look back at what they had abandoned. Who thinks about the joys of Suntory Old when you can afford Johnny Walker Black or Blue? These days, however, few still believe in the old narrative of constant economic growth, and many consumers are interested in other roles for consumption besides proof of affluence and adherence to international standards.

No longer in constant self-comparison to a mythically-wealthy and trendy West, the Japanese media and consumers now are digging deeper into the fertile cultural heritage of the own past. The Fifties rock’n’roll dancers of ’80s Harajuku used to be treated as badly-styled delinquents, but they are now perfect models for cigarette ads. In the same way, Hoppy has become a unique bit of Tokyo Showa culture to explore and re-appreciate.

3) Brands must go away to become reborn. This is true almost everywhere in the world. Even if brands have a rich history, they need to completely disappear from public consideration so that laggards and less desirable consumers do not still set the brand image. Otherwise, targeted groups will not be eager to associate themselves with the products. Hoppy’s descent into obscurity was a blessing in disguise: Without any well-known pre-existing consumer groups, Hoppy was able to completely invent a positive brand image of past drinking culture that fits into modern day consumers’ desires to reconnect to past tradition. Hoppy lets the public buy into the bygone glory of the (possibly imaginary) Showa laborers — the “poor” we were before economic growth.

4) Nostalgia does not have to reflect actual past experiences. Like dagashi (old-timey candy), Hoppy is often met with the Japanese expression, “Natsukashii!” — something like “I haven’t seen this in a long time!” but with an evocative, nostalgic longing underneath. Although most expressions of natsukashisa come from the remembrance of actual childhood experience, it is safe to say that almost all modern-day consumers of Hoppy never drank it in their younger days. But with a skillful branding that places the beverage in a setting of “Showa Japan,” users fall quickly into this artificial nostalgia.

Hoppy shows that brands grounded in unique tradition or colorful history can successfully evoke nostalgia without prior experience on the part of consumers. Moleskine did this with their “19th century” leather-bound notebooks — embracing a product narrative of famous painters and writers that may be partially fictional. Japan is full of historical brands with potential for this re-branding and explicit connection with past culture, and I hope that we see more Hoppies in the near future.

(For more information, see this Japan Times article on Hoppy’s management.)

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Being Cool Means Being Hot

Friday, August 10th, 2007

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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.

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.

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.

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

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.