Archive for the ‘Consumer Behavior’ Category

Rent-a-Bag and the Meaning of “Trend”

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

The new Japanese company ORB (On-Line Rent-a-Bag) gives women the opportunity to rent luxury handbags from upscale European design houses Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Chanel for short-term periods. Although its business model is nearly identical to that of American company Bag Borrow or Steal, ORB is perhaps the first above-the-line implementation of “luxury rental” in Japan. Members of ORB’s “Bag Club” pay the not-so-cheap price of ¥29,800 per month for access to a wide selection of high-end products. For such a hefty fee, one could easily afford the monthly credit card payments on a truly spectacular bag. But ORB gives you the never-before-available option of changing luxury horses in midstream. Better yet, a constantly-rotating series of bags from ORB may give your peers the impression that you are a member of the exclusive Japanese upper classes with cash to burn on multiple luxury handbags. (Is the whole “handbag for life” thing suddenly an obvious signifier of the middle class?)

Here’s the deeper question when writing about ORB: Is luxury bag-rental worth identifying as a trend? So far, we only know of one company offering this service, and we have no idea whether the business model will be successful. Furthermore, we should not assume that the service succeeds in satisfying consumer needs simply on the publicized news of its foundation. Sure, it’s a noteworthy idea — somewhat novel, somewhat innovative — but does it pass the threshold to win “trend” designation?

At the end of the year, we are inundated with lists and lists of “The Year’s Hit Products” and “Buzzwords of the Year,” and although the media may not use the word “trend reporting,” they all attempt to give a sense of where popularity congregated over the last 52 weeks. This may seem like an odd time in the course of this blog (and within this particular essay) to start deconstructing the entire trend-spotting industry, but we felt like we needed to take a step back and look at common misdiagnoses of trends — especially in Japan.

(1) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Production/Manufacturing/Innovation: A lot of Japan-oriented trend blogs seem to push “cool” products as “trends” without any evidence that consumers agree. Yes, there are a lot of crazy, zany things that make it to the Japanese marketplace, but not all of these products will see substantial sales or have even been created with consumer research in mind. This is not to say that products specifically created to satisfy pre-existing consumer needs automatically become hits, but there must be some measure of reception to designate any piece of novelty as a “trend.” At best, there is a “production trend” in Japan for companies to make humanoid robots that play instruments; Asimo’s mere existence, however, says nothing about Japanese consumer sentiment towards the possibility of robot cohabitation.

(2) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Media (i.e., the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy): If you want to understand the entire blueprint for the new year (essentially viewing the “spoilers” for the next 365 days of consumer culture), read Dentsu’s forecast for the “Hit Products of 2008” included in their forthcoming “Hit Products of 2007” report. Since the advertising giant has the media budget to secure hits (or at least, create the illusion of success/authority in the media space), their predictions have better odds than the Harlem Globetrotters beating the Washington Generals. For example, just as predicted, Tokyo Midtown was “big” in 2007, but in what possible circumstances could the complex have not been a hit?

Since the Japanese mass media’s central organizational role is to advocate sponsored products from a position of central authority, the media’s definition of trend is always tautological: If the media decides to constantly feature a product, it therefore appears as a “hit” or a “trend” solely from all the exposure. This does not mean, however, that their pronouncement is a lie: The mass plurality of consumers in Japan still buy and participate in mass trends based solely on the amount of media exposure.

But even when consumers don’t take the bait, how can an objective observer really tell? Does the popular advertorial TV show Ohsama no Brunch ever do flashback stories on things that did not turn out to be successful despite its enthusiastic coverage? “Podcasting” was a buzzword in Japan a while back, but when the media dust settled, the “trend” was totally empty.

(3) Trend Reports Ignoring the Importance of Continuity: Xavel’s cell-phone/PC fashion shopping sites fashionwalker.com and girlswalker have been incredibly successful, but the company clearly rode on the coattails of market-leading manufacturers, media institutions, and talent-agencies. The expansion of fashion retail into “new media” has definitely been a real innovation, and objectively, the high levels of mass support have made “keitai shopping” a trend by any measure. The entire Xavel [now Branding] enterprise, however, is still dependent upon the legitimacy of traditional media. Without access to Ebi-chan & Co., it’s unclear if consumers would have ever made the leap into the arms of an unknown retailer. So, yes, Xavel is a real trend, but the company’s innovation has been more dependent upon continuity than innovation.

Our last post on hit novel Koizora makes a similar criticism: what is the difference between the success of a “traditional” novel with a high-expenditure mass market television campaign and a book-form “keitai novel” that receives the exact same promotional treatment? Koizora‘s hit status says more about the constancy of promotional power in Japan than the innovation in content creation.

(4) Trends that Overemphasize the Rogers Model: We no longer live in an unidirectional marketplace where elitist “early adopters” take up products and are then imitated by the less cool “early majority.” These days, popular products often completely skip hipster adopters, and sometimes the early majority intentionally rejects the styles of the well-respected media/art/fashion complex. In Japan, trendy underground culture has become a deserted island; the idea that its Lost-like survivors can somehow transmit their love of RSS, CSS and American Apparel to hordes of Johnny’s Jimusho fans is silly. There are real early adopters — sales clerks at Shibuya 109, for example — but are frequently ignored when they do not share the same taste culture as the actual trend-spotters. So, not only does the classic diffusion model not apply particularly well to the 21st century environment, trend-spotters generally give too much credence to “early adopters” similar to themselves or the Western example but lacking in real opinion leadership.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

This essay is not to say that there isn’t noteworthy reporting on innovations, novelties, and borrowable ideas from the Japanese market, but there is always an error of over-reporting these as “mass trends.” If we return to the initial problem in analyzing the “rent-a-luxury-bag” phenomenon, the best course may be to err on the side of skeptical neutrality. Reporting on new products and services is great fun for blog posts, but overselling novelty as “trend” can create a false sense of market realities.

Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation

Friday, November 16th, 2007

If the promotional materials are to be believed, one out of every ten Japanese has already shed tears over the “keitai novel” Koizora 『恋空』. This level of cultural penetration would make the work the mainstream media event of the 21st century — quite a feat for an amateurishly-written love story about gang rape, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, and premature cancer deaths. The figure of 12 million may be a misreading of internet download statistics, but Koizora’s success in mainstream markets has been the real deal. Beginning as a keitai shōsetsu posted on a host-focused bulletin board in 2005, downloads of the story from the keitai novel site Mahō no Island eventually hit 10 million in its first year. The cleaned-up book version sold in the millions, a manga version appeared, and the recent film adaptation debuted at #3 on the box office. A “side-story” Kimizora: ‘koizora’ another story is currently topping the fiction charts.

Although we at clast have been skeptical in the past about the internet’s ability to completely crack the old production systems for culture in Japan, Koizora clearly presents the case of a total “nobody” creating content, “publishing” it through an open website, gaining grass-roots popularity, and finally winning sponsorship from the larger entertainment industry (in this case, Starts Publishing and Tōhō Company, with help from Lawson’s, Tsutaya, NTT, and Mitsuya Cider etc.) Some wonder how this particular work found its way into the system so quickly (when more popular keitai writers continue to be ignored), but just as in the Chad Vader model, Japanese companies are clearly using the internet as a testing ground for new talent.

In other ways, however, Koizora is just another example of traditional Japanese diffusion patterns for pop culture. Whether schoolgirl fashion or a hot band, microtrends in Japan very rarely show clean linear (or even exponential) growth from the grass-roots level up to the masses. Once a certain product or style becomes slightly visible on the street, the mainstream media complex scoops it up and propels it into national news/advertising campaigns — thus creating an immediate explosion in interest or participation for the entire country. The effect is a huge jump in diffusion rather than a smooth curve. In the case of Koizora, the original “phone novel” phenomenon may have been impressive for that niche, but the book printing was promoted through mass-targeted television advertising; the subsequent high sales should not be too surprising.

The most interesting feature of Koizora‘s success may be its author — “Mika” (美嘉) —  about whom we know absolutely nothing. Despite being the best-selling young female author of recent days and an overnight millionaire, “Mika” has chosen not to reveal herself to the public. Like Densha Otoko before, Mika is essentially anonymous and untraceable. We get nothing more than a first-name and some attributed quotes. Koizora is supposed to be a “true story” of her youth, or at least, “based on her experiences.”

Since nobody in the Japanese media appears interested in investigating the real Mika and readers do not have problems with the gross inaccuracies in Mika’s depiction of pregnancy and malignant lymphoma, the author has no pressure to add a face and full name to her semi-literary stardom. Anonymity is important for individuals to share their creations on the internet, but there is also a sympathy and understanding amongst Japanese consumers towards protecting the anonymity of those who request it. Anonymity, however, is also a key component of this form of confessional literature. Not only does the “nobodiness” of the author make it seem more “real” and “personal,” anonymity protects seemingly-autobiographical narrative works from the James Frey/A Million Little Pieces danger of exposé.

Empathy is the key emotional response to a book like Koizora. Readers cry because they have emotionally invested in the pain and suffering of this protagonist — feelings no doubt amplified by the assumption that the terrible gang-rape bullying and teenage death actually happened to this pitiful author. Once the narrative becomes “based on a true story,” revealing the true degree of fictionalization may lead to collective let-down. If Mika were really a forty-year old data-entry clerk who experienced completely unremarkable teenage years, the whole prerequisites at the base of the “empathy” start to fall apart. It’s not fun to cry for the pain of a friend who has lost her mother and then find out the next day that the mom is alive and she was lying the whole time to get you to pay for drinks.

The more net culture in Japan progresses, the more it becomes clearer that anonymity is its underlying principle. Even in the face of possible fame and fortune, amateur writers are finding it more helpful to hide real identities in order to reap in the benefits of building fantastical realities for mass empathy. The masses of readers are more likely to tolerate terrible writing, melodramatic clichés, and incredulous stories of sex and death on the assumption that they are first-hand accounts. The Internet has made the narrative behind the “success” of a creative work as important as the narrative contained the work itself. Breaking Mika’s anonymity in the case of Koizora would ruin both.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Girls From Good Families

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

On November 17, popular Japanese lingerie company Peach John will open a shop within the flagship Shinjuku branch of esteemed department store Isetan. In the last decade, PJ has made a dramatic transformation from a small outfit importing American bras to a catalog sales giant with 20 locations in brick-and-mortar stores. Moving up to Isetan seems like a natural progression for the burgeoning brand, but this will not be just “another store.” The language of Peach John’s latest venture hints at a new direction for the company, and more broadly, an intriguing trend in Japanese marketing.

According to the November 6th Senken Shimbun story 「ピーチ・ジョンが伊勢丹本店に出店」, the name of Peach John’s project for Isetan is “Girls from Good Families” — spelled out in katakana 「ガールズ・フロム・グッド・ファミリー」. Senken “translates” this Japanese-scripted English into more standard Japanese as「良家の子女」.

Peach John’s current stores are mostly located in fashion buildings like Shibuya 109, and the Isetan project is the company’s first foray into department stores. In terms of customer base, Isetan definitely attracts a much different crowd than Shibuya 109. The age range and fashion aesthetics of the two audiences are different, but so are the tax brackets. For ¥20,000 at Shibuya 109, you can buy an entire autumn ensemble; at Isetan, you could maybe buy a single pillow. (But not necessarily one of the nicer pillows.)

Certainly, girls from “good families” are shopping at Isetan, but I find it strange to come out and code these consumers with that exact label. What does Peach John mean by “good family”? Rich? Old money? Does this mean that shoppers from Shibuya 109 are from “bad families”? Or just “less good families”? Does Peach John only want to attract daughters of fourth-generation doctors on the Board of charitable organizations? Or should the big-spending female offspring of loan sharks feel shame towards their lineage when stepping up to the cash register?

The marketing concept is smart, though: In order to attract a zone of consumers willing to pay higher prices for essentially the same product, Peach John will downplay the somewhat tawdry image established in its mass advertising campaigns. PJ’s train ads usually feature busty half-Japanese models like Jessica Michibata, Kelly, and Fujii Rina wearing revealing lingerie inside what appears to be the world’s most adorable brothel. The recent inclusion of Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie on the cover of the catalog may be an attempt to tone down the sex appeal towards men, but regardless, the tenor of the usual messaging probably does not impress the “well-to-do” mother from a “good family” that PJ imagines shops at Isetan. Leopard print bras could besmirch generations of inherited wealth. So Peach John is creating a new pocket for the brand, leaving the “over-stimulating” animal print at Shibuya 109, and creating a special selection at Isetan that moms will happily purchase for their little duchesses and baronesses. Standard PJ references to pole dancing will not be welcome. “Good families” apparently pass down Victorian attitudes towards sexuality from generation to generation.

Peach John’s new strategy further bolsters the idea that income disparity is becoming an obvious part of Japanese social and business life. I find it odd, however, that the marketing language is actually using loaded terms like “良家” (ryouke) to pander to the upper classes. Currently, the New Rich are a much dominant consumer group in Japan than actual “good families.” The nouveau riche, however, may like this idea of being treated with social respect solely from their ability to indulge in luxury goods. On the other hand, the girls at Shibuya 109 may begin to question why they are not being labeled as “girls from good families,” but they probably aren’t reading daily trade publications to find out the names of their favorite brands’ retail promotion strategies.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Race as Fashion Signifier

Friday, October 5th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Hoppy and Artificial Nostalgia

Friday, August 17th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Being Cool Means Being Hot

Friday, August 10th, 2007

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

J-Bobos in Paradise?

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Coca-Cola Zero Channels Saigo Takamori

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Cool Biz

Friday, June 8th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.