Booms Go Bust

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.

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