Archive for the ‘Consumer Behavior’ Category

Trendspotting in Post-Consumer Japan

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Beer as Metaphor

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from 1953 Asahi Beer advertisement.

The MacroTrends BehindTop Early 2008 Products

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

On June 18, Nikkei Marketing Journal (MJ) offered a refereed list of the top 36 products from the first half of 2008 within a mock sumo wrestling ranking chart. (Click here for an explanation of the makuuchi sumo rankings.) The winners were:

EAST

Yokozuna Private brand foods: Ion’s Top Value, Seven Eleven Premium

WEST

Yokozuna Zero calorie, zero sugar beers (Zero Nama, Style Free, Kirin Zero, Sapporo Viva! Life)

Ohseki – ¥50,000 laptops Ohseki – Mobile phones with Aquos-, Wooo-branded screens
Sekiwake – Carbon offsetting SekiwakeGinren Chinese bank debit cards that work in Japan
Komusubi – Bulb-shaped fluorescent lights Komusubi – Konaka’s shower-clean suit
MaegashiraMitsui Outlet Park Maegashira – New train lines: the Fukutoshin (Tokyo) and Green Line (Yokohama)
– Wacoal’s Crosswalker men’s girdle – Uniqlo’s Bra-top
– Nissin’s milk seafood noodles – Lotteria’s “Unrivaled Cheeseburger
– Nintendo’s Wii Fit
Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G (PSP game)
Kuru Toga pen – Takara Tomy’s Pen’z Gear pens made for “spinning”
– Electric cars – Marathon goods
– Kao’s Megurism hot eye mask – Lion’s Kaori-tsuzuku laundry detergent
Clear Force air filter/humidifier hybrid – Digital photo frame
Clorets Ice Moffle (mochi + waffle) maker
“The Elephant Who Makes Dreams Comes True” Kani Kousen proletarian fiction that sold over 300,000 copies
Keshipon stamp that covers up personal information – Bandai’s Bubbly Bubble Bath soap shaped as ¥10,000 bills (a pun on “Bubbly” in Japanese meaning “of the Bubble era”)
Jero (American enka singer) Aoyama Thelma (R&B singer, one-quarter Trinidadian)
Atsuhime (TV show about the Bakumatsu era) Idiot characters (Shuuchishin) and one-man/woman stand-up comics (Edo Harumi)
– First-class on domestic flights – Airbus 380 jumbo jet

Technical Skill Award: Apple’s MacBook Air
Talk of the Town Award: Speedo’s Lzr Racer swimsuit
Consolation Prizes: Gasoline, frozen gyoza

Underlying MacroTrends in this Ranking List

The main macrotrends for these products almost perfectly match those of Marketing Journal‘s last list, suggesting big structural movements in consumer behavior rather than mere fads.

The categories this time:

1)  Middle-Age Consumers Rule

Remember when youth consumers in Japan set all the trends and led consumer culture in general? These days, it’s all about rich retirees and middle-aged men, and these groups’ number one concern is losing belly fat. So, welcome to the world of “zero sugar” beer (to be eaten with fried fatty foods, apparently). Older Japanese are also continuing their exploration into video games with Wii Fit. Those that don’t hit the Wii Fit board enough or run marathons can just wear a Crosswalker men’s girdle and look much slimmer.

In terms of pop culture at large, Jero — the world’s first professional African-American enka singer — is a more about giving new faces to old musical styles rather than youthful innovation. His fans seem to be mostly middle-aged women.

2)  Eco Eco Eco

Ecologically-conscious products are still hitting the market in large numbers, and consumers seem to be reacting positively. More companies are offering carbon offsetting services. Fluorescent bulbs have gained popularity by working 20% longer than traditional bulbs. Electric car sales are up 7% for the first quarter of 2008.

Although not mentioned in this article, eco bags are still a big part of young women’s casual fashion (especially the white-blue-and-red eco bag from select shop Cher).

3)  Class-Bifurcated Market

Like in our last installment, we see two key product price points: those that intentionally target “value” and “savings” and those that aim for conspicuous excess. Private label foods from Ion and Seven-Eleven took the top spot for intentionally targeting “savings-minded” consumers. ¥50,000 laptops from Taiwan are popular for their cheap price. Mitsui’s Outlet Malls in Saitama etc. let shoppers obtain designer labels at bargain prices. The “shower-clean” suit is a technological marvel but not exactly going to be the favorite of Japan’s millionaires. Marketing Journal even dares to link the popularity of proletarian novel Kanikousen (Crab-Canning Boat) with the current conditions of the expanding “working poor.”

On the flip side, the “Winners” of the social class game are demanding first-class seats for their domestic air travel, with 80% of JAL’s premium seats booked and ANA introducing the service in April. Although not exactly “high-end,” Lotteria’s “Unrivaled Cheeseburger” offers luxury beef and natural cheese sandwiches at a somewhat lofty price point. For those who want to act rich at a low cost, Bandai’s “Bubbly Bubble Bath” lets you waste mock money in the bath tub.

4)  Non-Internet Technological Progress

No Internet-related software or culture made the listings. The only piece of pure software was Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G for the PSP. The digital photo frame is a way of bringing new technology into the living room, and the kind of non-computer gadget that Japan is famous for. The phones with special branded screens re-confirm the centrality of “mobile net” over computer-based net in Japanese life. Japanese manufacturers continue to see their job as “making gadgets” rather than making “technology.”

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Non-Politics of Keffiyeh and Bohemians

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

The big meta-trend for Japanese fashion this spring/summer is “bohemian,” which mainly manifests in loose white cotton tunics and flower-print dresses. Opposed to being a homegrown trend, this new interest in hippie aesthetics is a global fashion industry directive imported into Japan. This year boys got “American/British Trad” and girls got “Bohemian.” As a result, the young Japanese bohemians of 2008 reflect none of the “unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints” inherent to historical Bohemianism (Wikipedia). The trend is purely visual — a relaxed look using loose natural fabrics, ethnic patterns, and Native American headbands. Dropping any sort of philosophical depth has thus allowed the look to fit equally in the pages of serious high-fashion mag Spur and office-lady-friendly CanCam. In fact, there is an inverse proportion at work: the greatest adopters of the bohemian look tend to be the least likely to have an interest in arty things.

Slightly related to the bohemian trend is the prominent use of keffiyeh amongst both Japanese men and women. The traditional Middle Eastern patterned scarves have been popular in hipster circles overseas as well, but the fashion information complex in Japan has once again been able to mainstream a global look to a degree seen nowhere else.

In the West, the keffiyeh have sparked a debate over perceived pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel meanings. In the past, Leftist-types intentionally embraced the keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. Recently Urban Outfitters tried to sell the scarves as simple accessories, but complaints forced them to pull them (before quietly bringing them back in non-traditional colors and a new name: “desert scarves.”) The Japanese industry will not have to worry about such political debates; just as bohemianism is only a visual aesthetic, a keffiyeh is just something that looks cute with a sleeveless t-shirt and work-pants. Moreover, Japanese retailers aren’t even calling them keffiyeh (クーフィーヤ) but “afghan stoles” (アフガンストール), based apparently on the “afghan”-style in which they are worn. (An internet search for the word “keffiyeh” in Japanese points to its historical definition rather than a shop list.)

With the item’s name redefined to point miles away from the Palestinian conflict and the patterns reformed to embrace trendy houndstooth-check, Japanese shoppers have few reference points to connect their fashion choices back to a global political context. Many argue that all Japanese culture inherently detaches the signifier from the signified, but this is not entirely true. Japanese punks may not be delinquent enough in behavior, but they are clearly attracted to the aesthetics of punk anger and rebellion. In a similar way, keffiyeh were very popular around 2001 amongst Ura-Harajuku street fashion boys, who found a tough militaristic meaning in the scarves to match their camouflage pants. They may have not known specifics about the PLO, but the context of armed struggle played into the item’s styling.

The keffiyeh used in this year’s fashion, however, are completely politics-free, primarily a result of the process of importation and mediation. Fashion magazines and retailers could easily explain or reference the historical backdrops to both bohemianism and keffiyeh, but they intentionally do not. Why? The broader cultural context would only make these trends’ adoptions more difficult for consumers. If the item is specifically shown to signify a philosophy or political position, the consumer would then be making a “statement” in choosing to wear it. CanCam girls would suddenly have to worry about whether they are “bohemians” instead of “in style.”

In general, Japanese fashion is not about statements: it’s about following a set of seasonally-changing rules within a chosen subculture. So the industry is best off pretending like these fashion items are just trends, eliminating all possible barriers for consumers. Depth and context are minefields for selling Japanese fashion.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The End of Gyaku-Yu’nyū

Friday, April 11th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Generation KY

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Ever since the term “KY” topped the Buzzwords of 2007 at the end of last year, a million adults now cruelly and painfully abuse this popular youth expression in an attempt to sound au courant. KY (pronounced kei-wai) is an abbreviation of the phrase “kuuki wo yomenai” 「空気を読めない」— a pejorative description of someone who fails to “read the atmosphere.” In other words, those branded KY do not act properly in context of their respective social situation. If you are really bad at breaking the mood, you can be deemed “SKY” for “super KY” (pronounced like the English word “sky.”) There is now even an entire book dedicated to explaining this kind of romanized Japanese slang called 『KY式日本語—ローマ字略語がなぜ流行るのか』(“Why are KY-form romanized Japanese slang words trendy?”)

Japanese youth make up a smaller and smaller proportion of society every year, but they are still managing to confound their parents in unexpected ways. Both magazines Takarajima and Senden Kaigi have recently published special issues all about young Japanese, and opposed to tirades against wayward children from the past, the editors do not decry kids’ new and devious forms of delinquency, but struggle to explain their lack of creative social destruction. Kids are criticized as being uninspired, lethargic, and non-confrontational. Despite a social and economic system stacked against them, they aren’t fighting society, nor even amongst themselves. Drinking and smoking are out, as is conspicuous consumption. Since parents are no longer evil authority figures, Omotesando is filled daily with young daughters happily shopping with their mothers. In this new social paradigm, marketers and commentators no longer know how to research youth motivation. An interview with social psychologist Kayama Rika in Senden Kaigi boasts the telling article title: “Why can’t we read the minds of youth?” 「なぜ若者の心が読めないのか?」(It is telling that marketers once thought they could.)

In this backdrop, adults have thus latched on to the word KY as a clear linguistic expression of young people’s internal group dynamics. If being “KY” is the number one fear for teenagers, surely this suggests a “herd mentality,” where no one wants to stick out and adherence to implied social rules is critical for maintaining human relations. So thinks Narumi Hiroshi — Associate Professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design and fashion history expert. While previous fashion movements such as hippies, punks, and the head-to-toe black Karasu-zoku (“crow tribe”) dressed to express an anti-social statement, he sees the current fashion emphasis on “real clothes” and “cleanliness” as a product of pressures towards conforming to a group standard. Narumi believes that young people generally prioritize harmonizing with their close friends over self-expression.

KY thus becomes a very convenient way to sum up all of the identified attributes of Gen Y in a single phrase: a lack of curiosity and motivation, an obsession with “life-sized” (等身大) media figures, a satisfaction with being average, an emphasis on immediate social groups, and a disinterest in being anti-authority.

Although this current discussion posits the KY traits as “new” to the current generation, the standard Western criticism of Japanese society reads almost identically: i.e., over-adherence to group norms trumps individual expression. I find it hard to believe that Generation Y invented this concept of “reading the air” for the entirety of Japanese culture. Surely previous generations have also fallen prey to similar pressures. Other post-war generations, however, enjoyed countervailing forces to foster a sense of curiosity, a will to individual expression, and a desire for social change. Being under the imperialist American pop cultural umbrella created an inferiority complex that pushed Japanese artists towards higher and higher standards. Radical Marxism became a rallying point for political activity in the 1960s. Hyper-consumerism in the 1980s and 1990s gave wealthy kids an incentive to manufacture new aesthetic modes to set themselves off from an increasingly trend-conscious mass market. Now with politics and consumerism dead and a reaffirmed self-confidence in Japanese culture, youth no longer possess an ideology that encourages “change.” Japanese social critics seem most confused that today’s kids are starting to backtrack from 50 years of greater “individualism,” reverting to more conservative forms of Japanese social organization.

No one seems to mention, however, that the collapse of the cultural markets (music, fashion, etc.) have created less opportunities for young artists to stand out on the national stage. In other words, even if kids break out of this “herd mentality,” how would we know? Unlike the 1990s, there are no more investors handing out stores to club kids, nor masses of consumers to support niche indie labels. Without any incentives or rewards for young people to break the social rules and stand out, why do we expect them to do so? The fear of KY may be a very old condition for Japan, but the natural social antidotes have all dried up.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Booms Go Bust

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Japanese fashion subcultures can sometimes appear a little too “orderly.” Gothic-lolitas are 120% “gothic-lolita.” Hip hop kids are perfectly constructed “hip hop kids.” Everything is obvious and cleanly delineated. Glancing at most books about Japanese pop culture history, subcultures appear to have always been organized into immaculately-distinct units. For example, 1955 was the year of the Mambo Style, 1956 was the year of the Sun Tribe (Taiyo-zoku), and 1957 was the year of the Calypso Style. A socialist Pop Culture Politburo could only dream of such efficiency in trend adoption and abandonment.

Both the Japanese media and pop historians generally conceptualize post-war popular culture as a linear progression of “booms” (ブーム) — the Japanese word for short-lived “fads” that define their respective eras. The book Japanese Trend Timeline Seen Through Charts (『チャートでみる日本の流行年史』) is a prime example of this boom-centered perspective on constructing a narrative within Japanese culture. According to the book, Freshly Baked Cheesecake was all the rage in ’91, but ¥500 Cheesecake took over in ’93. Even the nature of romantic relationships changed on a yearly basis: The bakappuru (“idiot couple”), for example, was something that happened in 1995. This approach owes a lot to the Japanese media’s own over-obsessive reporting on minor social changes. In 1986, “DINKS” — couples with double-income no kids — were all the rage in the media and marketing worlds, but it’s hard to imagine this particular demographic disappeared after everyone moved on to obsessing over gyaku-tama (逆玉, men marrying rich women for their money) a few years later. The media just needed a new story.

Whether or not booms seem like a product of media excess, the market ended up organizing itself around predictable patterns of short-lived trends. By setting up each year as the nest for a different “boom,” cultural producers were able to reduce risk. The usually fickle youth consumer behavior could become as planning-friendly as steel or coal. No one could perfectly forecast exactly what would boom in a few years’ time, but they knew something would.

The cover story in the February 1, 2008 issue of marketing journal Senden Kaigi — “All About Youth” (「若者のすべて」) — gives credence to the idea that booms had long been a “top-down” cultural trend rather than a “bottom-up” one. In an interview with several editors for teen magazines, Nicola‘s editor-in-chief Matsumoto Mihoko gives an interesting quote about the difficulty of marketing to teens in recent years (translation and bold mine):

When we started publishing Nicola 11 years ago, it was an era where girls in the target readership felt a sense of hunger towards fashion. So, it was easy to create booms.

Here the media does not see its natural job as merely reacting towards consumer tastes, but creating the booms themselves. The article goes on to explain (translation mine):

Apparently it is growing much more difficult for those booms manufactured by the media or companies to permeate (into society) as they did in the past.

Japanese companies in the cultural industries have not always succeeded in pushing products on consumers, but they should probably take most of the credit for creating the society-engulfing booms that really mattered. Now that consumers are much more dispassionate about following media-created styles (either a sign of Western-style individualism or hikkikomori-style solipsism, depending on whom you ask), the result has not been more consumer-driven booms, but less booms total. Booms always needed media and manufacturer coordination to make the boom visible on national level, put the products in stores at the ideal time, and then pull the rug out from under everyone in a year’s time to make room for something new. Now that consumers are behaving more freely from the “mass media,” tastes have diffused and consumer needs no longer change on the exact same schedule as the industry’s seasonal framework. Booms no longer fit the market.

Not to say there are no booms: the Keitai Novel phenomenon definitely qualifies (the book industry launched a coordinated television campaign to make Mika’s Koizora into a mass success). Fashion magazines last autumn called for girls to go out and buy pink color tights, and suddenly the streets of Omotesando were glowing with fuchsia knees poking out between miniskirts and leather riding boots.

But there does need to be a reconceptualization of the relationship between producers, consumers, and the media. Japanese manufacturers have been spoiled in the past with too much power over editorial-voice-for-rent Japanese magazines and a populace generally interested in consuming the exact same things as everyone else on a strict timetable. Now that the media is losing its authoritarian voice, youth are broke (or saving for the future), and consumers are more interested in their own needs rather than fitting in with “society at large,” perhaps companies will have to rethink the cultural forcefeeding and start… marketing?

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

O-nii-kei Blazes On

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

For the last six months, Japanese male fashion fans have been waiting in great anticipation for the opening of department store Hankyu‘s new Men’s building in Osaka — aptly named Hankyu Men’s. This annex to the main building would bring together the widest selection of top-class and popular fashion brands every assembled under one roof. Designer brands Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Dior Homme, and Maison Martin Margiela would be available, as well as luxury powerhouses Gucci, Prada, and Salvatore Ferragamo. More traditional-minded working men could browse Paul Stuart, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, and Ralph Lauren Purple Label. Tom Ford would offer his very first retail space in Japan.

Last weekend, Hankyu Men’s finally opened for business, attracting 180,000 shoppers in three days. According to the Senken Shimbun, Louis Vuitton first-ever men’s only boutique apparently brought in the highest revenues of any tenant (thus proving that LV is not only for women in Japan).

The number two winner, however, was quite a surprise. With almost all the first-tier brands lined up for direct competition, this was quite possibly a battle for the mind and soul of the Japanese fashion market. Even with so many European luxury houses, designer labels, Ivy League standards, and prestigious licenses offered, the brand earning the second-highest sales ended up being Buffalo Bobs — a leader in the relatively new “O-nii-kei” fashion subculture. In three days, this up-and-coming “wild and sexy” casual brand raked in ¥9.9 million.

O-nii-kei — meaning “big brother style” — has crystallized over the last few years as a more market-friendly, classically-masculine version of the “gyaru-o” taste culture. The gyaru-o were the young men who used to hang out with the more extreme “ganguro” members of the gyaru subculture in Shibuya. Now these boys have grown up, abandoned the crazy face paint and garish clothing, and outfitted themselves with aviator glasses, fur-trimmed nylon parkas, buccaneer boots, poofy bronzed hair, and as much silver as could be possible worn on the human body. (Think hosts). The central location for O-nii-kei is Shibuya (more specifically, fifth and sixth floors of Shibuya 109-2), but the look has spread across the archipelago. (For some visual examples of the style, check Patrick Macias’ excellent coverage here, here, and here.)

With the fashion market slowly crumbling and foreign “Japan Cool” hunters looking for the next big thing amongst Japanese youth, you’d think more observers in the Japanese and international media class would be falling all over O-nii-kei. Here is a self-contained fashion movement that has created a real economic market, despite little attention from the apparel manufacturing giants and media support dependent upon independent fashion titles Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle.

The darkly-tanned boys of O-nii-kei, however, are not about to make the cover of Men’s Non-no. I think it is fair to say that the “wild & sexy” style is held as anathema by the tastemakers in the fashion industrial complex. O-nii-kei is basically the latest incarnation of the “yankii” subculture that has been the aesthetic canon for working class delinquent youth tastes since the 1970s. Although alternately romanticized and demonized in the culture at large, yankii have always existed as an outcast from the fashion industry and “proper” consumerism. O-nii-kei is in essentially the same position today. The “serious” men’s fashion magazines may take a bit of “street” style into their wardrobe authorizations, but never touch anything approximating O-nii-kei, which they generally consider “unclean.” (Although there have been rumors that struggling Takarajima publication Smart may take up some O-nii-kei touches…)

So here we have a typical problem in the Cool Industries: The actual youth subculture that is “winning” in terms of sales, growth, and momentum is ghettoized because those at the top do not personally approve of the style. In the past, bottom-up groundswells have forced magazines to realign their fashion sense to meet the changes in consumer tastes. But in most cases, those “new styles” — like Shibuya Casual (shibukaji) in the late ’80s and Ura-Harajuku in the mid-’90s — started amongst upper middle-class youth — in other words, magazines’ main consumer base. O-nii-kei, however, is so tied to a (perceived) lower class taste culture that fashion market “leaders” Popeye or Men’s Nonno could not possibly speak its language without destroying their own up-market position and credibility with advertisers (who are in reality their most important target audience). But currying mainstream magazines’ favor may be a moot point. Buffalo Bobs and Vanquish haven’t needed the main fashion press to get where they are, so why start now?

There is a bigger question at stake, however: trend-spotters and cool-hunters have told us for the last decade that mass fashion trends trickle-down from a street-savvy “style elite,” who just happen to be very similar in tastes to the cool-hunters themselves. Now we see that this does not necessarily have to be true. There are lots of taste culture niches moving in parallel motion, and despite less social capital and cultural capital, niches at the bottom will be able to concentrate enough economic power to make the biggest splash in sluggish markets. Like with Akiba-kei, the O-nii-kei are no longer just consumers active in their own “alternative” market: They are the only consumers consuming enough to matter!

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Shibuya-kei vs. Akiba-kei

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

The new compilation CD AKSB is making headlines by bringing together two Japanese taste cultures generally considered as incompatible as oil and vinegar: the anime-obsessed otaku world of Akihabara (aka “Akiba-kei”) and the 1990s super-chic internationalist music, fashion, interior, and design movement referred to as “Shibuya-kei.”1 In this spirit of union, French lounge DJ legend Dimitri from Paris provides the theme song “Neko Mimi Mode” for the anime series Tsukuyomi -Moon Phase- while Pizzicato Five‘s Konishi Yasuharu — the Godfather of Shibuya-kei — remixes the theme song for cartoon Sgt. Frog (「ケロロ軍曹」). Besides those two icons, few superstars of Shibuya-kei make an appearance on the record, but with “Akihabara Pop” (aka “A-Pop”) carving a profitable niche in the doddering music market, the remaining few practitioners of the Shibuya-kei sound were probably happy to affiliate their genre with the otaku cash-cow.

Despite the “kei” designation (generally meaning “style”), Akiba-kei and Shibuya-kei are very different beasts, occupying different sections of the consumer spectrum and the schoolyard hierarchy. Shibuya-kei was basically a musical movement amongst an indie elite, while Akiba-kei describes a wider subculture of nerdy fantasy obsession. They both, however, have received media attention for “defining” their respective eras, and the differences between them help illustrate how Japanese pop culture has changed in the last 15 or so years. If Shibuya-kei represented the 1990s, what does Akiba-kei culture have to say about the first decade of the 21st century?

Both subcultures strongly share one thing: The members are “nerds” in the sense of being deeply obsessed with pop culture. Shibuya-kei pioneers Flipper’s GuitarOzawa Kenji and Oyamada Keigo (aka Cornelius) — made waves in the early ’90s market by introducing esoteric elements of British neo-acoustic, Madchester, French pops, Italian film soundtracks, late ’60s Moog records, ’60s mod jazz, and Brazilian bossa nova into Japanese-language pop songs. When asked about the source of their cool, they would offer, “We are basically just music nerds (otaku),” an honest self-reading. But because they were more knowledgeable about exciting foreign musical genres than almost everyone else, the media framed them as style leaders for young fashionable types on the lookout for the newest thing.

Akiba-kei fans are also obsessed with collecting and amassing information about pop cultural items, but notice the difference in interests: Instead of importing unknown foreign materials into the domestic cultural pool, Akiba otaku are interested in ruminating about domestic items and creating fan works based on these existing elements. Akiba culture is generally focused around the insular “uchi” — a term in Japanese encompassing the concepts “us” and “inside” and “at home.” The famously-introverted Akiba otaku not only confine their gaze to mostly domestic product but consume it privately or within confined social groupings. Shibuya-kei, on the other hand, focused on the “soto” — the “outside” world in the sense of both the wider “trend community” and international culture at large. Although there has always been a certain level of social discrimination against adults obsessed with video games, comic books, and cartoons, the main otaku culture has rarely been able to take on a “leadership” position for the media in that they do not offer or produce new elements for non-otaku to enjoy. They enjoy locally-produced Japanese culture, and for the media, this is old hat.

So the question is, why is Akiba-kei so “successful” at the moment when it had been perpetually dismissed as (slightly dangerous) nerd culture in the past? Shibuya-kei’s moment is much easier to explain: They were the latest elite in a general post-war Japanese trend of introducing “superior” foreign culture to a hungry consumer society. Akiba culture today still endures the same social prejudices since its dawning in the early ’80s, but suddenly the Japanese media has decided that “otaku are cool.” Some of this may be a misunderstanding of the “Japan Cool” concept: Since those foreigners think the cosplay guys, toy collectors, and goth-loli girls are “a super rad dudes,” I guess we should also pay them respect as our cultural leaders.2

More likely, however, is that the classic Japanese consumer trait of hoarding and collecting items has become rarer in recent years due to reduced consumer spending. At present, the Akiba otaku are the only widespread, definable group whose culture remains based on purchasing lots of items as a means to demonstrate fandom (ignore the New Rich’s conspicuous consumption for the moment). The media and producers celebrate the otaku as “model consumers,”3 secretly hoping that more mainstream Japanese will learn a thing or two from their passion for culture and consumerism. More importantly, things have gotten so bland in the contracting youth culture world that the “every-day-is-Halloween” weekend excitement of Akihabara beats everything else in terms of pep and pomp.

The developments in the media environment have also changed the cultural role for niche groups. The internet has made an “information-based elite” like the Shibuya-kei posse obsolete. When information was highly-valued, the individuals behind Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five could claim faster access to more foreign cultural information than the general population. The Net destroys this power imbalance by extending access to niche information and shortening the time lag between trend-setter cultural adoption and “majority” adoption. Due to this simple fact, the global fashion elite have always maintained a sort of disdain or nonchalance towards the Internet. (A certain ex-Shibuya-kei star is currently organizing grass-roots concerts by passing around fliers and asking fans to not mention the details on the Web.) Instead of fighting technological change, Akiba-kei otaku skillfully use the internet as a way to discuss and consecrate their favorite cultural items and disseminate new works to their community. This has only made the subculture stronger. In fact, Akiba-kei culture is the most appealing content attraction for the Japanese Internet at the moment.

In the end, the Akiba-kei subculture has won a top spot in the contemporary pop landscape because its culture has been least affected by the last decade’s democratization of media and the decline in the culture markets. Shibuya-kei’s aesthetic sense now seems passé, but moreover, the media complex no longer has much use for that breed of cutting-edge indie culture engaged in obscure international art and music. Insularity is not just limited to Akiba-kei in contemporary Japan, but defines the youth generation as a whole. With everyone dropping out of Cool Race 2000, predictable melodies and melodrama are the safer bet than trying to outcool your audience.

No one embodies this cultural shift more than young producer Nakata Yasutaka, who launched his unit Capsule in 2001 as a “Neo-Shibuya-kei” project trying to update Pizzicato Five’s bossa nova dance sound with modern music technology. Despite massive major label backing, he did not really gain much of an audience until abandoning the dated ’90s production and signing up as the producer for very-Akiba-kei “techno idols” Perfume. His cutesy digital robot pop propelled the girls to stardom and made Nakata a hero to obsessive otaku idol fans around the country. In the 21st century, international hipster cool cannot hold a candle to dancing, singing robotic Japanese dolls.


1 O-nii-kei magazines like Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle have started using the word “Shibuya-kei” in reference to their own style. This is accurate in a certain sense — this style is based in Shibuya — but confusing since the original Shibuya-kei already staked out that geolexical terminology. Maybe this is like the word “Emo” first describing bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring in the 1990s and then the sonically-unrelated My Chemical Romance in ’00s.

For those wondering why “Shibuya-kei” was called “Shibuya-kei” in the first place, the word came from the popularity of certain “Western-sounding” Japanese musicians at HMV and Tower Records in Shibuya. The neighborhood itself never really embodied their ’60s-revival aesthetic.

2 I don’t want to harp on this point, but Japan Cool contains at least three disparate elements — otaku culture (Akiba-kei), cognoscenti culture (including the Shibuya-kei stream), and youth subcultures (Kogyaru, Bosozoku, etc.). Anime can be cool in certain contexts (album covers for rap artists, etc.), but this does not mean that the genre has been able to transcend its nerdiness outside of Japan. Being really into Takashi Murakami or really into Naruto are still not equal within the snob hierarchy.

3 Yes, this is a pun.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The MacroTrends Behind Top 2007 Products

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

On December 3, Nikkei Marketing Journal (MJ) offered a refereed list of the top 36 products from 2007 within a mock sumo wrestling ranking chart. (Click here for an explanation of the makuuchi sumo rankings.) The winners were:

EAST

Yokozuna – Nintendo Wii & DS
Ohseki – Face recognition technology (used in digital cameras)
Sekiwake –  “Mega” fast foods (MegaMac)
Komusubi – Video uploading (YouTube & Nico Nico Douga)
Maegashira – iPod Touch
Pilot Frixion ballpoint pen
– Region-differentiated pricing (started by McDonalds)
– Luxury hair-care products
Billy’s Boot Camp
Blu-ray disc recorders
Tomato liquor
National A-La-Uno toilet
Leggins
“My hashi”: carrying personal chopsticks
Sen no kaze ni Natte (hit song)
– India-style calculation method (Vedic Mathematics)
– New operating systems (Vista, Leopard)
“Balance” fitness

WEST

Yokozuna – E-Money
Ohseki – High-quality video cameras
Sekiwake – Tokyo (Midtown, Shin-Maru Building, Yurakucho ITOCiA, etc.)
Komusubi – Softbank White Plan
Maegashira – Axe body spray
Charmy “Power of Foam” dish detergent
– Constant prices at supermarkets despite rising material costs
Transino liver-spot remover
Model planes that can be flown inside the home
(Return of the) Nissan GT-R
Calorie-zero sodas
– INAX Kururin Poi Drain
Unicharm Lifely Slimwear for seniors
Eco Bags
“Butt Biting Bug”
Salt-flavored sweets
Grand Pianist toy
PuchiPuchi “infinite bubble pop” toy

Underlying Macro Trends in this Ranking List

1)  No Kids or Youth Products / Lots of Middle-Age or Elderly-Marketed Products

A decade ago, Japanese schoolgirls gained a reputation for leading trends and creating hit products — essentially the “early adopters” for the whole of society. Looking at this 2007 list, however, there is almost nothing that gained massive popularity within or growing out of youth cultures. Axe body spray is apparently a huge hit with the kids, but hard to detect from the sights and smells of the city. On the other hand, the DS and Wii succeeded precisely because Nintendo took gaming into society at large — including women in their 20s (with their custom-bejewled DS lites) and the elderly. Leggings — the only apparel item on the list — experienced broad adoption, but it was women in their 20s that led the charge. Even the few toys on the list — Grand Pianist, PuchiPuchi, and inside-friendly model planes — seem to be relatively adult-oriented. (MJ makes the note that the Grand Pianist appealed to 40 year-olds). Maybe the “Butt Biting Bug” song was a “kid” thing, but the slightly grown-up nature of the lyrics attracted the most attention. Young students probably have to do the Indian-style method of calculation, but only because their parents force them to.

If there was an item that showed Japanese youth contribution to culture, surely it was Koizora — the “keitai novel” turned hit book and film. High school students love melodrama, and hoaxy-anonymous authors like “Mika” deliver the goods: dead boyfriends, gang rape, and miscarriages.

In addition to a lack of youth products, there also seem to be lots of “mature” products in categories normally attracting teens. For example, the big hit/development amongst non-alcoholic beverages was zero calorie colas. I seriously doubt the kids are the ones demanding less fattening soft drinks. Nor do I think that they are so jaded with artificial flavors to demand a little salt in their sweets. Needless to say, the youth are definitely not the ones demanding incontinence-ready “slimwear” or liver-spot remover either. Even the pop music market — which has historically been teen-oriented — was best represented by the (year-old) cheesy semi-opera work “Sen no kaze ni natte” topping the charts, perhaps sending a message of impending doom for Japanese youth culture as a whole. The main point is, middle-aged and elderly Japanese are now leading consumer culture in Japan without much competition from their children and grandchildren.

2)  Eco Eco Eco

Judging by the large number of eco-conscious products on this list, Japanese consumers do seem to be making concrete efforts to show more personal commitment to global footprint reduction. The idea of carrying around personal chopsticks (in order to avoid using the disposable wooden waribashi) is a small-scale pro-environment action, but a positive sign if indeed a mass trend. The “eco tote bag” made being green much easier by doubling as a fashion statement. (Yes, there were crowds and disorder before the Anya Hindmarch eco bag went on sale in Ginza, but something about the event seemed different from the normal crowds of patient Japanese youth.)

3)  Class-Bifurcated Market

The Japanese population avoided drinking an even cheaper, worse-quality beer-like beverage this year, but the market continued towards its two-tier structure of providing the wealthy with first-class versions of products while creating low-price goods for everyone else. The “luxury hair care” boom proved that a certain population is willing to pay way more for shampoo and conditioner than ever before — or maybe just that women are willing to pay more to guarantee luxury-quality hair. Meanwhile, people are flocking to the Softbank White Plan to reduce their cell phone bills. If you think about it enough, the Mega Mac and other “mega” fast food can almost be seen as a “freeter luxury” for those poor souls who can no longer afford to partake in giant steak dinners. And now with McDonalds starting region-variable pricing, businesses are clearly starting to add in price differentiation strategies to capitalize on the growing inequalities. This should be a key trend for 2008 as well — for better or worse.

4)  What Internet?

Although there are a lot of gadgets and technical innovations on this list, there seems to be little recognition of Net culture’s impact on society. Yes, YouTube and Nico Nico Douga are attracting lots of viewers, but this is just a continuation of last year’s trend than anything new. And these sites are still filled with illegal copies of TV and music videos rather than original content created by actual Japanese users. (The homemade Halfby videos are a good sign, however.) The iPod Touch’s most innovative feature for Americans — the ability to browse the internet using Wi-Fi — is completely worthless in Tokyo where almost no buildings or cafés offer free wireless service. The new operating systems “trend” is a pretty boring one — neither Vista nor Leopard changed any lives. In general, the list makes it sound like there have been more plumbing innovations — the A-la-uno toilet and Kururin Poi drain — than new evolutions in internet culture.

Due to the state of entrenched industry know-how, Japan has always been more about standalone gadgets than computer-based peripherals and desktop applications. With the Blu-ray recorder and high-quality video cameras, this principle still seems to be in action. Even E-money seems to chart out an alternative future rather than streamlining the concept of currency with the internet.

Although this year saw more internet phenomena — the aforementioned keitai shousetsu cell-phone novels reaching the top of the book charts and 2-ch flaming-related corporate scandals, etc. — we still don’t get the sense that the internet has become interwoven with Japanese life like in the United States or South Korea. This is not to say that these two nations represent the authoritative version of the “future”; simply, Japanese companies remain devoted to pursuing their own conception of a gadget-based technological progress rather than just hopping on the global bandwagon.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.