Trendspotting in Post-Consumer Japan
Whether bullish or bearish about Japan’s long-term prospects, there should be no question that Japanese consumer society has undergone a major transformation in the last decade. A recessionary economy and falling wages have slowly chipped away at a once-vibrant and high-speed trend-driven consumer culture. Sales in almost all cultural fields — music, fashion, manga, DVDs, magazines — have seen serious decreases since the late 1990s. (This may also be true in the United States, but the incredible cultural penetration of the internet in the English-language sphere has somewhat softened the blow.) Now with a cyclical economic crisis in Japan triggered by the global recession, Japanese consumers are becoming extreme parodies of their former frugal selves: choosing Uniqlo over luxury goods and no-brand Chinese electronics over superior domestic products.
So how in the world then do you try to “spot trends” in an unequivocally-declining consumer marketplace? At the moment, the normal trendspotting protocol is not equipped to handle this kind of stagnant environment.
The first major problem is that most trendspotting tends to be overly optimistic; trendspotters’ audiences are mostly corporations, so there is an inherent goal in making the future market appear to have great potential for further growth. After all, no one wants to spend money on a report that tells them their earnings are guaranteed to decline. Trendspotters thus must either highlight the bright spots in the consumer market or spin negative-sounding social change into euphemistically positive phrasing. Non-consumers become “post-materialists.” Obscure tech companies with crazy ideas become banner carriers for the entire industry. Yet something like the current strength of low-price Uniqlo is generally ignored, since this development does not portray Japan as “cutting-edge” nor provides a soothing narrative about the country’s future prospects.
The second problem is that most trendspotting looks in the wrong places: namely, “leading-edge” culture. The real cultural leaders of Japan are now the yankii working class delinquents who control the direction of the ever-growing gyaru and Oniikei fashion subcultures. Their magazines are expanding, and their favorite brands are profiting. But since the former gatekeepers and tastemakers in Japan dislike their aesthetic, the story of their rise is essentially ignored. Cell-phone novels, for example, are portrayed in the media as “innovative uses of technology” rather than as the increased preference for yankii-esque narratives. Articles about the recent popularity of hostess-fashion magazine Koakuma Ageha rarely mention its monthly content targeted towards to non-Tokyo single-mothers working in the mizu shobai world. The “downward shift” of popular culture towards working class values and narratives could be said to be the most significant cultural trend of the last five years, but again, this is not a trend narrative anyone wants to hear.
In a similar way, there is much attention to Japan’s eco-consciousness, but these stories overly reflect the interests and aesthetics of upper middle class Tokyoites who have grown bored with decades of over-consumerism. Looking at the leading companies at this time of recession, however, mass consumers are clearly choosing products based on low price and high cost performance and not on abstract notions of environmental friendliness. The media and urban elite’s pro-environmental tastes are a good start for the green movement within Japan, but hardly tell the true story of basic consumer preference.
Unless the economy recovers dramatically, there is no reason to believe the two major narratives of cultural change in Japan — the erosion of conspicuous consumer spending and the rise of working class tastes amongst the middle class — will come to an end. Trendspotting in Japan must cease being an advocate for culturally-savvy innovation in technology and leading-edge culture and instead become an unbiased examination of the true market.
On this score, Atsushi Miura — author of Karyu shakai (Downwardly-Mobile Society) and the recent Onna ha naze kyabakurajo in naritai no ka? (Why do women want to become cabaret club hostesses?) — has provided the perfect template. For years, he worked at PARCO’s Across — the beacon of leading-edge consumer research — but now writes almost exclusively about youth’s cultural shift towards less urban and urbane values. He went towards the real story instead of trying to fit contemporary Japan into the “traditional” progressive trend mold.
With an unprecedentedly-high product turnover, Japan offers much temptation to concentrate solely on eccentric technologies and quirky new products (ice cucumber soda and QR-code graves, anyone?). Most of these products, however, are total flops or otherwise have only the most minor influence on the wider market. Good trendspotting must ignore these products or at least admit their total irrelevance to the wider consumer market up-front. In other words, trendspotting must stop searching for phenomena that fit the 1990s concept of “trends” and instead work to discover new social patterns and (often uninspiring) hit products. The prolonged Japanese economic downturn has not erased trends; it has just made trends less exciting and “cool” to the normal trendspotter crowd.
Ultimately, trendspotting is not about sexy content and stimulating readers; it’s about telling the true story of the market in order to make accurate predictions for the future. As Japan has shown over the last decade, the near future does not always become bigger, bolder, and brighter than the past. Trends can be depressing, disappointing and maybe even a little boring, but reality turns out to be the best starting point for formulating business strategy.
This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.