Dokusha Models and Charisma Clerks: Transferring the Aura of Authority

In a very large number of cases, Japanese mass consumer culture diffuses in a top-down manner. Manufacturer conglomerates work closely with oligopolistic ad agencies and shadowy production companies to determine the It Girls and Hit Products of the Year. There are, however, many contradictions and complications that challenge the singularity of that conspiratorial narrative. Very little may rise straight to the top in a grass-roots manner, but the presence of dokusha model (読者モデル) and charisma clerks (カリスマ店員) shows that the top needs to recruit those at the bottom to speak their message more directly to the target audience.

Dokusha models (literally, “reader models”) are amateur models used in youth fashion magazines. They are either scouted on the streets or chosen from readers who have sent in letters to editors offering their services. Dokusha models are as likely to be aspiring hairdressers, stylists, and artists with good fashion sense as aspiring “models.”

Magazines like to use these models for several reasons. First, they are much cheaper than “real” models. Second, they usually lack management, which makes them much easier to work with. Third, they give readers “life-sized” idols onto whom they may project themselves. Fourth, they can sometimes break these models as “stars” which reflects very well back upon the status of the magazine.

Charisma clerks are members of a popular store’s staff (usually sales, but sometimes PR) who become famous from their appearances in the media. This became a particularly big boom in the young women’s fashion based around Shibuya 109 — with girls flocking to stores to meet these minor celebrities in the flesh.

Some dokusha model and charisma clerks have been able to make the leap from amateurs to professionals. Most famously, the charisma clerk Yoco Morimoto went on to form her own brand Moussy and several other spinoffs. Kaela Kimura became the face of Seventeen and then a successful Sony recording artist. Visual artist Asami Kiyokawa was often seen in issues of CUTiE in the late 1990s.

Even those dokusha models and lowly clerks who do not end up using their sudden fame as a way to jump to the big time generally experience a very intense celebrity with magazine readers. Part of the idea of “charisma” is that kids show up at stores and ask the charisma clerk to pick out their wardrobe — relinquishing most decision-making to the famed store employee who could not possibly do them wrong. In this way, “charisma” has little to do with the Western meaning of “being charismatic” and is more about the possession of petite authority within a specific sphere.

The charisma clerks and dokusha models generally benefit everyone in the commercial chain. The semi-celebrities themselves enjoy the respect and fame, especially those in trendy low-level jobs that do not offer high financial rewards. (Here is a guide book for aspiring dokusha models hoping to be “discovered.”) Young consumers like having normal, “everyday” celebrities who they have a good chance of meeting in person and asking for shopping advice. Or at worst, they can least steal practical styling tips from afar.

Manufacturers and brands also see the value in giving the dokusha models celebrity status. Senken Shimbun reported that popular male dokusha model Yuya Nara can no longer go into his favorite stores without the staff offering to give him items for free (4/18/07 「親しみ覚える選択眼」). By using these readers as human billboards, brands hope to legitimize their own products through these free agents without dipping into the promotional budget. Media always win points for identifying trend-makers before they blow up, and they get extra points for creating fame out of thin air. So by picking individuals who embody the styles they champion, they can create an army of closely-related comrades who keep the magazine’s curatorial ethic alive and well within their target audience community.

Everybody wins, but it hinges upon a consumer base accepting these non-celebrities as possessing a certain amount of authority and stature. This may seem somewhat difficult to achieve in the West, but in Japan, the dokusha models and charisma clerks fit nicely into a systematic hierarchy of style and consumption.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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2 Responses to “Dokusha Models and Charisma Clerks: Transferring the Aura of Authority”

  1. Chuck F Says:

    Whee, since you’ve led me to the hidden comments section here at Clast let me rephrase these random questions in a more coherent non 3:00 a.m. manner and just a note that most of my reading / looking at the past is is done from the fruits/cutie/zipper consumer groups.

    Are the Charisma staff placements in magazines/ hair cut examples generally paid for? Or do they come about due to social connections between the Editors and the charisma staff?

    Where do the Charisma staff/ hair salon members that didn’t reach the mainstream celebrity go when they reach an age where they are no longer hip? The only person I’ve ever seen featured as a charisma staff that was older then around 25 is Mary Of Faline / Bambie who constantly has young Charisma staff people with her(Yuya Nara in almost ever issue of Fruits/Tune he is photographed in writes how he gets her clothes from her). She’s also the only person I’ve ever seen featured 10 years ago that still seems to be around doing the same thing she was doing 10 years back.

    Especially curious as to how the Charisma Staff relate to hair salon marketing, in that the hair salons featured in these magazine from 10 years ago, seem to still exist, but these magazines seem to be profiling entirely new hip salons and ignoring most of the ones they used to(with a few exceptions like Shima Hair). It’s not like the product you are going to end up with at one of these same consumer-group based Hair salons, with folks coming from the same hair schools, is really all that different in between stores, so how does this marketing play into it?

    Is this entirely a valid business strategy for one starting out right now with a smaller budget?: just hire thoese in the “in group” that have good social/party connections thus getting free media, thus creating demand?

    If you have any insights at all on any of these questions it’d be great.

  2. W. David Marx Says:

    Are the Charisma staff placements in magazines/ hair cut examples generally paid for? Or do they come about due to social connections between the Editors and the charisma staff?

    I am not sure, but it’s a good question. My guess is that it could be a mixture of both, but I also feel like some of these small biyoshitsu do not have the resources or connections to set up “advertorial” as is usually practiced. That would mean the magazine would have to go around and actually solicit paid placement. I am sure the magazines do send the word out when they do their “Hair” issue every few months, but I don’t know how systematic it is.