The Non-Politics of Keffiyeh and Bohemians

May 7th, 2008

The big meta-trend for Japanese fashion this spring/summer is “bohemian,” which mainly manifests in loose white cotton tunics and flower-print dresses. Opposed to being a homegrown trend, this new interest in hippie aesthetics is a global fashion industry directive imported into Japan. This year boys got “American/British Trad” and girls got “Bohemian.” As a result, the young Japanese bohemians of 2008 reflect none of the “unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints” inherent to historical Bohemianism (Wikipedia). The trend is purely visual — a relaxed look using loose natural fabrics, ethnic patterns, and Native American headbands. Dropping any sort of philosophical depth has thus allowed the look to fit equally in the pages of serious high-fashion mag Spur and office-lady-friendly CanCam. In fact, there is an inverse proportion at work: the greatest adopters of the bohemian look tend to be the least likely to have an interest in arty things.

Slightly related to the bohemian trend is the prominent use of keffiyeh amongst both Japanese men and women. The traditional Middle Eastern patterned scarves have been popular in hipster circles overseas as well, but the fashion information complex in Japan has once again been able to mainstream a global look to a degree seen nowhere else.

In the West, the keffiyeh have sparked a debate over perceived pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel meanings. In the past, Leftist-types intentionally embraced the keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. Recently Urban Outfitters tried to sell the scarves as simple accessories, but complaints forced them to pull them (before quietly bringing them back in non-traditional colors and a new name: “desert scarves.”) The Japanese industry will not have to worry about such political debates; just as bohemianism is only a visual aesthetic, a keffiyeh is just something that looks cute with a sleeveless t-shirt and work-pants. Moreover, Japanese retailers aren’t even calling them keffiyeh (クーフィーヤ) but “afghan stoles” (アフガンストール), based apparently on the “afghan”-style in which they are worn. (An internet search for the word “keffiyeh” in Japanese points to its historical definition rather than a shop list.)

With the item’s name redefined to point miles away from the Palestinian conflict and the patterns reformed to embrace trendy houndstooth-check, Japanese shoppers have few reference points to connect their fashion choices back to a global political context. Many argue that all Japanese culture inherently detaches the signifier from the signified, but this is not entirely true. Japanese punks may not be delinquent enough in behavior, but they are clearly attracted to the aesthetics of punk anger and rebellion. In a similar way, keffiyeh were very popular around 2001 amongst Ura-Harajuku street fashion boys, who found a tough militaristic meaning in the scarves to match their camouflage pants. They may have not known specifics about the PLO, but the context of armed struggle played into the item’s styling.

The keffiyeh used in this year’s fashion, however, are completely politics-free, primarily a result of the process of importation and mediation. Fashion magazines and retailers could easily explain or reference the historical backdrops to both bohemianism and keffiyeh, but they intentionally do not. Why? The broader cultural context would only make these trends’ adoptions more difficult for consumers. If the item is specifically shown to signify a philosophy or political position, the consumer would then be making a “statement” in choosing to wear it. CanCam girls would suddenly have to worry about whether they are “bohemians” instead of “in style.”

In general, Japanese fashion is not about statements: it’s about following a set of seasonally-changing rules within a chosen subculture. So the industry is best off pretending like these fashion items are just trends, eliminating all possible barriers for consumers. Depth and context are minefields for selling Japanese fashion.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The End of Gyaku-Yu’nyū

April 11th, 2008

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, up-and-coming Japanese bands and artists who failed to connect with local audiences usually had to go overseas to get attention back in their homeland. With the Japanese music and entertainment worlds being essentially “closed shops,” innovative creators could leverage the support of foreign critics to get that crucial foot in the door. Yellow Magic Orchestra, for example, were initially ignored by fellow countrymen, but when they made a big splash in Europe and the United States, the Japanese media treated them as royalty upon return. In addition to YMO, New Wave band the Plastics, dance DJ Towa Tei, and reggae collective Mighty Crown all used international success as a launching pad to domestic careers. In fashion, moderately-popular brands like Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto became superstars in the Japanese market after successful Paris debuts. This cultural phenomenon is colloquially called gyaku-yu’nyū (逆輸入) — “reverse importing.”

Although beneficial to Japanese culture’s development in the long run, the gyaku-yu’nyū phenomenon was basically a result of Japan’s post-war national inferiority complex. In other words, Japanese audiences felt obliged to pay attention to internationally-feted artists because they deeply cared what foreigners thought about their own culture. The Japanese cultural elite, in particular, held a snobbish bias against domestic creators, and foreign acceptance was one of the few things that would change their minds.

Since the mid-1990s, however, Japanese audiences have grown extremely confident about the quality of their own pop culture and fashion, and rightly so. The world is currently enamored with Japan, instead of the one-sided love-affair of days past. So how has this change in national dynamics altered the potency of gyaku-yu’nyū?

In short, gyaku-yu’nyū no longer really works. A perfect example is Riyo Mori — 2007’s Miss Universe. Despite being the first Japanese woman since the 1950s to win this international pageant, Mori has suffered much scorn and hostility from the Japanese media and public. They criticized her appearance as conforming to a Western stereotype of “Oriental” women rather than being a real reflection of contemporary Japanese female aesthetics. 2006’s Miss Universe runner-up Kurara Chibana, on the other hand, has etched out a career in Japan and is believed to be “cute” in the mold preferred by Japanese girls. Winning #2 may have been ironically the better result for today’s Japan.

When actress Rinko Kikuchi was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2007, local media forecasted a big career for the actress when she returned to Japan. Things, however, have been mixed. Kikuchi gets a lot of media attention, for sure, and even gave her face for a Chanel ad campaign, but she has yet to really find broad favor with Japanese audiences. She has also received criticism for an overly “Oriental” appearance (as seen in the picture above from the May issue of InRed).

This new-found domestic confidence also works the other way: When popular Japanese artists fail overseas, it does not particularly hurt their domestic image. Hikaru Utada famously flopped with her U.S. debut Exodus, but this only minorly afflicted her standing with Japanese fans. Foreign success is also unable to restore the relevancy of formerly-dominant artists: No one is especially impressed that Puffy (Amiyumi) or A Bathing Ape‘s Nigo are big overseas. And artist Takashi Murakami peaked in Japan long before he started getting $1 mil per canvas in international markets.

Based on this growing disinterest in foreign reception, Japanese audiences no longer appear to rely on the rest of the world’s judgment to create hierarchies for their stars. Japan has a very competitive, sophisticated system for creating and rewarding local talent, and those who succeed do so for a reason. Although certain talent agencies have more sway than others (and can make stars look “popular” through forcing a busy appearance schedule on the media), Japanese girls seem very content with their own star models like Yuri Ebihara and Tsubasa Masuwaka. It is patronizing, to say the least, that they should take cues from the West about whom to like in this day and age. Would Americans ever love wacky Japanese-speaking TV mainstays Dave Spector and Patrick Harlan just because Japanese audiences do?

From one perspective, the new Japanese self-confidence in pop culture is built upon citizens’ healthy comfort with their own identity. No longer do we have as many youth automatically looking to the rest of the world to provide them with the “right” fashion looks. Ironically, however, it is the gyaku-yu’nyū successes like Ryūichi Sakamoto and Comme des Garçons that originally put Japan on the map, eventually feeding back and giving Japan more self-confidence about its position on the world stage. With no one listening to foreign voices, the responsibility to identify and reward new talent that can maintain Japan’s global image is now left up to the internal Japanese system. But, hey, if the world stops being impressed with Japan, it’s not like Japanese audiences would even really care.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Aoi Miyazaki for Emporio Armani

March 27th, 2008

Long ago there was a simpler age for foreign brands in Japan, where the mere mention of “The West” would conjure up images of luxury, progress, and sophistication within the minds of Japanese consumers. Due to a development of greater domestic confidence in the last three decades, however, European and North American companies can no longer rely on exploiting a national inferiority complex to pull in customers.

But that doesn’t mean that Japanese consumers now unconditionally prefer Japanese things to Western things either. No, the current market requires a well-rehearsed luge run through complex and shifting racial and national semiotic codes that almost no one can perfectly articulate.

As I explained in the previous essay “Race as Fashion Signifier,” “real clothes” magazines like CanCam or ViVi exclusively use Japanese and half-Japanese models to illustrate a plausible context for the clothing. High-fashion magazines like Spur and Ginza, on the other hand, deploy foreign (Caucasian) models to reflect the fact that the center of legitimization for the high-fashion world is “abroad.” Based on this principle, foreign luxury brands have had little reason to not use global campaign advertisements (meaning: non-Japanese models) in Japanese fashion magazines. Advertorial (“tie-up”) can often be used to show readers’ favorite local models wearing the latest season, while protecting the sanctity of the pure ad. But basically, there is an unstated rule that foreign luxury brands never “stoop” to the level of Japanese local culture by using familiar faces.1

Emporio Armani, however, has gone against scripture by conspicuously using popular Japanese actress Miyazaki Aoi in its new print advertisements. By many measures, Miyazaki is the “It Girl” in Japan of the moment, but she should be defined as a celebrated actress within Japan rather than one who has found broader acclaim overseas.  Compare Miyazaki to Kikuchi Rinko — star of Babel. Chanel used Kikuchi in a campaign last year, but this was basically a hedge: Japanese, yes, but an “international” woman who was nominated for an Oscar.

Miyazaki is not particularly “international,” but instead, can only be used to introduce the brand as something that everyday Japanese girls can wear. So while there is glamor in having a “star” model the clothing, Miyazaki definitely brings Emporio Armani to the “Japanese” level. She is “life-sized” (等身大) rather than “larger than life.”

This particular quality of Miyazaki’s celebrity may be a perfect balance for Emporio Armani, however, seeing that the brand is a bridge line. In the context of this strategic goal, she is able to act as a “bridge” between Japanese consumers and this “elite” foreign brand. We can be sure, however, that Armani would most likely avoid using a local Japanese star for the face of its premier Giorgio Armani line. So perhaps the racial hierarchy in Japanese fashion is stable at the extremes (West for high, East for low). All the interesting and innovation in bending these rules exists in the middle of the market, where the intersection of the two worlds can be constantly re-framed and re-negotiated.

1 There are probably counterexamples that come to mind, but it’s not that common.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Generation KY

March 21st, 2008

Ever since the term “KY” topped the Buzzwords of 2007 at the end of last year, a million adults now cruelly and painfully abuse this popular youth expression in an attempt to sound au courant. KY (pronounced kei-wai) is an abbreviation of the phrase “kuuki wo yomenai” 「空気を読めない」— a pejorative description of someone who fails to “read the atmosphere.” In other words, those branded KY do not act properly in context of their respective social situation. If you are really bad at breaking the mood, you can be deemed “SKY” for “super KY” (pronounced like the English word “sky.”) There is now even an entire book dedicated to explaining this kind of romanized Japanese slang called 『KY式日本語—ローマ字略語がなぜ流行るのか』(“Why are KY-form romanized Japanese slang words trendy?”)

Japanese youth make up a smaller and smaller proportion of society every year, but they are still managing to confound their parents in unexpected ways. Both magazines Takarajima and Senden Kaigi have recently published special issues all about young Japanese, and opposed to tirades against wayward children from the past, the editors do not decry kids’ new and devious forms of delinquency, but struggle to explain their lack of creative social destruction. Kids are criticized as being uninspired, lethargic, and non-confrontational. Despite a social and economic system stacked against them, they aren’t fighting society, nor even amongst themselves. Drinking and smoking are out, as is conspicuous consumption. Since parents are no longer evil authority figures, Omotesando is filled daily with young daughters happily shopping with their mothers. In this new social paradigm, marketers and commentators no longer know how to research youth motivation. An interview with social psychologist Kayama Rika in Senden Kaigi boasts the telling article title: “Why can’t we read the minds of youth?” 「なぜ若者の心が読めないのか?」(It is telling that marketers once thought they could.)

In this backdrop, adults have thus latched on to the word KY as a clear linguistic expression of young people’s internal group dynamics. If being “KY” is the number one fear for teenagers, surely this suggests a “herd mentality,” where no one wants to stick out and adherence to implied social rules is critical for maintaining human relations. So thinks Narumi Hiroshi — Associate Professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design and fashion history expert. While previous fashion movements such as hippies, punks, and the head-to-toe black Karasu-zoku (“crow tribe”) dressed to express an anti-social statement, he sees the current fashion emphasis on “real clothes” and “cleanliness” as a product of pressures towards conforming to a group standard. Narumi believes that young people generally prioritize harmonizing with their close friends over self-expression.

KY thus becomes a very convenient way to sum up all of the identified attributes of Gen Y in a single phrase: a lack of curiosity and motivation, an obsession with “life-sized” (等身大) media figures, a satisfaction with being average, an emphasis on immediate social groups, and a disinterest in being anti-authority.

Although this current discussion posits the KY traits as “new” to the current generation, the standard Western criticism of Japanese society reads almost identically: i.e., over-adherence to group norms trumps individual expression. I find it hard to believe that Generation Y invented this concept of “reading the air” for the entirety of Japanese culture. Surely previous generations have also fallen prey to similar pressures. Other post-war generations, however, enjoyed countervailing forces to foster a sense of curiosity, a will to individual expression, and a desire for social change. Being under the imperialist American pop cultural umbrella created an inferiority complex that pushed Japanese artists towards higher and higher standards. Radical Marxism became a rallying point for political activity in the 1960s. Hyper-consumerism in the 1980s and 1990s gave wealthy kids an incentive to manufacture new aesthetic modes to set themselves off from an increasingly trend-conscious mass market. Now with politics and consumerism dead and a reaffirmed self-confidence in Japanese culture, youth no longer possess an ideology that encourages “change.” Japanese social critics seem most confused that today’s kids are starting to backtrack from 50 years of greater “individualism,” reverting to more conservative forms of Japanese social organization.

No one seems to mention, however, that the collapse of the cultural markets (music, fashion, etc.) have created less opportunities for young artists to stand out on the national stage. In other words, even if kids break out of this “herd mentality,” how would we know? Unlike the 1990s, there are no more investors handing out stores to club kids, nor masses of consumers to support niche indie labels. Without any incentives or rewards for young people to break the social rules and stand out, why do we expect them to do so? The fear of KY may be a very old condition for Japan, but the natural social antidotes have all dried up.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Booms Go Bust

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.

O-nii-kei Blazes On

February 7th, 2008

For the last six months, Japanese male fashion fans have been waiting in great anticipation for the opening of department store Hankyu‘s new Men’s building in Osaka — aptly named Hankyu Men’s. This annex to the main building would bring together the widest selection of top-class and popular fashion brands every assembled under one roof. Designer brands Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Dior Homme, and Maison Martin Margiela would be available, as well as luxury powerhouses Gucci, Prada, and Salvatore Ferragamo. More traditional-minded working men could browse Paul Stuart, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, and Ralph Lauren Purple Label. Tom Ford would offer his very first retail space in Japan.

Last weekend, Hankyu Men’s finally opened for business, attracting 180,000 shoppers in three days. According to the Senken Shimbun, Louis Vuitton first-ever men’s only boutique apparently brought in the highest revenues of any tenant (thus proving that LV is not only for women in Japan).

The number two winner, however, was quite a surprise. With almost all the first-tier brands lined up for direct competition, this was quite possibly a battle for the mind and soul of the Japanese fashion market. Even with so many European luxury houses, designer labels, Ivy League standards, and prestigious licenses offered, the brand earning the second-highest sales ended up being Buffalo Bobs — a leader in the relatively new “O-nii-kei” fashion subculture. In three days, this up-and-coming “wild and sexy” casual brand raked in ¥9.9 million.

O-nii-kei — meaning “big brother style” — has crystallized over the last few years as a more market-friendly, classically-masculine version of the “gyaru-o” taste culture. The gyaru-o were the young men who used to hang out with the more extreme “ganguro” members of the gyaru subculture in Shibuya. Now these boys have grown up, abandoned the crazy face paint and garish clothing, and outfitted themselves with aviator glasses, fur-trimmed nylon parkas, buccaneer boots, poofy bronzed hair, and as much silver as could be possible worn on the human body. (Think hosts). The central location for O-nii-kei is Shibuya (more specifically, fifth and sixth floors of Shibuya 109-2), but the look has spread across the archipelago. (For some visual examples of the style, check Patrick Macias’ excellent coverage here, here, and here.)

With the fashion market slowly crumbling and foreign “Japan Cool” hunters looking for the next big thing amongst Japanese youth, you’d think more observers in the Japanese and international media class would be falling all over O-nii-kei. Here is a self-contained fashion movement that has created a real economic market, despite little attention from the apparel manufacturing giants and media support dependent upon independent fashion titles Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle.

The darkly-tanned boys of O-nii-kei, however, are not about to make the cover of Men’s Non-no. I think it is fair to say that the “wild & sexy” style is held as anathema by the tastemakers in the fashion industrial complex. O-nii-kei is basically the latest incarnation of the “yankii” subculture that has been the aesthetic canon for working class delinquent youth tastes since the 1970s. Although alternately romanticized and demonized in the culture at large, yankii have always existed as an outcast from the fashion industry and “proper” consumerism. O-nii-kei is in essentially the same position today. The “serious” men’s fashion magazines may take a bit of “street” style into their wardrobe authorizations, but never touch anything approximating O-nii-kei, which they generally consider “unclean.” (Although there have been rumors that struggling Takarajima publication Smart may take up some O-nii-kei touches…)

So here we have a typical problem in the Cool Industries: The actual youth subculture that is “winning” in terms of sales, growth, and momentum is ghettoized because those at the top do not personally approve of the style. In the past, bottom-up groundswells have forced magazines to realign their fashion sense to meet the changes in consumer tastes. But in most cases, those “new styles” — like Shibuya Casual (shibukaji) in the late ’80s and Ura-Harajuku in the mid-’90s — started amongst upper middle-class youth — in other words, magazines’ main consumer base. O-nii-kei, however, is so tied to a (perceived) lower class taste culture that fashion market “leaders” Popeye or Men’s Nonno could not possibly speak its language without destroying their own up-market position and credibility with advertisers (who are in reality their most important target audience). But currying mainstream magazines’ favor may be a moot point. Buffalo Bobs and Vanquish haven’t needed the main fashion press to get where they are, so why start now?

There is a bigger question at stake, however: trend-spotters and cool-hunters have told us for the last decade that mass fashion trends trickle-down from a street-savvy “style elite,” who just happen to be very similar in tastes to the cool-hunters themselves. Now we see that this does not necessarily have to be true. There are lots of taste culture niches moving in parallel motion, and despite less social capital and cultural capital, niches at the bottom will be able to concentrate enough economic power to make the biggest splash in sluggish markets. Like with Akiba-kei, the O-nii-kei are no longer just consumers active in their own “alternative” market: They are the only consumers consuming enough to matter!

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Yappari Neko Ga Suki

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.

Shibuya-kei vs. Akiba-kei

January 17th, 2008

The new compilation CD AKSB is making headlines by bringing together two Japanese taste cultures generally considered as incompatible as oil and vinegar: the anime-obsessed otaku world of Akihabara (aka “Akiba-kei”) and the 1990s super-chic internationalist music, fashion, interior, and design movement referred to as “Shibuya-kei.”1 In this spirit of union, French lounge DJ legend Dimitri from Paris provides the theme song “Neko Mimi Mode” for the anime series Tsukuyomi -Moon Phase- while Pizzicato Five‘s Konishi Yasuharu — the Godfather of Shibuya-kei — remixes the theme song for cartoon Sgt. Frog (「ケロロ軍曹」). Besides those two icons, few superstars of Shibuya-kei make an appearance on the record, but with “Akihabara Pop” (aka “A-Pop”) carving a profitable niche in the doddering music market, the remaining few practitioners of the Shibuya-kei sound were probably happy to affiliate their genre with the otaku cash-cow.

Despite the “kei” designation (generally meaning “style”), Akiba-kei and Shibuya-kei are very different beasts, occupying different sections of the consumer spectrum and the schoolyard hierarchy. Shibuya-kei was basically a musical movement amongst an indie elite, while Akiba-kei describes a wider subculture of nerdy fantasy obsession. They both, however, have received media attention for “defining” their respective eras, and the differences between them help illustrate how Japanese pop culture has changed in the last 15 or so years. If Shibuya-kei represented the 1990s, what does Akiba-kei culture have to say about the first decade of the 21st century?

Both subcultures strongly share one thing: The members are “nerds” in the sense of being deeply obsessed with pop culture. Shibuya-kei pioneers Flipper’s GuitarOzawa Kenji and Oyamada Keigo (aka Cornelius) — made waves in the early ’90s market by introducing esoteric elements of British neo-acoustic, Madchester, French pops, Italian film soundtracks, late ’60s Moog records, ’60s mod jazz, and Brazilian bossa nova into Japanese-language pop songs. When asked about the source of their cool, they would offer, “We are basically just music nerds (otaku),” an honest self-reading. But because they were more knowledgeable about exciting foreign musical genres than almost everyone else, the media framed them as style leaders for young fashionable types on the lookout for the newest thing.

Akiba-kei fans are also obsessed with collecting and amassing information about pop cultural items, but notice the difference in interests: Instead of importing unknown foreign materials into the domestic cultural pool, Akiba otaku are interested in ruminating about domestic items and creating fan works based on these existing elements. Akiba culture is generally focused around the insular “uchi” — a term in Japanese encompassing the concepts “us” and “inside” and “at home.” The famously-introverted Akiba otaku not only confine their gaze to mostly domestic product but consume it privately or within confined social groupings. Shibuya-kei, on the other hand, focused on the “soto” — the “outside” world in the sense of both the wider “trend community” and international culture at large. Although there has always been a certain level of social discrimination against adults obsessed with video games, comic books, and cartoons, the main otaku culture has rarely been able to take on a “leadership” position for the media in that they do not offer or produce new elements for non-otaku to enjoy. They enjoy locally-produced Japanese culture, and for the media, this is old hat.

So the question is, why is Akiba-kei so “successful” at the moment when it had been perpetually dismissed as (slightly dangerous) nerd culture in the past? Shibuya-kei’s moment is much easier to explain: They were the latest elite in a general post-war Japanese trend of introducing “superior” foreign culture to a hungry consumer society. Akiba culture today still endures the same social prejudices since its dawning in the early ’80s, but suddenly the Japanese media has decided that “otaku are cool.” Some of this may be a misunderstanding of the “Japan Cool” concept: Since those foreigners think the cosplay guys, toy collectors, and goth-loli girls are “a super rad dudes,” I guess we should also pay them respect as our cultural leaders.2

More likely, however, is that the classic Japanese consumer trait of hoarding and collecting items has become rarer in recent years due to reduced consumer spending. At present, the Akiba otaku are the only widespread, definable group whose culture remains based on purchasing lots of items as a means to demonstrate fandom (ignore the New Rich’s conspicuous consumption for the moment). The media and producers celebrate the otaku as “model consumers,”3 secretly hoping that more mainstream Japanese will learn a thing or two from their passion for culture and consumerism. More importantly, things have gotten so bland in the contracting youth culture world that the “every-day-is-Halloween” weekend excitement of Akihabara beats everything else in terms of pep and pomp.

The developments in the media environment have also changed the cultural role for niche groups. The internet has made an “information-based elite” like the Shibuya-kei posse obsolete. When information was highly-valued, the individuals behind Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five could claim faster access to more foreign cultural information than the general population. The Net destroys this power imbalance by extending access to niche information and shortening the time lag between trend-setter cultural adoption and “majority” adoption. Due to this simple fact, the global fashion elite have always maintained a sort of disdain or nonchalance towards the Internet. (A certain ex-Shibuya-kei star is currently organizing grass-roots concerts by passing around fliers and asking fans to not mention the details on the Web.) Instead of fighting technological change, Akiba-kei otaku skillfully use the internet as a way to discuss and consecrate their favorite cultural items and disseminate new works to their community. This has only made the subculture stronger. In fact, Akiba-kei culture is the most appealing content attraction for the Japanese Internet at the moment.

In the end, the Akiba-kei subculture has won a top spot in the contemporary pop landscape because its culture has been least affected by the last decade’s democratization of media and the decline in the culture markets. Shibuya-kei’s aesthetic sense now seems passé, but moreover, the media complex no longer has much use for that breed of cutting-edge indie culture engaged in obscure international art and music. Insularity is not just limited to Akiba-kei in contemporary Japan, but defines the youth generation as a whole. With everyone dropping out of Cool Race 2000, predictable melodies and melodrama are the safer bet than trying to outcool your audience.

No one embodies this cultural shift more than young producer Nakata Yasutaka, who launched his unit Capsule in 2001 as a “Neo-Shibuya-kei” project trying to update Pizzicato Five’s bossa nova dance sound with modern music technology. Despite massive major label backing, he did not really gain much of an audience until abandoning the dated ’90s production and signing up as the producer for very-Akiba-kei “techno idols” Perfume. His cutesy digital robot pop propelled the girls to stardom and made Nakata a hero to obsessive otaku idol fans around the country. In the 21st century, international hipster cool cannot hold a candle to dancing, singing robotic Japanese dolls.


1 O-nii-kei magazines like Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle have started using the word “Shibuya-kei” in reference to their own style. This is accurate in a certain sense — this style is based in Shibuya — but confusing since the original Shibuya-kei already staked out that geolexical terminology. Maybe this is like the word “Emo” first describing bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring in the 1990s and then the sonically-unrelated My Chemical Romance in ’00s.

For those wondering why “Shibuya-kei” was called “Shibuya-kei” in the first place, the word came from the popularity of certain “Western-sounding” Japanese musicians at HMV and Tower Records in Shibuya. The neighborhood itself never really embodied their ’60s-revival aesthetic.

2 I don’t want to harp on this point, but Japan Cool contains at least three disparate elements — otaku culture (Akiba-kei), cognoscenti culture (including the Shibuya-kei stream), and youth subcultures (Kogyaru, Bosozoku, etc.). Anime can be cool in certain contexts (album covers for rap artists, etc.), but this does not mean that the genre has been able to transcend its nerdiness outside of Japan. Being really into Takashi Murakami or really into Naruto are still not equal within the snob hierarchy.

3 Yes, this is a pun.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

“Yappari hade ja nai”

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.

The MacroTrends Behind Top 2007 Products

December 26th, 2007

On December 3, Nikkei Marketing Journal (MJ) offered a refereed list of the top 36 products from 2007 within a mock sumo wrestling ranking chart. (Click here for an explanation of the makuuchi sumo rankings.) The winners were:

EAST

Yokozuna – Nintendo Wii & DS
Ohseki – Face recognition technology (used in digital cameras)
Sekiwake –  “Mega” fast foods (MegaMac)
Komusubi – Video uploading (YouTube & Nico Nico Douga)
Maegashira – iPod Touch
Pilot Frixion ballpoint pen
– Region-differentiated pricing (started by McDonalds)
– Luxury hair-care products
Billy’s Boot Camp
Blu-ray disc recorders
Tomato liquor
National A-La-Uno toilet
Leggins
“My hashi”: carrying personal chopsticks
Sen no kaze ni Natte (hit song)
– India-style calculation method (Vedic Mathematics)
– New operating systems (Vista, Leopard)
“Balance” fitness

WEST

Yokozuna – E-Money
Ohseki – High-quality video cameras
Sekiwake – Tokyo (Midtown, Shin-Maru Building, Yurakucho ITOCiA, etc.)
Komusubi – Softbank White Plan
Maegashira – Axe body spray
Charmy “Power of Foam” dish detergent
– Constant prices at supermarkets despite rising material costs
Transino liver-spot remover
Model planes that can be flown inside the home
(Return of the) Nissan GT-R
Calorie-zero sodas
– INAX Kururin Poi Drain
Unicharm Lifely Slimwear for seniors
Eco Bags
“Butt Biting Bug”
Salt-flavored sweets
Grand Pianist toy
PuchiPuchi “infinite bubble pop” toy

Underlying Macro Trends in this Ranking List

1)  No Kids or Youth Products / Lots of Middle-Age or Elderly-Marketed Products

A decade ago, Japanese schoolgirls gained a reputation for leading trends and creating hit products — essentially the “early adopters” for the whole of society. Looking at this 2007 list, however, there is almost nothing that gained massive popularity within or growing out of youth cultures. Axe body spray is apparently a huge hit with the kids, but hard to detect from the sights and smells of the city. On the other hand, the DS and Wii succeeded precisely because Nintendo took gaming into society at large — including women in their 20s (with their custom-bejewled DS lites) and the elderly. Leggings — the only apparel item on the list — experienced broad adoption, but it was women in their 20s that led the charge. Even the few toys on the list — Grand Pianist, PuchiPuchi, and inside-friendly model planes — seem to be relatively adult-oriented. (MJ makes the note that the Grand Pianist appealed to 40 year-olds). Maybe the “Butt Biting Bug” song was a “kid” thing, but the slightly grown-up nature of the lyrics attracted the most attention. Young students probably have to do the Indian-style method of calculation, but only because their parents force them to.

If there was an item that showed Japanese youth contribution to culture, surely it was Koizora — the “keitai novel” turned hit book and film. High school students love melodrama, and hoaxy-anonymous authors like “Mika” deliver the goods: dead boyfriends, gang rape, and miscarriages.

In addition to a lack of youth products, there also seem to be lots of “mature” products in categories normally attracting teens. For example, the big hit/development amongst non-alcoholic beverages was zero calorie colas. I seriously doubt the kids are the ones demanding less fattening soft drinks. Nor do I think that they are so jaded with artificial flavors to demand a little salt in their sweets. Needless to say, the youth are definitely not the ones demanding incontinence-ready “slimwear” or liver-spot remover either. Even the pop music market — which has historically been teen-oriented — was best represented by the (year-old) cheesy semi-opera work “Sen no kaze ni natte” topping the charts, perhaps sending a message of impending doom for Japanese youth culture as a whole. The main point is, middle-aged and elderly Japanese are now leading consumer culture in Japan without much competition from their children and grandchildren.

2)  Eco Eco Eco

Judging by the large number of eco-conscious products on this list, Japanese consumers do seem to be making concrete efforts to show more personal commitment to global footprint reduction. The idea of carrying around personal chopsticks (in order to avoid using the disposable wooden waribashi) is a small-scale pro-environment action, but a positive sign if indeed a mass trend. The “eco tote bag” made being green much easier by doubling as a fashion statement. (Yes, there were crowds and disorder before the Anya Hindmarch eco bag went on sale in Ginza, but something about the event seemed different from the normal crowds of patient Japanese youth.)

3)  Class-Bifurcated Market

The Japanese population avoided drinking an even cheaper, worse-quality beer-like beverage this year, but the market continued towards its two-tier structure of providing the wealthy with first-class versions of products while creating low-price goods for everyone else. The “luxury hair care” boom proved that a certain population is willing to pay way more for shampoo and conditioner than ever before — or maybe just that women are willing to pay more to guarantee luxury-quality hair. Meanwhile, people are flocking to the Softbank White Plan to reduce their cell phone bills. If you think about it enough, the Mega Mac and other “mega” fast food can almost be seen as a “freeter luxury” for those poor souls who can no longer afford to partake in giant steak dinners. And now with McDonalds starting region-variable pricing, businesses are clearly starting to add in price differentiation strategies to capitalize on the growing inequalities. This should be a key trend for 2008 as well — for better or worse.

4)  What Internet?

Although there are a lot of gadgets and technical innovations on this list, there seems to be little recognition of Net culture’s impact on society. Yes, YouTube and Nico Nico Douga are attracting lots of viewers, but this is just a continuation of last year’s trend than anything new. And these sites are still filled with illegal copies of TV and music videos rather than original content created by actual Japanese users. (The homemade Halfby videos are a good sign, however.) The iPod Touch’s most innovative feature for Americans — the ability to browse the internet using Wi-Fi — is completely worthless in Tokyo where almost no buildings or cafés offer free wireless service. The new operating systems “trend” is a pretty boring one — neither Vista nor Leopard changed any lives. In general, the list makes it sound like there have been more plumbing innovations — the A-la-uno toilet and Kururin Poi drain — than new evolutions in internet culture.

Due to the state of entrenched industry know-how, Japan has always been more about standalone gadgets than computer-based peripherals and desktop applications. With the Blu-ray recorder and high-quality video cameras, this principle still seems to be in action. Even E-money seems to chart out an alternative future rather than streamlining the concept of currency with the internet.

Although this year saw more internet phenomena — the aforementioned keitai shousetsu cell-phone novels reaching the top of the book charts and 2-ch flaming-related corporate scandals, etc. — we still don’t get the sense that the internet has become interwoven with Japanese life like in the United States or South Korea. This is not to say that these two nations represent the authoritative version of the “future”; simply, Japanese companies remain devoted to pursuing their own conception of a gadget-based technological progress rather than just hopping on the global bandwagon.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.