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Interview with Yoshiyuki Morii

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

This article originally appeared on MEKAS.

Yoshiyuki Morii is steadily becoming Japan’s most famous “personal stylist.” A young pioneer in the field, he works with clients of all ages and all types to improve their style, and hopefully, their self-confidence too. Recently, Morii has published a book Fasshon no Sukiru: Otona no ‘Kyouyou’ (our translation, Fashion Skills: What Adults Must Know) to spread contemporary fashion knowledge to a business audience who may not think they need to worry about the fit of their suit.

We sat down with Mr. Morii in our offices.

When did you first become interested in fashion?
When I was in middle-school or high-school. I went to an all boys’ school, and I liked to go on group dates with girls from the sister school. I was really bad at talking to girls, maybe because I was going through an awkward teenage phase. But I ended up wanting to use fashion to be more attractive to women. At that time, I would have used the kind of personal stylist service I do now had it existed. At that point, the internet had not really caught on, so there was no way I could have found out about personal stylist services. And I am not sure there was anyone doing it anyway. So I thought at that time, I will improve my fashion sense, and when I grow up, I will become a “personal stylist.”

Did you study fashion in college?
I was in the Law Department, but fashion was a big part of my life. But I forgot how much I liked fashion, and after graduation, I found a job as a manager at the English language school Nova. I liked English, but I decided I liked fashion more than English around 2004, and so I started my own home page and started to find customers as a personal stylist.

You did not think to work at an apparel company?
More than just liking clothing, I like selecting certain items out of a lot of choices. I want to find the things that customers are looking for. When you work in a store, you have to find things that fit the customer and also you have to think about the company’s earnings. So if you knew that there was an even better jacket at a different store, you can’t tell the customer. I wanted to create a neutral standpoint from which I could advise customers.

Have there been no personal stylists up to this point?
When I started my business in 2004, I thought no one else was doing it. But I can’t say I was the pioneer of the field, because six months after I started, I discovered that there was already another website called Fashion Rescue doing the same thing. So there were some people who were doing it before me.

Please tell us about what you do as a personal stylist.
Basically, I go shopping with clients who sign up for my services. My standard service is an hour-and-a-half. In that time, we go around to five or six shops. I select clothing that fits the client, and he tries them on. Then he buys what I think fits him and he personally likes and also is within budget. Right when I meet him, I also take a photo. That’s the “Before” shot.

We go shopping together, he buys some clothes, and at that point, I have him cut out the tags and change into the clothes. In the hour-and-a-half that we go around to the five or six stores, the person will have a totally different fashion style at the end of it. So we take a picture again at the end, the “After” shot. I send these shots to the customer, so he can see how much he has changed.

What is the window shopping course? What about the one-day stylist course?
With window shopping, we don’t plan on buying anything, but just try things on at the shop. And since it’s a try-out of the service, it only lasts 30-40 minutes.

The one-day styling course is the basic hour-and-a-half course. But there are some people who want to hear style lectures on top of that, so there is the First “Image Up” Course. The Fashion Sense Course includes first a color examination, and then afterwards we go shopping.

Which do clients want help on ― casual or formal fashion?
Both, but I get more requests for casual. With business suits, most people look good enough, even if they don’t necessarily look stylish. An example of casual: a mid-level manager salaryman will have to go on a group trip with employees. He knows he has no fashion sense, but he doesn’t want to look embarrassing to his staff. So he wants to know how to dress casually in a way that will be okay to the younger employees. I have a lot of clients like that.

Also, one-in-two 30 year-old Japanese men is unmarried. Last year the word kon-katsu (“Marriage Recruiting”) was a buzzword, and these men want me to help them pick fashion that they can wear to parties or clothes to wear to a dating service.

What is the average age of your clients?
The most are in their 30s. They are not all looking for wives, however. There are also a lot in their 40s and 20s. When you are in your 30s, you are pretty busy with work, so you can’t make any time to go and buy clothes. And since pure window shopping is a waste of time, they mostly want to just leave everything to a pro like me. They really need to shop efficiently.

Were your 30 year-old clients interested in fashion when they were younger?
About half of them. Those that were interested in fashion had fun buying their own clothes when they were in their 20s, but now they are busy with work and don’t want to spend their days off shopping. But they know their old clothes don’t work for private events, so most want to make a change. The other half are engineers, for example, and they never had much interest in fashion to begin with. So they have no idea how to choose their clothes. I would say about 20% are those who want me to teach them the basics.

In Japan, a lot of magazines teach you how to be stylish from zero. What can you get from a personal stylist that you can’t get from a Japanese magazine like Men’s Nonno?
Magazines take the position of providing the latest fashion information to those who are interested in trends. Personal stylists are for those who may have been knowledgeable about trends in the past but haven’t followed them lately. The standard for my clients is much lower. They may just wake up to the meaning of fashion after hearing my lecture. You have to know how to read magazines, but it’s very easy and fun to meet with a personal stylist directly and learn while shopping. Magazines are for more active customers, stylists are more passive customers.

Do your clients usually have a style they are trying to achieve?
Most of my clients do not know anything but their old style, so they do not know what is most flattering on them. The style that I usually recommend is “elegant casual.” I believe that 20th century fashion was about “the performance of self” but in the 21st century, fashion has become one of many crucial business skills. So “being in style” means having an appearance that matches the minimum social standard. I think “elegant casual” is best for that because it focuses on expressing style through elegance and playfulness.

There are many Japanese brands that make clothes in the “elegant casual” style. Do you choose which stores you go in regards to the customer’s budget?
Of course. When I have a customer who wants to spend ¥300,000 to 500,000, I first check with him, do you want to buy luxury goods? Or do you want to get some good stuff at reasonable prices?

Do you have shops you always use?
I use a lot of select shops like Edifice and Ships and also reasonably-priced chain stores like Uniqlo, GAP, and Suits Company. I am always researching what they have in stock before I go with clients.

I ask clients about their height/weight, budget, and desired items via email, and then before I meet them, I find styles that fit the conditions they laid out. And then I decide on which shops to use. There are about ten shops In Shibuya that I always consider, so I just choose the ones that fit my customers’ needs best.

How many stores do you hit in an hour-and-a-half?
Five to six. We start in Shibuya and then walk towards Harajuku on Meiji Street.

Do you go to department stores?
No. There are two reasons. First, they are much more expensive than select shops. Also, from the perspective of providing them a service, the department store has already put lots of brands and labels in one place, so the reason for having a stylist guiding you tends to disappear. I always go to standalone stores, because I also want to emphasize the entertainment/adventure part of it.

Do you ever tell your clients not to buy something?
Yes, of course. But usually I just tend to quietly recommend something I think it is better.

What do you do on days when you don’t have clients?
I update my homepage and blog, send out a e-mail newsletter. I also write columns for two or three web magazines. Last month, I published my first book, and in mid-April, my second volume comes out from Tokuma Shoten. So I am writing that at the moment.

Your first book is called “Fashion Skills: What Adults Must Know,” Is the readership of this book similar to your clients?
The book is for businessmen from their mid-20s to their early 40s. Regardless of their work, they want to change their fashion but do not have the time. I am targeting those who do not know what to do fashion-wise by themselves.

You seem to have a very specific belief about the role of fashion in society.
Originally, I became interested in fashion from the objective position of wanting to be attractive to women. The majority of those interested in fashion are interested in expressing their individuality. For them, their clothes should feel good and look good to themselves. Most people engaged in fashion think that way.

My personal goal with fashion was never myself but trying to impress women. Basically, I wanted to wear things that those around me would like, so at that point, it wasn’t at all about individual desires. I didn’t really understand if what I wore was acceptable or not. So I started this service in 2004, and now I have taken over 1,000 requests. The clients who have used me all have the same reaction. Of course, I make a website that says this and they see the webpage and want to use, but they all want to create a wardrobe that makes a positive impression on those around them. It’s not about being trendy or being different or making fashion be art. I am always thinking about what kind of style and selection best matches their needs.

For example, take jacket length. Right now, short jackets are in style, but if you go too short, it becomes a bit too trendy and about showing your individuality. At the same time, if the jacket is too long, it just looks old. So I very procedurally think about what length jacket would seem good to other people but not go too far.

Do you ever act as a personal stylist for women?
I do if women ask me, but I try to just be a specialist for men. If I do both sexes, I will have double the research.

In the book, you write, “Fashion is not about personal taste, but about knowledge.” I also saw this phrase in a recent men’s fashion magazine. For most fashion people, there is a strong belief that it all revolves around personal taste, but in Japan, magazines take the stance that if you follow the rules, you can be stylish. Why do you in particular think it’s not about personal taste?
I think, first of all, that “good taste” means different things in Japan and the rest of the world. When I say “taste,” I mean feeling over rules. Like, taste is, “I can’t explain why I like this but I can just feel it!” Certainly, maybe I am being extreme here, but I think fashion is too complex to just set up a system and logic and explain it that way. If you just say it’s all about “taste,” however, then there is no place for a personal stylist. There is no reason for me to make an effort to help people. I don’t think it’s a wasted effort if I can have those who are not interested in fashion start to use my knowledge and become better dressers.

Where do most clients go wrong with their outfits and clothes?
Silhouette is the number one problem. There are three points about silhouette I think are important.

From around 2000, silhouette became the most important thing in fashion, so if you wear clothes that fit your body neatly, even if you mess up with color coordination, the overall effect is still pretty good. What is too bad, however, is that men and women have a big difference in what they think “fitting well” means. Women put the emphasis on clothes that look very neat on a guy, where the guy only cares about being comfortable and having ease of movement. So if a guy thinks something is the right size, a woman is likely to say it’s too sloppy. I have a lot of customers who don’t realize this.

Right now, a lot of the big suit stores have more slim-fitting suits for young men. Do you think young people are dressing with better fit these days?
Yes, there is definitely a rise in slim silhouettes. But it still depends on the business sector. On average, the sloppy silhouette is still a big problem.

Do you think the “fashion gap” is related to income disparity?
I think it is to a certain degree. Ambitious and curious people rise to the top. So I don’t think it’s about just swallowing what other people say to you, but thinking for yourself. Those kinds of people succeed in fashion, work, and other things. Those people who have no interest and are forced to do it, they don’t succeed in work and fashion. As a result, there develops a gap, and it becomes a gap of character.

Right now, everyone says we live in an age of the ¥3 million salary, but I took a survey of my customers. Their average salary hovers around ¥5 million. I talked to 65 people, and five exceeded ¥10 million and about the same number for ¥8 million. So those who have a bit of money do use my services. But these more wealthy customers are not wearing clothing that fits their salary when I first meet them. In the process of working with them, they start showing a fashion sense more suited to them.

Do you think that fashion can solve the problem of wanting to appeal to the opposite sex?
This is a very important point. What I noticed in doing my service is that I used to think the best merit in changing your external appearance is improving your first impression. But the most important merit is changing the person from the inside. If you wear clothes that suit you, I think that connects to your confidence. Passive people can become a little more active.

After doing a survey of my customers, I found that when I took the 17 who were married or had girlfriends, one-out-of-three got a girlfriend after using a personal stylist. I don’t think that’s just because they improved their clothes, but I do think my service helped. I have had about 300 customers, and two of them have married after using my services. So I think changing their fashion sense helped them get started on that.

Why did you publish your book as a business book instead of a fashion book?
Men don’t really know if book stores have shelves for fashion books. I only figured it out after I started to write books. There are fashion magazines for men, but there are few books. So I realized, even if my book was in the fashion section, those who would want to read it may not be able to find it. I wanted to publish the book as a business book about fashion so that those going to buy marketing books would also notice my fashion book. I picked the publisher PHP Institute because they were so strong in the business area.

Why do you ask your customers not to wear black?
I think black is a very difficult color to pull off. Very fashionable people can use it, of course, but there are so many fashion beginners who think, “As long as I wear black, I am safe.”  So I wanted to reject this idea of black, which always seems to brainwash the people who read fashion magazines and do whatever is written there. Those who understand color know black can have a very distinguished image and feel unordinary. And when black is high-quality it’s nice because it can be matte or shiny. But if you buy a ¥3000 black cotton shirt, it will look really cheap. There is something unpleasant about seeing “sophisticated black” look cheap. It’s discomforting.

Guys who are fashion beginners don’t know how to buy high-quality things and try to get clothes for as cheap as possible. And so they buy cheap-looking black things. So I tell them it’s difficult to make black work.

Women, on the other hand, tend to be much better at style overall. They care about their hair and make-up and have a high-level minimum of what they wear every day. So if you are a woman, you can get away with more of an elegant, special style, meaning that it’s easier to use black. Guys have to be experts to really use black well.

What do women notice first in a man’s outfit?
Everybody always says this, but I think women notice shoes, because shoes are the thing men are most likely to ignore. So it’s very easy to look at a man’s shoe and understand his fashion level, because the guy is likely to think “No one’s looking” and just be lazy about it. Even when guys wear a jacket, if they don’t pay attention to their shoes, women will pick up on it. “He’s trying to be stylish now, but at heart, he isn’t.”

After shoes, it’s the belt. Even if you don’t wear a belt, there are a lot of guys who think that no one will see it. I think that everyone should pay attention to the very things they are most likely to not forget about.

Do you have clients who have “graduated” from your services?
There is no official “graduation” for my services, but after four or five times, clients do start to be able to figure out what I would choose for them. I can feel that they have greater cultivated their own tastes. So I recommend that they now can shop by themselves, but there are people who like shopping with me, so they still use my services.

What is the biggest business challenge for a personal stylist? And do you think there will be an increase in demand in the future?
At the moment, I have about 30 appointments a month. I get about 5-10 new ones each month, and the rest are repeaters. Last year, I had 25 appointments a mont, so I saw an increase of 60 total over the last year. The most clients I could possibly take in one month is 40, so if I get more demand than that, I could not do it by myself. So I am thinking about creating a salon-like select shop where I show clothing that I personally select. I am also thinking about training another generation of stylists.

Interview with Seiichi Mizuno

Friday, February 13th, 2009

This article originally appeared on MEKAS.

Seiichi Mizuno served as President of Seibu Department Stores in the early 1990s. As one of the core members of Seibu’s Shibuya branch from 1970 onwards, Mizuno directly oversaw and personally contributed to the rise of Japan’s world-class consumer marketplace. After stepping down from Seibu, Mizuno worked extensively with Netscape, while also serving in the House of Councilors as a member of the breakaway centrist and pro-environment New Party Sakigake. Now head of his own company Institute of Marketing Architecture Co., Ltd, Mizuno is a celebrated author, serves as a Director for some of Japan’s top companies, and campaigns for the protection of the natural environment.

We sat down with Mr. Mizuno in his Daikanyama office.

Tell us about your background before joining Seibu.

I grew up in Tokyo, and I did my undergraduate degree at Keio University’s Department of Economics.

Did you become interested in department stores while a college student at Keio?

I didn’t have any particular interest in department stores per se, but I was very interested in what Seibu was doing as a business. I did not want to work for “a department store” as much as I wanted to work for Seibu. I wasn’t interested in the prestigious department stores like Isetan, Mitsukoshi, and Takashimaya. I had the impression that Seibu was up to a lot of interesting things.

What was the image of Seibu in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

At the time, youth had grown bored with department stores. Seibu was the only department store trying to attract young people by offering the latest fashion.

More specifically, in 1968, Seibu’s Shibuya branch opened a shop called Capsule, which offered cutting-edge fashion. There was no other department store that was opening boutiques of that nature. Seibu sold culture for people obsessed with culture, which let the company express a completely new vision for the department store.

Was Seibu the first to target the youth market?

When I was younger, I believed that youth would take the leadership position in Japanese consumer culture and change Japanese fashion. During my student days, the Japanese brand VAN was at its peak, but the “Ivy Look” was still relatively niche in the total market. Seibu, however, thought VAN was interesting, so when VAN first moved out of Osaka for Tokyo, Seibu was the first department store to sell the brand, other than Hankyu. But since Hankyu did not have a big department store in Tokyo, Seibu was the only place you could really get it.

Isetan and Mitsukoshi didn’t sell VAN. So when I was in school, I was really influenced by the Ivy look and thought it was cool that Seibu sold it. I thought it was really interesting that Seibu tried to capture the feelings of youth. From that time on, youth had the strongest reaction towards new trends. It’s still true today. Youth are better than adults at picking up changes in trends. Compared to the U.S., the spending power of youth, even in that era, was much higher.

That was because the dankai baby boomer generation was enormous, and they became the leaders of consumer society in the post-war recovery. My baby boom generation was born in the post-war, and when they hit 17 or 18, Japan’s economic strength really kicked in and their parents suddenly had a lot of consumer power. When they started to want to live more luxuriously, they took an interest in trendy goods — especially things from overseas.

What’s different about Japan and overseas is the speed at which young people lead the market. In Europe, it’s totally unthought of that young people would spend lots of money on clothing and other goods. For the Japanese, the idea of “trends” is young people spending a lot of money on luxurious things. That started back in the ’70s.

Was Seibu also the only department store to pick up European fashion?

This was the era when Japanese designers started to go abroad, like when Kansai Yamamoto did his sensational show in London, or when Kenzo Takada opened his first boutique in Paris, or when Issey Miyake started to get accolades in Paris.

Even before that time, Seibu had tight relations with many foreign brands. Seibu brought Hermès to Japan and started to sell Yves Saint Laurent haute couture. Seibu is the Japanese company with the longest relationship with the Paris collections. That was one of the company’s strengths, but more than that, when Takada and Miyake came back to Japan after getting famous overseas, they made their triumphant return collection shows at Seibu.

I expected Seibu to become an innovative company in the realm of “information business.” The philosophy of Seibu owner Seiji Tsutsumi resonated with me.

Was Tsutsumi already famous when you were applying to work at Seibu?

He was well-known in the industry, of course, and he had started to attract a lot of attention. But those in old financial and political circles still saw Seibu as a second-rate department store. They only thought it was an upstart.

When I was about to graduate from university, I told my advising professor that I wanted to work at Seibu. He said, “Don’t do it. If you are going to work at a department store, go for Isetan or Mitsukoshi. I will write you a recommendation letter. Don’t go to Seibu. It’s a second class operation.” I told him, “I am not interested in department stores. Seibu is challenging the entire idea of department stores. I think they’re interesting.” We got into a big fight.

So, fashion people and youth all respected Tsutsumi, but the general thought was that Seibu was a second class department store.

What was the basic image of a department store in the 1960s?

Generally speaking, the department store was not for daily use but for “sunny day goods” — in other words, formal goods and non-daily goods. There was a lot of value in the wrapping paper of the department store. The paper showed that the product was bought at a department store, so it was a guarantee that it matched the store’s selection policy. When you sent presents to other people, just the act of buying the gift at a department store would make it very formal. The stores had that kind of high reputation.

Normally, people would not even buy specialty goods at department stores, since it was cheaper to buy them at local shops or big grocery stores. When I started working at Seibu, department stores were mainly patronized by older, conservative customers. Members of the upper classes were quite numerous, especially when it came to fashion. Young trendy people had already started moving away from department stores.

I have often read that department stores had a monopoly on introducing foreign culture to the Japanese public. For example, a lot of the big famous art exhibitions of the ’70s and ’80s were held at department stores, not museums.

Back in that era, there were not a lot of spaces for art exhibitions, so I think department stores were able to have a slight monopoly. And on that score, Seibu was one step ahead of the pack. The other department stores held exhibitions and brought art in from overseas, but the exhibitions were always for very established artists. For example, they would do an exhibition of impressionist art, while Seibu would show contemporary modern artists. Other department stores would do Renoir, and we would do Picasso. So we were able to make a distinction by trying to capture the feeling of the time and offer totally new culture.

And also, Seibu already had all the major foreign brands when the other department stores finally decided to bring them in. For a long time, the other department stores basically had no interest in foreign brands. They wouldn’t deal with them, and they weren’t dealt with. Seibu, on the other hand, was already was importing Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès.

Once I joined the company, we tried to introduce the trendiest stuff from around the world. Once French haute couture and pret-a-porter became too obvious, we went to Italy and found new brands like Armani, Versace, and Missoni. Seibu was the first to introduce them to Japan. Seibu was the first to offer the idea of moving the center of fashion from Paris to Milan. We always had access to the latest information from Europe.

Did Seibu help move the center of Japanese admiration away from America and towards Europe?

After the war, Japan drew almost all of its fashion influence from the United States. So for basic fashion, American style was very strong. Fashion is originally from Europe, however, and in the Meiji Era, Japan took most of its influence from Europe. I think that Seibu helmed the movement to bring the Japanese fashion eye back to Europe. We created an opportunity for that.

Once you joined Seibu, what was the nature of your work?

I joined in 1970, and I was sent to work in the womenswear department of Seibu’s Shibuya branch. I found this interesting for what it was. A year later, I moved to sales planning. I was given a lot of positions to pitch new plans. In 1984 I was made head of the Shibuya branch, and at that time, we opened Seed and Loft. Seed was one of the first high-end select shops. After that, we did the crafts-store Loft, and I acted as the Shibuya branch head for two-to-three years. In 1986, I joined the board of the Shibuya branch, and in 1988, I became a regular Director and moved back to the merchandise department. In 1990, I became the CEO of Seibu Department Stores.

I was a big fan of Seibu Shibuya back when it opened, so my connection to that particular store was very deep.

Was Shibuya always one of the core places for youth culture? 

Yes. And beyond youth culture, Shibuya was the spot for “culture” ― fashion and art. Ginza was for a rich, conservative crowd, but Shibuya was for more aggressive culture people. So, whatever Seibu did, the reaction would be a lot faster in Shibuya. Shibuya had a lot of value for Seibu. A lot of creators and artists lived there, so it was a really interesting market.

How did department stores develop while you were at Seibu?

Things changed. Department stores started to take on the image of “We have everything!” — from food to high-end jewelry to brand goods, but all of these were half-baked. Consumers matured and became unsatisfied with what the department stores offered.

One example: the brand boutiques inside of department stores. The floor-space of these boutiques is limited, so you have to limit the product line. When you do that, consumers will just go to the brands’ flagship stores that have the full product line and much larger selling space. This erases the entire charm of the department store brand boutique.

Also, customers started getting much older, so young people got fed up with the department store selection and started going to specialty shops. I believe these factors have changed the role of department stores. In the past, there was a time when the most cutting-edge customers would come to department stores, but those people have gone away little by little and now it’s only older conservative customers. That’s the biggest problem for department stores right now.

There was a time — about ten years ago — when department stores attracted a very wide swath of consumers, thanks to adding the high-end brand boutiques. But now, all the brands are available everywhere. Louis Vuitton is available in every department store. They spread out too much. So the department stores are again starting to face real hardship.

Do you think the department stores have too many branches?

There are too many stores in general, whether we are talking about supermarkets or shopping centers. Of course, department stores have the same problem. When it comes to Japan’s distribution channels, they have built too many stores. And each one has the same product lineup. Mitsukoshi, Isetan, Takashimaya, Seibu ― they all have the same merchandise. In Shibuya there is Seibu and Tokyu ― so you have the problem of whether you really need both.

When I was head of Seibu Shibuya, I thought department stores would get stuck with too many stores, so I thought we needed to aim to have Shibuya Seibu specialize on fashion or specialize on home furnishing products. For example, a department store is about 3300 m2, but you could split it up and have different areas — five specialty blocks of 660 m2 in the total space. You’d have the fashion area, the home furnishing area, the food area, like a complex. The concept would be completely different than a normal department store, so you bring together five specialty stores and get a completely different selection of merchandise.

But even if you don’t even have 3300 m2, you could just do a specialty store of fashion and home furnishing. If all the department stores are exactly the same and they are competing, whoever is biggest is going to win. Within Shibuya, Seibu can’t beat Tokyu. So we opened Loft and Seed with the idea of doing a complex of specialty shops.

Otherwise, the suburban and urban department stores are all seeing tough times, because there is no difference between them.

Isetan is currently viewed as the leader in the department store battle. What makes them different in your mind? 

Isetan is very strong in the field of fashion.

Another factor: most department stores have a division where salesmen go to the houses of reliable high-end customers. Mitsukoshi is very strong in this field. However, Isetan never really tried to do much of this. Isetan came up from the basic position of selling goods at the store. And today, out of all the department stores, Isetan has the most “own-risk” merchandise and can introduce new products earlier than anyone else. I think they are trying extremely hard compared to the other department stores.

However, if you look at Isetan’s revenue, only the Shinjuku branch is doing well. Isetan built too many stores. You can say this about all the department stores. The stores out in the provinces are doing very poorly. And since they are all competing out in the provinces, no one is a winner. They are all losing.

Can you talk about the role of consignment in department store inventory?

The consignment system has become a big part of all department stores. If you put a Louis Vuitton boutique right on the first-floor facing the road, a lot of customers will come in to buy Vuitton. But the margin that LV pays to the department store is very low. So even though the department stores provide the best space, only the revenue goes up. Profit does not increase. And this practice has only snowballed for the last twenty years. I do not think this is very sensible from a business perspective.

Merely chasing immediate sales means you do not put much energy into the own-risk business, but just push the responsibility onto the manufacturers and brands, who then sell things for you. Then you are in the business of just lending out space, which means revenue and sales both decrease. And when the number of customers goes down, the department store can’t bounce back. The department stores have fallen into a very tough situation.

Young people are not shopping at department stores these days, but they also have a lot less disposable income, relative to ten years ago. Do you think Japan still needs such a massive distribution channel at a high pricing premium? Should department stores lower their prices?

They most likely will be forced to lower prices. Until now, the Euro and Dollar were expensive and the Yen was cheap, so imports were going to be expensive. The last decade has been relatively ritzy so expensive things sold well and prices generally went up. There was also the problem of low yen and high material costs. But Japanese customers weren’t the ones supporting these high consumer prices: it was Chinese and Korean tourists. They would go to the Ginza department stores and buy high-priced goods.

Now with the current economic crisis, there are fewer foreign tourists, and department stores are doing poorly. So part of the reason why department stores have drifted away from their old way of consumption is that they were doing well over the last ten years. The department stores must have a business model where they can easily increase revenue when the global economy goes bad. But presently, the number of customers is down and the department stores are not trying very hard, so I think you can say that they are in an extremely difficult situation.

Lately the department store sector has seen a lot of mergers. Do you think this will lead to a long-term solution?

That’s a difficult question. I think it was inevitable that they started to do M&A.

What is difficult is that department stores each have their own unique internal culture. If you just add them together, there will be a lot of internal tension. And just inside a single department store chain, there are differences in local culture with each location, so even if you standardize them, you are not going to see success by selling the same product or standardizing visual merchandising at each location. Each location has a different culture of daily life, so you have to make the product selection reflect that. But that costs money, which limits how much you can pursue economies of scale. So with the mergers of the moment, will they absolutely improve the business? I think we already see that it hasn’t helped them. They are struggling.

In the 1990s, Seibu was not just a department store but created a special segment of consumer culture you could call “Saison Bunka”: PARCO, Mujirushi Ryohin, LOFT, SEED, WAVE, etc. The tone of that culture was close to the magazines of Magazine House, like Popeye and Brutus, emphasizing sophisticated urban culture and cutting-edge international art. But this culture has really seen setbacks over the last decade. Why do you think there was a decline?

After I left the Saison Group, Seiji Tsutsumi also left, and there was no one in the company to protect that unique corporate culture. It became all about chasing efficiency. Cultural activities were judged as a waste of money and cut. They stopped taking on charismatic products at their own-risk and changed the product line to un-risky things you could get anywhere. Soon there was no difference between Seibu and anywhere else. The “Saison Culture” got watered down. It’s too bad.

Japanese consumers these days do not seem particularly interested in new culture. Everything popular is very approachable, predictable, and low-risk. Japan had some of the most interesting consumer culture at the end of the 20th century, but that desire to keep up with the rest of the world feels a bit diminished.

It’s like you say. The era has changed. And it’s one reason why there are no longer any really novel things out there. Also, young people’s high level of sensitivity towards trends has faded. They want stability, almost to the same degree as the elderly.

As I say that, there are trendsetters in every generation. Even in the past, not all everyone young always knew about the latest things, but a certain faction of trendsetters would react well to new products. Opinion leaders would fly towards something, and it would go from there. Culture would progress in that kind of flow.

Even now, there are young people who have amazing taste, to a degree we could have never imagined when I was young. But I think you can say that department stores and specialty shops no longer have products that impress these youth. Fashion is becoming street fashion, and fashion leaders are becoming media celebrities out on the streets. In the past, the designers were the heroes. There was a time when everyone was grateful to see things the designers recommended, but now it’s changed to where the trends come from the street leaders. That’s a huge change. But I think there are certainly still trendsetters showing up in various fields. If you look at the big picture, we live in a time where international culture is everywhere in Japan. Young people of today should more actively feel excited about this, but compared to when I was a youth, they are definitely more subdued.

Lately, you have been extremely active in the field of environmental protection. Does it strike you odd that so many leaders of 20th century consumer culture are now becoming leaders for a new non-consumerist lifestyle?

I often talk about “culture and civilization.” In the 20th century, consumerism evolved and spread across the world as civilization. In that sense, our lives became very rich, and civilization moved forward. Conversely, however, looking from the perspective of “culture,” little by little we lost our “Japaneseness,” the Japanese lifestyle, and spiritual richness. If you ask Japanese people today, “Do you feel rich? Do you feel blessed?” there are so few people who say they feel rich. I will go to Bhutan this year, and we see the Bhutanese as people living in poverty, but they are extremely happy. From that perspective, I feel like civilized values and cultural values are totally different.

The 20th century only pursued civilized wealth, making things like 24-hour shopping and having light at all times possible. But since we only pursued that, the contradictions led to the development of our current environmental problem. In the 21st century, I think it is critical that we try to go back to 19th century values. I believe, by doing that, we can embrace our problems and find solutions.

Amongst those of us who promoted consumer society in the past, there is a slight feeling of guilt. We did what we did at the end of the 20th century, but in the 21st century, we think it’s necessary to have a different kind of “richness” ― to make a paradigm shift. I believe this will become a spiritual issue.

Do you believe that Japan can lead the world in this area?

Yes, I think so. I believe that Japan has a few cultural factors that make it a great example for the rest of the world. For example, as the Japanese word kachou fuugetsu [the beauties of nature] implies, I think we need to go back to paying attention to nature for completely understanding all the little seasonal changes.

I think we are in a deplorable situation where we are only waking up to the fact that Japan must take leadership after being told the merits of our country by Westerners. When you think about our 21st century environmental problems, Japan is the country with the least amount of natural resources. So I think it is important that Japan presents its values and its idea for a new lifestyle that preserves nature and values seasonal change.

Weezer Ruins the Internet

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008


Originally published in Anthem Magazine, 05/27/08

 In June, “alternative rock” band Weezer will release a brand new album of their amp simulator crunch and metronomic drums. And for the third time in six records, the album title will be Weezer. I guess Pinkerton and Maladroit were already taken.

Apparently inspired by the new possibilities of Internet promotion, the band came up with a clever strategy on how to make the video for first single “Pork and Beans” into a full-blown Internet sensation: round up all the other full-blown Internet sensations and coerce them into weaving their one-note shtick into the context of Weezer’s song. So we get the Diet Coke and Mentos guys combining Diet Coke and Mentos to a humorous effect. Tay Zonday – hot off his Dr. Pepper spokesmanship – sings the lyrics to “Pork and Beans” in front of his now-iconic home-studio mic stand. (While we are on the subject, why does everyone give Zonday such a free pass for selling out his polemic anthem against American racism “Chocolate Rain” to a soda company?) Somebody that closely resembles Kevin Federline, possibly K-Fed himself, shows up behind a mixing board. Miss South Carolina – the “map shortage” girl – wields a light saber à la Star Wars Kid because “failed answers to pageant questioning” is not a sufficiently visual gag.

Although a probably candidate for “Buzz Bin” status, the sins of this video are manifold. First and foremost, Weezer outright stole the idea of “internet memes on parade” from the Barenaked Ladies video “Sound of Your Voice” – which is notably less cool than stealing ideas from old Can records or The Cremaster Cycle.

But there is something more fundamentally gut-wrenching about this “mash-up” of rock music and Internet time-wasters. All of the videos’ “guest stars” only managed to ascend to blog-hero status due to a single feat or defeat. I am not being unfair to Tay Zonday by saying he is the guy who moves away from the mic to breathe. As far as the universe is concerned, that is his entire act. Putting all these stray individuals together in the same cramped video is collecting the “I Didn’t Do It” Boys of our generation and asking them to painfully mug their one-hit-wonderfulness for the camera.

The Internet has profoundly changed our concept of entertainment, most directly by making every instance of laughably-amateurish performance from all over the globe available for public consumption. Our collective mockery has forged a new class of celebrities straight from the salt of the earth. But the basic YouTube context is crucial: would the “I move away from the mic to breathe” or repetitive melody of “Chocolate Rain” work as scripted jokes or a Saturday Night Live sketch? The humor requires a palpable lack of self-awareness on the part of the actor. Nothing is therefore less funny than having Mr. Zonday come out from behind the computer screen and get in on the joke. With “Pork and Beans,” Weezer strangles all remaining joy of our new century’s sole cultural innovation by giving these unintentional comics a chance at redemption and self-acknowledgment on cable TV.

Weezer may have meant well. They may have wanted to show solidarity with today’s young nerds. And they can go all the way back to the D&D and X-men references in the lyrics of their 1994 song “In the Garage” to prove the necessary cred on this front. But the use of these new media nerds and their memes in a “music video” does not breed the intended result. Instead of redeeming their guests, Weezer unwittingly reinforces the traditional pop cultural hierarchy. The royal “rock band” has charitably invited these slightly-pathetic YouTube refugees to participate in a televised celebration of their own shittiness. Hey, Weezer could do another video at the Playboy Mansion – they’re rock stars, you know – but they thought it would be more fun to take that “Zay Tonday” guy under their wings for a day. I am sure the catering was great, but when the video shoot is over, Weezer goes back to being a rock band with fans and respect and a master key to Hef’s. Tay Zonday goes back to being the “Chocolate Rain guy.”

Imagine someone famous in 1994 pulling this kind of public cruelty. Like if U2 thought the whole “generation X alternative rock” thing was a cute fad and invited that flash-in-the-pan band Weezer to do a video where they sing Zooropa‘s “Lemon” in their “Buddy Holly” style next to contemporaries Beck (“Loser”) and Radiohead (“Creep”). Slackers would have sent blistering missives charging “exploitation” to the letter bag at 120 Minutes for years to come. But in 2008, the interent [sic] is ecstatic about their double-dip of public derision, “Look, we’re on TV!”

If Sum41 or Ashley Simpson or Avril Lavigne Whibley had done a video like “Pork and Beans,” I would give it a pass, because hey, they might possibly believe in their hearts that “This stupid Internet shit is our generation’s Woodstock.” The middle-aged guys in Weezer, on the other hand, have gotten to that “Uncles of Rock Music” stage, and anything they do with Internet memes is just going to automatically come off as patronizing. Rivers Cuomo is inviting “Mr. 22 million views” Tay Zonday and “Mr. 86 million views” Evolution of Dance Guy to be in a video that so far only has 2.6 million views? What a mensch. If you want to see the real “dawn of the Internet,” wait until Weezer is begging to do a cameo in a Tay Zonday clip.