Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Shibuya Girls Collection ‘09S/S

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

At the time of its initial establishment in 2005, Tokyo Girls Collection (TGC) offered a revolutionary alternative to the standard industry “fashion show.” E-commerce company Xavel (now Branding Inc.) founded TGC as a multimedia fashion event focusing on “real clothes” — low-priced domestic brands with an eye towards street trends. Instead of generic foreign drones imported from Eastern Europe, TGC used young models from popular magazines to parade the clothes on the runway. With its winning formula, TGC found quick success and ultimately rewrote the rules for Japanese fashion: choosing inclusivity over exclusivity and immediate relevance over artistic intention. TGC was “real” fashion for “real” Japanese women. Take a hike, “fake” fashion purveyors!

Now in 2009, Tokyo Girls Collection has taken its rightful place as a core institution of the Japanese fashion world, with big sponsors all clamoring to get a piece of the action. Uniqlo has just offered its second TGC collaboration — spring blazers promoted with popular ViVi model Marie. Last weekend’s 2009 Spring/Summer TGC took the brand line-up into totally new territory: select shops Beams, Kitson, and Free’s Shop, as well as originally-American brands Milkfed and Jill Stuart. All five are much more “fashion-forward” in the traditional snobby sense than the usual Shibuya 109 fare. The inclusion of these brands perfectly illustrated the fact that TGC is no longer a niche event for offshoots of the Shibuya gyaru subculture but an event where 20,000 female consumers with open minds and relatively heavy wallets can congregate and party. In just four years, TGC has become completely and utterly mainstream.

The day after Tokyo Girls Collection, Branding Inc. held TGC’s “little sister” event Shibuya Girls Collection (SGC) on the same Yoyogi National Stadium stage. Most wondered whether back-to-back Girls Collections would not mutually cannibalize audiences, but the pre-show buzz had the younger SGC outselling its big sister TGC. By the day of the event, all tickets for SGC had totally sold out. The day of the show, the arena was completely packed — with even the press seats over-run with eager girls. (Although SGC offered a “Men’s Stage” to show Oniikei fashion brands modeled by Men’s Egg superstars, the crowd was ultimately over 90% women.)

The two Girls Collections essentially share the same format, but SGC is a completely different beast than TGC — almost like the young weekend crowds at Shibuya 109 broke into the stadium and threw their own fashion show. As the name suggests, Tokyo GC is about girls’ street fashion in a wide and comprehensive sense, encompassing the diversity of looks found in Japan’s capital. SGC, on the other hand, is all about the specific gyaru style that emerged in the Shibuya neighborhood in the mid-’90s and remains strong. Accordingly, the SGC atmosphere was much more subcultural and niche than TGC, representing a fashion world that remains under the shadows of the “serious” industry. But despite the more narrow focus, the seats were equally packed at TGC, proving that the Shibuya fashion movement is just as legitimate in size and energy as the “mainstream” of fashion.

That does not mean, however, that SGC is particularly comprehensible to outsiders. I nominally cover the girls’ “street” fashion beat, and yet, most of the details of SGC culture are totally alien to me. TGC employs beloved magazine stars with name-value: celebrities who double as dramatic actresses (like Karina), singers (like Yu Yamada), and general TV talent (like Marie). Many are even known outside the confines of the “real clothes” fashion world. The participating TGC brands too, like Beams, are universally well-known.

SGC’s models, in comparison, may draw total blanks even with a hardcore TGC audience. They are total unknowns to anyone besides avid Popteen readers. The “star” model of SGC was Tsubasa Masuwaka — a 23 year-old ex-Popteen model and young mother who is big with the kids in Shibuya but has no connection to the mainstream entertainment industry. (She is sometimes featured on TV shows but only in news stories about her marketing power with teens. Despite her popularity, she is not invited to be a cute tarento on quiz shows.) Tsubasa is just the tip of the iceberg. The crowd’s other favorites — Wei Son, Jun Komori, Yui Kanno, and Kumiko Funayama — also came from Popteen. Admittedly, Popteen is a popular magazine in terms of readers, but representative of a style without much influence on mass culture.

With SGC relying on dokusha “reader” models — young fans of the magazine who volunteer posing and smiling services to magazines for little-to-no money — the model pool was markedly amateur. Most SGC models are about 5′4″ max. Star Tsubasa does not even hit five-foot. The SGC heroes dwarf in comparison to the professional long-legged models of TGC. Of course, these imperfections are what makes the girls so popular with readers: What could be more “real” and imitable than a 4′11″ model? And likewise, opposed to the half-Japanese mania of TGC, almost everyone at SGC is “pure” Japanese. The gap between fans and models at SGC thus becomes incredibly narrow. But since fans pay good money to attend, the models need to look “larger than life.” This needs pushes the girls to ramp up their normally over-tanned and bleach-blond appearance to the maximum degree: dark skin tones, faces caked with glitter, hair curled, crimped, permed, and teased out. They all looked like an army of idealized gyaru robots hot off the beaches of Hawaii.

While SGC’s official cast of characters gravitated towards’ Popteen’s gyaru world, the prevailing fashion style of attendees came straight out of post-gyaru fashion magazine ViVi’s sophisticated and hard-boiled look. The uniform was shoulder-length hair with curled bangs, black leather motorcycle jackets, unzipped hoodie sweatshirts in bright blues, black-and-white horizontal striped T-shirts, high-waist tiered skirts or shorts, big belt buckles, and a man’s fedora. There was also an unexpected outbreak of giant bows propped up in girls’ hair. Perhaps this post-gyaru look is the current style moment for the Shibuya streets — a mishmash of original gyaru surf culture, Ura-Harajuku streetwear, punk influences, high-fashion silhouettes, and the elegant tastes of the original ’90s kogyaru who have graduated from the movement and created their own up-market brands. A more likely explanation is that the hardcore gyaru — those who take the style to formidable delinquent yankii extremes — were not going to shell out the ¥3,000 for tickets. Or maybe they were in the cheap seats at top.

So here was the strange divide: The crowds came to see their Popteen idols up-close, and yet, they choose a personal fashion style much more mainstream than the hardcore gyaru formula. Gyaru style originated in the 1990s as an delinquent upper-class high-school subculture, but as the decade progressed, the rich girls ceded leadership to rural working-class yankii followers. The army of sexy and tan kogyaru transformed into monstrous ganguro. Gyaru has returned to its more aesthetically-palatable roots in recent years, but the movement’s heart and values still stay close to the lower socioeconomic stratum, best evidenced by the large crossover between the style and employees at host clubs and low-priced “cabaret-club” hostess bars. So while the audience felt a step apart from the core gyaru style, the models on stage (especially the male models) generally embrace and embody the yankii delinquent lifestyle. This made SGC feel like an act of selling the allure and rebellion of Japanese working class delinquent subculture to middle class kids. Up to this point in Japan, the fashion industry has rarely indulged in this kind of marketing practice. Usually, elements of delinquent subcultures were forced to do their own marketing.

Most analysis on the two Girls Collections tends to focus on the possibilities the events have for the fashion market, as if Japan Fashion Week or even Paris Fashion Week could take a lesson or two from this real clothes festa. But lumping these “fashion shows” all together misses the true dynamic of TGC and SGC. Sure, there are clothes traveling down the runways, but everything about the event makes the apparel feel like an afterthought. The multiple giant jumbotrons behind the runway zoom in on the model’s face for almost her entire walk down the path, save a single full-body scan.

The press releases always boast about “girls buying clothes on their cell phones right as the clothes hit the runway” but I have never observed this “real-time e-commerce” in the audience; the girls are usually too busy cheering their favorite stars to take the time to buy clothes. Surely brands that participate get a huge promotional bump, but I think the excitement is less about shopping, commercial transactions, and apparel and more about being in the same room as celebrities.

But as much as we believe the Popteen models are the draw, those subcultural folk heroes still lose out to the bigger crowd-pleaser: TV stars. A surprise appearance from Becky — a half-Japanese TV talent who is not a member of the gyaru community by any definition — elicited prolonged and severe screams from fans. After attending a handful of these “real clothes” events, I can tentatively conclude that the crowd is most interested in celebrating “celebrity.” They may love their community icons like Tsubasa, but they go absolutely crazy with the appearance of an honest-to-god variety show regular.

So there is an unconscious tension boiling under SGC between the “gyaru community” and mainstream culture, but while the crowd loves the surprise of celebrity appearance, the 20,000 young women did not show up to Yoyogi National Stadium to see sumo wrestlers and musicians. They want to take part in the Shibuya fashion community. Shibuya Girls Collection proves that there is a huge — and growing — market around the gyaru subculture. Popteen is one of the few magazines to gain readers over the last few years (And the magazine looks more like the deeply working-class hostess-circular Koakuma Ageha by the minute.) As non-community members, we tend to reach for the word “subcultural” to describe SGC’s style and dramatic personae, as if these strange girls are interested in something far removed from our comfortable “mainstream” cultural paradigm.

But in fact, the overwhelming popularity of SGC proves how little influence the entrenched mainstream entertainment and fashion worlds have in the 21st century. The powerful forces of traditional industry now all band together for TGC, but even with such support, the mainstream TGC does not really attract any more people than the niche SGC. When it comes to subcultural affiliation, the gyaru numbers are rising and the generic mainstream plurality is shrinking. SGC is not just popular in its own right, but may be a harbinger of bigger things to come for bottom-up culture.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Louis Vuitton’s Mythic 94.3%

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

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

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

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

That being said, 94.3%!?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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.

Yappari Neko Ga Suki

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Yappari Neko ga Suki 「やっぱり猫が好き」 premiered in late 1988 as a “situation comedy” on Fuji TV. The basic set-up concerns three grown-up sisters living, eating, and gabbing in their Tokyo apartment. The show rarely featured meaty plots or even additional characters, but there was something charming about the realistically-meandering dialog of the three lead actresses Motai Masako, Muroi Shigeru, and Kobayashi Satomi. Like The Cosby Show or Friends, the show was filmed in front of a live audience. But without the standard “zing” punchline-heavy scripts or flashing APPLAUSE signs, the audible audience response is more spontaneous and random, giving Yappari Neko ga Suki the feeling of live theater rather than pre-packaged TV.

Airing at 00:40 am on Tuesday nights, the program could have been any other late-night throwaway program doomed to obscurity. Instead, enough viewers stayed up late every week to convince Fuji to do another season of the show, this time in the more reasonable time-slot of 7:30 on Saturday night. While successful for what it was, Yappari Neko ga Suki never transcended a narrow appeal to a specific cult fan base of women then in their teens and 20s. The show, however, has not just become a historical footnote: starting late last year, brewery Sapporo re-united the cast of Yappari Neko ga Suki to be the campaign spokeswomen (in character) for the beer happōshu Namashibori. (On the show itself, they always seemed to be chugging cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon — the happōshu of its times.)

As both a TV program and a cultural phenomena, Yappari Neko ga Suki has a few lessons and insights for the nature of contemporary entertainment and advertising in Japan.

1) There is nothing inherently “Japanese” about bad acting

The contemporary Japanese television drama is so rife with overacting and melodrama that some commentators have started to believe that poor acting is intentional and culturally-mediated — possibly a modern-day reflection of Japanese theater traditions or stage aesthetics. Yappari Neko ga Suki‘s three nimble actresses show what Japanese drama can be if the cast have actual experience and skills as actors. The Yappari format requires long ten-minute recitations of a script (plus ad-libbing) in front of a live audience — little different from more “serious” theatre. Only real actors can pull this off; you can’t fake it. Today’s dramas use a “one line of dialog = one shot” filming style, which fits better with the non-actor “pretty faces” that powerful Japanese entertainment companies discover and provide to TV producers.

Yappari Neko ga Suki is a reminder that Japan is in no lack of capable actors, but that the inner-workings of the entertainment industry and its casting process tend to force experienced players to late-night and other obscure formats.

2) Longer program runs means long-term cultural properties

Modern Japanese television dramas run for a short span of three-months with almost no chance of a second season. Television stations do not like to dedicate more time to these shows, as they are expensive to produce and generally risky. If they flop on the first episode, the sunk costs are a terrible burden. (There is no “pilot” system for early vetting.) Talent agencies appear to like the three-month schedule as well, maybe for the flexibility in allocating stars to different projects since most “stars” are multi-media players.

The problem, however, is that this short format kills any chance of creating long-term cultural properties for the networks. In just two seasons, Yappari Neko ga Suki established itself as a memorable piece of culture that now can be reassembled for nostalgic advertising purposes. Mobile Suit Gundam’s modern day popularity over an equally-landmark space anime like Superdimensional Fortress Macross may come down to the simple fact that Gundam has become a long-term, more expansive franchise than Macross. This may seem like an obvious point to U.S. TV viewers (who lust after the next season of Lost or 24), but the low-risk, industry-pleasing three-month dorama strategy of late is not conducive to thinking about the creation of valuable long-term assets.

3) Pinpoint marketing may work for mass products

At this point, it is unclear whether the Sapporo Namashibori campaign is producing results, but hats off to the brewery for running a mass market campaign centered around a relatively-cult late-night TV show with appeal to a very narrow band of adult women. Most ad campaigns for beer use generically-famous celebrities to transmit a vague brand message (“It’s tasty!”), but these three actresses — especially in this specific grouping — send more of a generational wink-wink to consumers than a broadly warm appeal (although the campaign is very “down home”-y even if you don’t know the Onda Sisters).

The beverage itself is probably not any more limited in appeal in taste than any other beer-like beverage, but with so many near-beers flooding the market, this pinpoint marketing towards a very specific and likely-sophisticated female segment makes the product stand out. Are sophisticated women in their 30s enough of a market to have their specific advertising messages for beer? We’ll find out soon enough.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

“Yappari hade ja nai”

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Despite a national love affair with television, the Japanese do not watch much cable TV. Perfect data on penetration is hard to obtain (the New York Times suggests that only 1 in 5 have satellite or cable), but when compared to other OECD nations, Japan does not rank particularly high. Although broadband bundling has made cable TV an easy and inexpensive option for most Japanese living in highly-populated areas, there is still no public rush to expand the number of channels on the TV from a half-dozen to 30+. Perhaps Japanese consumers demand a common programming experience to suit their social needs, or perhaps powerful advertising companies have some nefarious anti-cable strategy to keep eyeballs on the Big Five in order to maintain high ad rates for terrestrial TV. In the United States, cable diffusion has only increased cultural fracture and lowered ad rates for the traditional networks. So maybe what’s good for the Big Five is good for the Japanese nation.

But even without access to exact penetration rates, I have no doubt that cable TV is not particularly important in Japan. I am a cable subscriber, and the programs I enjoy seem to have only secured three or four advertisers, who have decided to play the same advertisements over the course of an entire television season.

While catching up on Lost Season 3 thanks to AXN, I was greeted week after week with the exact same commercial from MasterCard. In this Japanese adaptation of the credit card’s renown “Priceless” campaign, veteran Japanese actress Ohtake Shinobu tries on a new dress and exclaims to her on-screen daughter, “Yappari hade ja nai?” — meaning “See, isn’t this too flashy?” This mother and daughter have traveled to New York and are getting all dressed up in the hotel room to have a “priceless” night at a jazz club. (This level of gala festivities is apparently required for a mother in Japan to breach the topic of love lives with her children.)

There is nothing particularly odd or upsetting about this commercial, but the fact that it plays two or three times over the course of an hour, week after week — even during year-end repeats — results in a Lost viewer treated to the commercial around 100 times by the end of the series. Thanks to the repetition, I know every single line of the commercial, every inflection in delivery, every single cut, every single musical cue, every single note from the saxophone. I can tell you that there have been at least three distinct edits of the commercial, with the mother-daughter dialogue being changed from a dig against the father (“What’s your boyfriend like?” / “Like Dad.” / “You have bad taste!” Ha ha.) to the less biting banter “Tell me about him.” / “Do you want to know?” Around my house now, any exclamation of a two-syllable Japanese word is uttered within the form “Yappari —- ja nai?” in Ohtake’s pronunciation. This commercial has somehow become a part of my life.

Most companies aim for their commercials to gain maximum exposure, but I doubt many worry about the danger of over-exposure — the act of blasting TV fans with an endless barrage of identical promotional messages. No consumer could possibly enjoy this repetition, especially repeated over a half-year. What’s more, we modern consumers and TV viewers have come to expect a certain amount of diversity in weekly advertising — not only in the number of advertising companies but the number of different commercials provided by these companies. Repetition of the same advertisement suggests either advertiser laziness or non-competitiveness for the media space. The popular animation cable channel Animax, on the other hand, appears to be popular thanks to a plethora of advertisers and commercials.

In this mostly unconscious logic, more commercials -> more advertiser interest -> more viewers -> more legitimacy as a media product. So many products in Japan require some proof of social legitimacy before consumer feel comfortable with adoption. Cable TV is no different. The perceived value of cable TV programming content could hinge on the quality of commercials provided — and this would be another barrier for widespread penetration.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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.

Race as Fashion Signifier

Friday, October 5th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Where Are You?

Friday, September 21st, 2007

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

“Makise Riho’s Boyfriend”

Friday, August 24th, 2007

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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.