Rent-a-Bag and the Meaning of “Trend”

December 12th, 2007

The new Japanese company ORB (On-Line Rent-a-Bag) gives women the opportunity to rent luxury handbags from upscale European design houses Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Chanel for short-term periods. Although its business model is nearly identical to that of American company Bag Borrow or Steal, ORB is perhaps the first above-the-line implementation of “luxury rental” in Japan. Members of ORB’s “Bag Club” pay the not-so-cheap price of ¥29,800 per month for access to a wide selection of high-end products. For such a hefty fee, one could easily afford the monthly credit card payments on a truly spectacular bag. But ORB gives you the never-before-available option of changing luxury horses in midstream. Better yet, a constantly-rotating series of bags from ORB may give your peers the impression that you are a member of the exclusive Japanese upper classes with cash to burn on multiple luxury handbags. (Is the whole “handbag for life” thing suddenly an obvious signifier of the middle class?)

Here’s the deeper question when writing about ORB: Is luxury bag-rental worth identifying as a trend? So far, we only know of one company offering this service, and we have no idea whether the business model will be successful. Furthermore, we should not assume that the service succeeds in satisfying consumer needs simply on the publicized news of its foundation. Sure, it’s a noteworthy idea — somewhat novel, somewhat innovative — but does it pass the threshold to win “trend” designation?

At the end of the year, we are inundated with lists and lists of “The Year’s Hit Products” and “Buzzwords of the Year,” and although the media may not use the word “trend reporting,” they all attempt to give a sense of where popularity congregated over the last 52 weeks. This may seem like an odd time in the course of this blog (and within this particular essay) to start deconstructing the entire trend-spotting industry, but we felt like we needed to take a step back and look at common misdiagnoses of trends — especially in Japan.

(1) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Production/Manufacturing/Innovation: A lot of Japan-oriented trend blogs seem to push “cool” products as “trends” without any evidence that consumers agree. Yes, there are a lot of crazy, zany things that make it to the Japanese marketplace, but not all of these products will see substantial sales or have even been created with consumer research in mind. This is not to say that products specifically created to satisfy pre-existing consumer needs automatically become hits, but there must be some measure of reception to designate any piece of novelty as a “trend.” At best, there is a “production trend” in Japan for companies to make humanoid robots that play instruments; Asimo’s mere existence, however, says nothing about Japanese consumer sentiment towards the possibility of robot cohabitation.

(2) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Media (i.e., the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy): If you want to understand the entire blueprint for the new year (essentially viewing the “spoilers” for the next 365 days of consumer culture), read Dentsu’s forecast for the “Hit Products of 2008” included in their forthcoming “Hit Products of 2007” report. Since the advertising giant has the media budget to secure hits (or at least, create the illusion of success/authority in the media space), their predictions have better odds than the Harlem Globetrotters beating the Washington Generals. For example, just as predicted, Tokyo Midtown was “big” in 2007, but in what possible circumstances could the complex have not been a hit?

Since the Japanese mass media’s central organizational role is to advocate sponsored products from a position of central authority, the media’s definition of trend is always tautological: If the media decides to constantly feature a product, it therefore appears as a “hit” or a “trend” solely from all the exposure. This does not mean, however, that their pronouncement is a lie: The mass plurality of consumers in Japan still buy and participate in mass trends based solely on the amount of media exposure.

But even when consumers don’t take the bait, how can an objective observer really tell? Does the popular advertorial TV show Ohsama no Brunch ever do flashback stories on things that did not turn out to be successful despite its enthusiastic coverage? “Podcasting” was a buzzword in Japan a while back, but when the media dust settled, the “trend” was totally empty.

(3) Trend Reports Ignoring the Importance of Continuity: Xavel’s cell-phone/PC fashion shopping sites fashionwalker.com and girlswalker have been incredibly successful, but the company clearly rode on the coattails of market-leading manufacturers, media institutions, and talent-agencies. The expansion of fashion retail into “new media” has definitely been a real innovation, and objectively, the high levels of mass support have made “keitai shopping” a trend by any measure. The entire Xavel [now Branding] enterprise, however, is still dependent upon the legitimacy of traditional media. Without access to Ebi-chan & Co., it’s unclear if consumers would have ever made the leap into the arms of an unknown retailer. So, yes, Xavel is a real trend, but the company’s innovation has been more dependent upon continuity than innovation.

Our last post on hit novel Koizora makes a similar criticism: what is the difference between the success of a “traditional” novel with a high-expenditure mass market television campaign and a book-form “keitai novel” that receives the exact same promotional treatment? Koizora‘s hit status says more about the constancy of promotional power in Japan than the innovation in content creation.

(4) Trends that Overemphasize the Rogers Model: We no longer live in an unidirectional marketplace where elitist “early adopters” take up products and are then imitated by the less cool “early majority.” These days, popular products often completely skip hipster adopters, and sometimes the early majority intentionally rejects the styles of the well-respected media/art/fashion complex. In Japan, trendy underground culture has become a deserted island; the idea that its Lost-like survivors can somehow transmit their love of RSS, CSS and American Apparel to hordes of Johnny’s Jimusho fans is silly. There are real early adopters — sales clerks at Shibuya 109, for example — but are frequently ignored when they do not share the same taste culture as the actual trend-spotters. So, not only does the classic diffusion model not apply particularly well to the 21st century environment, trend-spotters generally give too much credence to “early adopters” similar to themselves or the Western example but lacking in real opinion leadership.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

This essay is not to say that there isn’t noteworthy reporting on innovations, novelties, and borrowable ideas from the Japanese market, but there is always an error of over-reporting these as “mass trends.” If we return to the initial problem in analyzing the “rent-a-luxury-bag” phenomenon, the best course may be to err on the side of skeptical neutrality. Reporting on new products and services is great fun for blog posts, but overselling novelty as “trend” can create a false sense of market realities.

Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation

November 16th, 2007

If the promotional materials are to be believed, one out of every ten Japanese has already shed tears over the “keitai novel” Koizora 『恋空』. This level of cultural penetration would make the work the mainstream media event of the 21st century — quite a feat for an amateurishly-written love story about gang rape, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, and premature cancer deaths. The figure of 12 million may be a misreading of internet download statistics, but Koizora’s success in mainstream markets has been the real deal. Beginning as a keitai shōsetsu posted on a host-focused bulletin board in 2005, downloads of the story from the keitai novel site Mahō no Island eventually hit 10 million in its first year. The cleaned-up book version sold in the millions, a manga version appeared, and the recent film adaptation debuted at #3 on the box office. A “side-story” Kimizora: ‘koizora’ another story is currently topping the fiction charts.

Although we at clast have been skeptical in the past about the internet’s ability to completely crack the old production systems for culture in Japan, Koizora clearly presents the case of a total “nobody” creating content, “publishing” it through an open website, gaining grass-roots popularity, and finally winning sponsorship from the larger entertainment industry (in this case, Starts Publishing and Tōhō Company, with help from Lawson’s, Tsutaya, NTT, and Mitsuya Cider etc.) Some wonder how this particular work found its way into the system so quickly (when more popular keitai writers continue to be ignored), but just as in the Chad Vader model, Japanese companies are clearly using the internet as a testing ground for new talent.

In other ways, however, Koizora is just another example of traditional Japanese diffusion patterns for pop culture. Whether schoolgirl fashion or a hot band, microtrends in Japan very rarely show clean linear (or even exponential) growth from the grass-roots level up to the masses. Once a certain product or style becomes slightly visible on the street, the mainstream media complex scoops it up and propels it into national news/advertising campaigns — thus creating an immediate explosion in interest or participation for the entire country. The effect is a huge jump in diffusion rather than a smooth curve. In the case of Koizora, the original “phone novel” phenomenon may have been impressive for that niche, but the book printing was promoted through mass-targeted television advertising; the subsequent high sales should not be too surprising.

The most interesting feature of Koizora‘s success may be its author — “Mika” (美嘉) —  about whom we know absolutely nothing. Despite being the best-selling young female author of recent days and an overnight millionaire, “Mika” has chosen not to reveal herself to the public. Like Densha Otoko before, Mika is essentially anonymous and untraceable. We get nothing more than a first-name and some attributed quotes. Koizora is supposed to be a “true story” of her youth, or at least, “based on her experiences.”

Since nobody in the Japanese media appears interested in investigating the real Mika and readers do not have problems with the gross inaccuracies in Mika’s depiction of pregnancy and malignant lymphoma, the author has no pressure to add a face and full name to her semi-literary stardom. Anonymity is important for individuals to share their creations on the internet, but there is also a sympathy and understanding amongst Japanese consumers towards protecting the anonymity of those who request it. Anonymity, however, is also a key component of this form of confessional literature. Not only does the “nobodiness” of the author make it seem more “real” and “personal,” anonymity protects seemingly-autobiographical narrative works from the James Frey/A Million Little Pieces danger of exposé.

Empathy is the key emotional response to a book like Koizora. Readers cry because they have emotionally invested in the pain and suffering of this protagonist — feelings no doubt amplified by the assumption that the terrible gang-rape bullying and teenage death actually happened to this pitiful author. Once the narrative becomes “based on a true story,” revealing the true degree of fictionalization may lead to collective let-down. If Mika were really a forty-year old data-entry clerk who experienced completely unremarkable teenage years, the whole prerequisites at the base of the “empathy” start to fall apart. It’s not fun to cry for the pain of a friend who has lost her mother and then find out the next day that the mom is alive and she was lying the whole time to get you to pay for drinks.

The more net culture in Japan progresses, the more it becomes clearer that anonymity is its underlying principle. Even in the face of possible fame and fortune, amateur writers are finding it more helpful to hide real identities in order to reap in the benefits of building fantastical realities for mass empathy. The masses of readers are more likely to tolerate terrible writing, melodramatic clichés, and incredulous stories of sex and death on the assumption that they are first-hand accounts. The Internet has made the narrative behind the “success” of a creative work as important as the narrative contained the work itself. Breaking Mika’s anonymity in the case of Koizora would ruin both.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Girls From Good Families

November 8th, 2007

On November 17, popular Japanese lingerie company Peach John will open a shop within the flagship Shinjuku branch of esteemed department store Isetan. In the last decade, PJ has made a dramatic transformation from a small outfit importing American bras to a catalog sales giant with 20 locations in brick-and-mortar stores. Moving up to Isetan seems like a natural progression for the burgeoning brand, but this will not be just “another store.” The language of Peach John’s latest venture hints at a new direction for the company, and more broadly, an intriguing trend in Japanese marketing.

According to the November 6th Senken Shimbun story 「ピーチ・ジョンが伊勢丹本店に出店」, the name of Peach John’s project for Isetan is “Girls from Good Families” — spelled out in katakana 「ガールズ・フロム・グッド・ファミリー」. Senken “translates” this Japanese-scripted English into more standard Japanese as「良家の子女」.

Peach John’s current stores are mostly located in fashion buildings like Shibuya 109, and the Isetan project is the company’s first foray into department stores. In terms of customer base, Isetan definitely attracts a much different crowd than Shibuya 109. The age range and fashion aesthetics of the two audiences are different, but so are the tax brackets. For ¥20,000 at Shibuya 109, you can buy an entire autumn ensemble; at Isetan, you could maybe buy a single pillow. (But not necessarily one of the nicer pillows.)

Certainly, girls from “good families” are shopping at Isetan, but I find it strange to come out and code these consumers with that exact label. What does Peach John mean by “good family”? Rich? Old money? Does this mean that shoppers from Shibuya 109 are from “bad families”? Or just “less good families”? Does Peach John only want to attract daughters of fourth-generation doctors on the Board of charitable organizations? Or should the big-spending female offspring of loan sharks feel shame towards their lineage when stepping up to the cash register?

The marketing concept is smart, though: In order to attract a zone of consumers willing to pay higher prices for essentially the same product, Peach John will downplay the somewhat tawdry image established in its mass advertising campaigns. PJ’s train ads usually feature busty half-Japanese models like Jessica Michibata, Kelly, and Fujii Rina wearing revealing lingerie inside what appears to be the world’s most adorable brothel. The recent inclusion of Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie on the cover of the catalog may be an attempt to tone down the sex appeal towards men, but regardless, the tenor of the usual messaging probably does not impress the “well-to-do” mother from a “good family” that PJ imagines shops at Isetan. Leopard print bras could besmirch generations of inherited wealth. So Peach John is creating a new pocket for the brand, leaving the “over-stimulating” animal print at Shibuya 109, and creating a special selection at Isetan that moms will happily purchase for their little duchesses and baronesses. Standard PJ references to pole dancing will not be welcome. “Good families” apparently pass down Victorian attitudes towards sexuality from generation to generation.

Peach John’s new strategy further bolsters the idea that income disparity is becoming an obvious part of Japanese social and business life. I find it odd, however, that the marketing language is actually using loaded terms like “良家” (ryouke) to pander to the upper classes. Currently, the New Rich are a much dominant consumer group in Japan than actual “good families.” The nouveau riche, however, may like this idea of being treated with social respect solely from their ability to indulge in luxury goods. On the other hand, the girls at Shibuya 109 may begin to question why they are not being labeled as “girls from good families,” but they probably aren’t reading daily trade publications to find out the names of their favorite brands’ retail promotion strategies.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Japan CGM: Is it the system rather than the individual?

October 19th, 2007

Reading this New York Times article about the potential “big time” success of “Chad Vader” creators — Wisconsin-based improvisational actors Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda I couldn’t help but think their success was not just contingent upon this new piece of technology called “the Internet” but the fundamental organization of the labor market in the American entertainment industry. As we saw in the original Clast piece on Japanese consumer generated media (CGM), there is no bona fide “Chad Vader phenomenon” in Japan, nor a notable number of Net content creators jumping out of the online to make sizable waves in the off-line world. While the lack of high-quality CGM with a broad appeal is one issue, there remains a fundamental question about entertainment industry reception even if Japanese individuals manage to create “break-through” content.

Here is the key quote from the NYT piece:

“[Sloan and Yonda are] an original comedic voice coming off the Web, and everybody’s
interested in that,” said their agent, Dan Shear of the William Morris talent agency, which has represented them for about two years.

There are two underlying assumptions in this sentence which illuminate why the transition from CGM to MSM (mainstream media) is much easier in the United States than Japan.

Assumption Number One: these two “nobodies” from Madison, Wisconsin have representation through the William Morris agency — probably the most well-known agent organization in the U.S. These agents make their money by finding new individuals with promise and helping them connect to possible employers. They are literally “agents” of the individual — hired by an actor/writer/performer and paid a percentage of the employment deals they are able to negotiate. Since they are “agents” of the up-and-coming artist, the artist employs the agent and not the other way around.

In Japan, there are essentially no agents in this mold. The primary organizational intermediaries between talent and the media are management companies — jimusho in local lingo. In reverse of the U.S. model, they hire young talent, whom they treat as employees with steady salaries unrelated to actual gross income. While there are literally thousands of these jimusho in Tokyo alone, only a handful have any sort of access to the top echelons of Japanese television — specifically: Burning Production and its dozens of semi-open subsidiaries (in charge of Fujiwara Norika, Amuro Namie, etc.), Amuse (Southern All Stars), Yoshimoto Kogyo (Downtown), Tanabe Agency (Tamori, Rip Slyme), Up Front Agency (Morning Musume), and a few others. In the traditional model, management companies use financial and human resources to “raise” young talents.  The jimushos then levy access to their current hit starts to force media companies to use new talents in first-rate ad campaigns and television shows. As a result, TV show producers rarely audition in open casting calls: they politely ask which star the management company would like them to use and generally comply with the instructions.

Management companies, however, are so small and specified in their activities that they cannot easily absorb “new talent” that may have come to attention without their help. In fact, I think it is fair to say that jimushos generally see anyone who grew to prominence without passing through the management company system as a threat to their institutional position of supplying new talent.

This leads us to Assumption Number Two taken from the earlier quote: “They’re an original comedic voice coming off the Web, and everybody’s interested in that.” Precisely due to the very oligopolistic jimusho system in Japan, no one (in the industry, at least) is interested in “original comedic voices.” The sources for comedy on Japanese TV have already been established: Yoshimoto Kogyo’s manzai cabal and a few knock-offs in different jimusho. CAA and William Morris may hold a certain level of oligopolistic power in the United States in terms of getting their clients’ feet in the door, but they wield it as agents, not semi-content producers like in the case of management companies. In Japan, new kinds of content cannot be easily absorbed because management companies protect their system in which they control the creation and tone of content and single-handedly groom the pool of celebrity talent. Essentially, the jimushos want to keep tastes stable (or, at the very least, manage the rate of change) in order to preserve the value of the talent they already control.

In the case of Team Chad Vader in the United States, the medium may have changed from TV to YouTube, but the talent scouting system is essentially the same. In fact, the Internet only makes William Morris’ job easier by giving agents a gauge of popular support to measure the future possibilities of potential clients. Selling Yonda and Sloan as “hot” comics is easy when they’ve got six zeros in their YouTube view count rather than a “pretty good” spec script of Scrubs.

CGM is prospering in Japan to a certain degree, mostly where the participants are able to stay anonymous (NicoNico Douga or countless Hatsune Miku videos, for example), but the question is: If someone is willing to put themselves out there as a traceable individual and “break,” will there be anyone to catch them?

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Race as Fashion Signifier

October 5th, 2007

Last time, we discussed Japanese fashion magazines’ obfuscation of Tokyo scenery to create appropriate atmosphere for consumer fantasy. This dodged a more immediate element for establishing proper context: the actual fashion models. But before even considering which individual model to use, Japanese editors make a more general decision on the race of the models representing the feel of the magazine. Historical factors and a self-identification as a “monoracial nation state” makes race a much more potent signifier in Japan than in places like the United States where a pro-diversity philosophy has intentionally de-emphasized the idea of implicit meanings in skin color.

Due to the senzoku model system, Japanese magazines hold a stable of exclusive models to represent the magazine. Other than the high-fashion magazines, editors rarely just pull together a certain group of well-known individuals from a “pool of models” to fit certain stories. They generally assemble a semi-permanent “team,” and the average racial composition of this team is linked to the magazine’s fashion category.

Magazines in the “real clothes” genre — like CanCam — aim to reflect the “real lives” of their readers. This means models who are not excessively tall, and ultimately, “pure” Japanese. CanCam uses almost all 100% Japanese models (we’ll count Yamada Yu as Japanese rather than a distinct “Okinawan” and ignore the half-Japanese Mine Erika as a rare exception.) When compared to the overwhelming number of half-Japanese/half-white models used in JJ and ViVi, this should be seen as an intentional decision. CanCam‘s power, however, is in its ability to create sympathy and self-association between readers and models. Since Japanese office ladies and junior college students have no fantastical aspirations towards the artistic side of the fashion business over in Europe, they are happy to see themselves in Ebi-chan’s shoes. Gyaru magazines like Popteen or Cawaii! are fundamentally similar in aspiration. Since Japan is the locus of legitimacy for that particular fashion, foreign or half-Japanese models would only confuse messaging.

High-end fashion magazines, on the other hand, mostly feature clothing from European houses and luxury brands, pegging the center of legitimacy in the West. In order to ensure that the presentation harks back to the larger Eurocentric fashion world, magazines like Spur or Ginza — almost without exception — use non-Japanese and mostly Caucasian models. This prevents Japanese female readers from self-association, but that’s the point. Like the old Groucho Marx quote, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member,” Japanese high-fashion fans do not want to see the clothes they desire on real-life Japanese people. There may be a tad bit of self-effacement in this sentiment, but it generally questions more elite Japanese consumers’ feelings about their own locale. The fantasy, therefore, requires an army of non-Japanese models.

ViVi and Glamorous‘ overwhelming use of half-Japanese and three-quarters-Japanese models like Fujii Rina, Hasegawa Jun, and Iwahori Seri begs a more pointed question: What does race mean when it’s not a pure reflection of either here nor there? These magazines are not targeting some massive half-Japanese readership, nor do these models look foreign enough to recenter the magazine atmosphere outside of Japan.

Herein lies lingering issues of perceived racial inferiority. I’ve been told numerous times in Japan that “clothes look better on foreigners,” by which they mean “white or black people.” This is not objectively true (nor subjectively true, in my view), but editors have long used half-Japanese models on this principle to bridge the gap between Japanese self-association and cool “foreign” fashion. A half-Japanese model looks “foreign” enough to enhance the image of the clothing, but close enough to the reader to send a message of commonality. Things are changing, however. Male fashion magazine Popeye previously used only half-Japanese models but moved to more foreigners once readers voiced less need for racial similarity in considering the clothing.

An underlying point remains: Race still has an important textual quality in Japan that impacts companies’ branding and messaging. The natural increase in racial diversity seen in Western countries, mixed with post-’60s progressive politics, has worked to de-emphasize the use of race as a personality/lifestyle determinate. I doubt that Calvin Klein’s choice of Djimon Hounsou as their spokesman was intended solely to say something “black” about Calvin Klein or limit the messaging to African-Americans. The political correctness of “neutral” race — combined with a need to emphasize inclusion to target multiple communities — has led to the “Benetton approach” in ad campaigns (except for the occasional lack of black and Asian models at NY fashion week). In Japan, however, there is still a strong idea that a Japanese face can rarely legitimize a product for which the aura is located abroad. CanCam is showing that Japanese readers often want to see Japanese models, but this only works within a narrow context of establishing horizontal commonality.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Where Are You?

September 21st, 2007

There are many Japanese fashion magazines, each representing a specific style niche somewhere between high-fashion, street wear, and office attire. And in these magazines, the fashion spreads work very hard to make readers think to themselves: Where in the world were these pictures taken?

For the most part, the answer is just Tokyo. With a hectic photo schedule sometimes requiring a single model (like Ebihara “Ebi-chan” Yuri) to appear in 150+ distinct outfits on a monthly basis, trips abroad are generally out of the question. Summertime may see some bikini shoots in Saipan or Guam, and New York is popular for a special feature on autumn trends, but generally, Tokyo and its environs are the only practical choice for backgrounds.

In these spreads, however, Tokyo never looks like anyone’s normal spacial conceptualization of Tokyo. If CanCam was the only visual record for the city, a first time visitor would expect the megalopolis to look like a dainty pastiche of Paris, London, and stately manors. Obviously, Edo’s usual concrete and tile bonanza sitting in the background of a photo shoot would kill all the fantasy surrounding fashion. (I mean, really, do Dior suits look better or worse in front of a 1998 Honda Civic hatchback?) But I find it interesting how each magazine’s visual approach not only creates the proper environment for appreciation of the clothing, but submerges the reader into a slightly-upgraded, aspirational version of his/her own reality. On average, Tokyo may be a lot of lazy form-follows-function-minus-design, but there is enough architectural diversity for photographers to crop out a fitting spatial universe to present to readers.

For example:

High-fashion magazines (Spur, Ginza) — Mostly interior or studio shoots, high-contrast lighting. Sites may be within Japan, but always sport the chairs and cabinets of Scandinavian residences.

Akamoji-kei (CanCam, JJ, Ray) — Mostly outdoor shots of urban locales, which emphasizes the public-ness of the OL lifestyle. Locations, however, never ever look like contemporary Japan. Lots of French cafés, girls sitting on Vespas, standing in front of double-decker London buses and U.K. “Underground” signs. Aux Bacchanales must earn substantial income from lending out their store as a location. Interesting antique shops in Setagaya-ku or Daikanyama also work well. If Japanese text accidentally makes it into the background of the shot, the photographers make sure to use a short-depth of field to blur out all linguistic reminders of daily life.

Women’s Casual/Street (Spring, Fudge, Mini) — Outdoors, out-of-the-city, back-to-the-wilderness. Lots of Rinko Kawauchi-esque washed-out colors. Delicate girls, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This makes parkas look great. Girls also lounge on wooden porches and big green lawns that are hardly common, at least in Tokyo.

Men’s Street Fashion (Smart) — Models on the rooftops of three-story buildings. Urban, yet a bit grimy. They don’t even try to hide the uglier parts of Tokyo, seeing that the clothes match the rough and tough life of growing up on the Tokyo streets.

Men’s Business Fashion (Gainer) — Tokyo skyscrapers! Glass and steel! How will this gray pinstripe suit look when I start working at a big-league company with its own building? For some reason, there is also always a girl in business attire standing nearby, as if to make sure a suit would also look good in the context of burgeoning office romance. Other people are critical to the landscape as well.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Black Ships

September 7th, 2007

When American bikini babe Leah Dizon became a Japanese celebrity last year, the media light-heartedly referred to her as the “kurofune” (黒船) of the gravia idol world. Kurofune means literally “black ship” and is a direct reference to the sidewheel steamers under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry that opened Japan’s ports by threat of force in the 1850s. The metaphor is relatively clear in the case of Dizon: an American woman “opened up” a business once completely occupied by Japanese females. Although Dizon came to her fame through a Japanese company, the media has playfully indulged in this idea of “invasion” as part of her product narrative.

The September 4 issue of DIME magazine has expanded the use of “kurofune” to the world of mobile phones. In the article 「黒船ケータイ」のデザイン力 — “The Design Power of Kurofune Cell Phones” — the editors have chosen the phrase “kurofune keitai” as a category name for Apple’s iPhone and LG’s Prada and Chocolate lines. Seeing that LG is Korean and Prada is Italian, kurofune is no longer limited to American products nor even Western ones. In fact, foreignness alone may not be the key to a place in the dark armada. Nokia, for example, has never had a kurofune reputation in their past attempts to break the Japanese market.

DIME essentially uses kurofune to connote “a foreign product that is a threat to a market generally controlled by Japanese firms.” There is an implication of a power imbalance, with Japan on the losing side. Despite the fact that the iPhone will not arrive on Japanese shores for a while, Japanese consumers have shown enough interest in the new gadget to send shivers down the spines of Japan’s oligopolistic phone manufacturers. Critics may argue that the iPhone is not particularly more innovative than current Japanese models (it lacks a TV tuner, for example), but DIME‘s deployment of “kurofune” is a quiet admission that the iPhone has struck a psychological blow to the Japanese cell phone market. In the last five years, we have seen the iPod take over what has traditionally been a Japan-dominated portable music market. Apple’s gizmos are no longer just “imports,” but strong-armed devices with the possibility of changing Japan by force. And like Perry’s gunboat diplomacy, the psychic impact of unwanted entry can have longer terms effects than what actually happens during the landing.

The recent use of “kurofune” at least confirms that the Japanese media still sees consumer markets in terms of nation-states. In other words, the success of foreign products in Japan has implications for Japan’s self-identity. It is certainly unwise to read too much nationalism into the sudden popularity of labeling pop cultural developments with reference to the Perry’s humiliating visit of 1853, but now in an era of expanded globalization, there are definitely more kurofune floating towards Japan for the media to identify in their spyglass.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

“Makise Riho’s Boyfriend”

August 24th, 2007

We can’t help but make some comments on A Bathing Ape (Bape)’s T-shirts for the annual Nihon Television telethon “24-Hour Television.” This collaboration was certainly the most effective tool for cementing Bape’s image as a mass market brand in Japan, and the charity work gave that iconic simian logo huge promotion among the grandpas and grandmas that make up the bulk of Japan’s viewing public. This unprecedented union of street fashion and variety TV seemed to bring immediate results: The telethon T-shirts have already raised ¥420 million for some lucky environmental concerns. (At ¥1400, the T’s may have been the cheapest BAPE shirts ever made outside of a creaky factory in godforsaken regions of mainland Asia.) Whether in support or mockery, everyone was talking about A Bathing Ape last week, reflected in fashion blog Elastic giving A Bathing Ape a spot on their “Mote Brand” list for late 2007.

Looking at Bape’s recent 2007 Spring/Summer Collection magazine, I realized that the label does not necessarily seek to shun the underground to make peace with the masses. Nigo really just wants to appeal to everyone everywhere with every possible kind of celebrity: models, American rappers, third-rate comedians, wrestlers, and indie musicians. Total inclusiveness, however, is quite literally the exact opposite of exclusivity, and selling 300,000 yellow Ape face T-shirts in a single week to anyone with a TV set and the internet and enough money for three beers probably doesn’t have a positive effect on the more premier pieces in the Bape line.

Ironically, Nigo’s greatest achievement with the Japanese public may still have more to do with his love life than his fashion empire. In this Yahoo! News article on the success of the “24 Hour TV” shirts, Nigo is introduced first and foremost as boyfriend to idol Makise Riho and the second as a fashion designer. As much as his critics paint him as a part of the establishment, he clearly has some ways to go before being a real mass market icon who needs no introduction through his belle.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Hoppy and Artificial Nostalgia

August 17th, 2007

In an age where thirsty masses have abandoned Japan’s regal ales and lagers for fake brew happōshu and malty chemical concoction “third-category beer,” there should be no surprise that Hoppy — the Grandfather of Ersatz Beer — has made a triumphant comeback. Originally intended as a cheap substitute for beer amongst the Tokyo working classes in the immediate post-war, the bubbly beer-like soda is made “alcoholic” with an injection of Japan’s standby white liquor, shōchū. The resulting taste is as close to beer as carob is to chocolate, but not necessarily bad. It’s very refreshing in summertime and much lighter than a real beer. (I prefer the rich “Hoppy Black” since its flavor is strong enough to avoid being drowned out by the shōchū tang.)

Hoppy’s comeback has a few key lessons for the Japanese market:

1) Older inferior goods can be enjoyed in a new way when better substitutes arrive in the market. Hoppy is a classic “inferior good” — a product for which demand decreases when consumers’ incomes rise. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hoppy all but disappeared once economic growth allowed even the bottom of society to afford real beer. In today’s less buoyant economy, we again see the need for an inferior good in the beer market, and the more modern happōshu plays that role. Thanks to the powers of science and technology, happōshu tastes much closer to beer than Hoppy ever did. But this is a very good thing for Hoppy, since the “beer” experience has narrowed to a point where Hoppy can now be perceived as a totally distinct beverage — not just an “inferior” version of beer.

2) Japan has gone beyond “constant progress” and is now “reclaiming heritage.” From 1945 to the end of the Bubble, Japanese consumers were so obsessed with going “one rank up” year after year that no one took the time to look back at what they had abandoned. Who thinks about the joys of Suntory Old when you can afford Johnny Walker Black or Blue? These days, however, few still believe in the old narrative of constant economic growth, and many consumers are interested in other roles for consumption besides proof of affluence and adherence to international standards.

No longer in constant self-comparison to a mythically-wealthy and trendy West, the Japanese media and consumers now are digging deeper into the fertile cultural heritage of the own past. The Fifties rock’n’roll dancers of ’80s Harajuku used to be treated as badly-styled delinquents, but they are now perfect models for cigarette ads. In the same way, Hoppy has become a unique bit of Tokyo Showa culture to explore and re-appreciate.

3) Brands must go away to become reborn. This is true almost everywhere in the world. Even if brands have a rich history, they need to completely disappear from public consideration so that laggards and less desirable consumers do not still set the brand image. Otherwise, targeted groups will not be eager to associate themselves with the products. Hoppy’s descent into obscurity was a blessing in disguise: Without any well-known pre-existing consumer groups, Hoppy was able to completely invent a positive brand image of past drinking culture that fits into modern day consumers’ desires to reconnect to past tradition. Hoppy lets the public buy into the bygone glory of the (possibly imaginary) Showa laborers — the “poor” we were before economic growth.

4) Nostalgia does not have to reflect actual past experiences. Like dagashi (old-timey candy), Hoppy is often met with the Japanese expression, “Natsukashii!” — something like “I haven’t seen this in a long time!” but with an evocative, nostalgic longing underneath. Although most expressions of natsukashisa come from the remembrance of actual childhood experience, it is safe to say that almost all modern-day consumers of Hoppy never drank it in their younger days. But with a skillful branding that places the beverage in a setting of “Showa Japan,” users fall quickly into this artificial nostalgia.

Hoppy shows that brands grounded in unique tradition or colorful history can successfully evoke nostalgia without prior experience on the part of consumers. Moleskine did this with their “19th century” leather-bound notebooks — embracing a product narrative of famous painters and writers that may be partially fictional. Japan is full of historical brands with potential for this re-branding and explicit connection with past culture, and I hope that we see more Hoppies in the near future.

(For more information, see this Japan Times article on Hoppy’s management.)

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Being Cool Means Being Hot

August 10th, 2007

In our post on Cool Biz, we may have given the impression that the corporate business world forces Japanese men against their will into wearing sweat-inducing black wool suits in the oppressive humidity and heat of the summer months. A walk around Omotesando yesterday in the 34º C swelter, however, reminded me of something I have noticed for a long time: Quite a few Japanese teens plan out their Tokyo shopping wardrobes with very little regard to the temperature outside. Dark jeans, boots, a t-shirt on top of a long-sleeve shirt, topped with a vest, and scarf-like shall may fit well with a breezy Autumn day, but even in the depths of summer, this layered look provides no challenge for the Harajuku petit-fashionistas. (Women can easily stay cool and stylish with their cotton one-piece dresses and higasa parasols.)

Practically-speaking, coordinating an outfit in the latest trends and hottest brands is extremely difficult when clothes are kept to a minimum for concerns of bodily-comfort. The lackluster Brooklyn hipster uniform in July usually involves a single t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops — only three measly pieces to prove sense of style or subcultural affiliation. And something is fundamentally unhip about flip-flops and short pants to start with. This stripped-down approach is hardly enviable.

Pundits may often overstate the effects of Japan’s three main religious/philosophical traditions Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism on contemporary society, but let’s think about this fashion phenomenon in these terms for a moment. First, we have to disqualify Buddhism from this mental exercise for its abhorrence of materialism in total. The worship of natural environment in Shinto, on the other hand, may be a central part of Japan’s seasonal festival culture — the change in clothing, cuisine, and visual motifs based on the yearly changes in weather. Judging by the adoption of heat-beating male wardrobes in the past — yukata, tanzen, or samue — Japanese teens do have a historical, semi-Shinto precedent for slagging off the normal uniform to keep cool on the streets.

So what is overriding the Shinto-friendly summer reduction in clothing and advocating the long-sleeve, double-tee? Perhaps Confucianism’s need for individuals to visually represent their group-identification and position within a hierarchy through standardized uniform trumps any lingering notions of Shinto seasonalism. Individual needs to stay cool cannot overpower social needs to show off adherence to contemporary fashion. Of course, there are plenty of kids who can skillfully find wardrobes that do both, and outside of Tokyo, young people tend to go off the fashion radar to adapt to the blazing heat. I think it is fair to say, however, that Harajuku — the center of fashion in Japan — attracts the most willing to sweat it out in their Sunday Best. And we should commend them for their selfless dedication to fashion even in the most uncomfortable of times. This twisted-Spartan struggle shows a triumph of character. With such a prideful disassociation between clothing and climatic comfort as a part of adolescent socialization, no wonder Cool Biz is laughed off as a indignity to standards in male dress.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.