J-Bobos in Paradise?

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.

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