J-Bobos in Paradise?

August 1st, 2007

American conservative political pundit David Brooks is finally making his long-awaited impact on Japanese pop culture!

A Japanese translation of Brooks’ pop sociology on the “New Upper Class” Bobos in Paradise has been available since 2002, but the term “Bobo” (an abbreviation of bourgeois bohemian) evidently needed a few years to really penetrate the public consciousness. Brooks uses the word Bobo to describe a certain segment of upper middle class Americans who rebelled against the establishment as college students in the 1960s but eventually parlayed their countercultural values into capitalist success.

Luxury marketers in Japan have been quietly intrigued with the concept for a while, but the Bobos looks like they have finally hit the big time with the appropriately-titled magazine — Bobo’s — “Magazine for Creative Class” [sic]. I can definitely understand the motive behind inducing publication: Advertisers must salivate over this discovery of a new species of wealthy sophisticates willing to spend lavishly on “culture” and niche products rather than the standard luxuries. But even with this magazine on the market, a very important question remains: Do Japanese Bobos really exist?

I sympathize with the marketing temptation to keep distinguishing different sub-units of Japan’s increasingly important wealthy classes, but I have long been suspicious that Japan has anything approximating the cultural outgrowth of the original U.S. Bobos. Brooks’ New Upper Classes grew up in the specific historical context of the late 1960s, supporting Romantic revolution against the technocratic society and vanilla consumerism of the immediate post-war period. With these progressive values intact, they slowly made their way inside the business system and transformed it into a compromise between profit-orientation and social-meaning. Some of this may just be mere window-dressing — superficial aesthetic changes to capitalism rather than structural changes — but the Bobos did indeed succeeded in introducing new values of wealth usage, for better or worse.

In the 1960s, Japan experienced similar student uprisings at elite universities, but these were primarily humorless and violent Marxist clashes with the government, university officials, and rival student ideologues. Romantic counterculture flourished in certain pockets but never made the critical intersection with mass culture needed to spread a new kind of aesthetic values throughout a generation. Most critically, Japanese youth in the late ’60s had yet to experience enough consumerist messages and white-picket prosperity to desire a more “soulful” alternative. True prosperity was still a half-decade away. And with an ultra-tight labor market and low rates of entrepreneurialism, most of the ’60s generation had little choice but to completely abandon their Marxist ideology to take white-collar jobs in traditional companies.1 Today, the Baby Boomers (dankai sedai) do not overflow with ex-radical Romanticists who have transformed capitalism to make their fortunes, nor did Japan experience a wave of new companies like Body Shop, Starbucks or Apple Computer with a corporate philosophy grounded in ’60s ideals.2

From the contents of Bobo’s alone, there already seems to be quite a deviation between Brooks’ original conception of the “bourgeois bohemian” and the Japanese equivalent. For starts, the Bobo’s tagline is “for men who live rough and simple” (ラフ&シンプルに生きる男たちへ) — echoing the oversimplified calculus often heard in Japan that “Bobos = LOHAS + New Rich.” From Bobo’s mission statement (translation ours):

In contrast to the conservative and traditional upper classes, the Bobos came to prominence by working outside of pre-existing frameworks and freely doing things their own way. They are the new elite for the information age, succeeding in society by doing exactly what they want in ways previously seen as being contrarian. […] Bobos have spread through the world, and now they are beginning to attract attention as “consumers with discriminating tastes,” even in Japan.

So in theory, the J-Bobos are part of a broader global Bobo movement comprised of rebellious Baby Boomer capitalists with an eye to cultivated consumption.

Due to glossy magazines’ primary function in Japan as shopping guides rather than “reading material,” many foreign social movements imported to Japan tend to hit the mainland as consumer subcultures with the underlying ideology stripped out. In the case of Bobos, however, they are so much defined by consumption that the group should theoretically mesh well with pre-existing Japanese consumer culture. Central to Brooks’ book is his Bobo “Code of Financial Correctness”:

Rule 1: Only vulgarians spend lavish amounts of money on luxuries. Cultivated people restrict their lavish spending to necessities.
Rule 2: It is perfectly acceptable to spend lots of money on anything that is of “professional quality,” even if it has nothing to do with your profession.
Rule 3: You must practice the perfectionism of small things.
Rule 4: You can never have too much texture.
Rule 5: The educated elites are expected to practice one-downsmanship.
Rule 6: Educated elites are expected to spend huge amounts of money on things that used to be cheap.
Rule 7: Members of the educated elite prefer stores that give more product choices than they could ever want but which don’t dwell on anything so vulgar as prices

Simply put, Bobos created their own style of subtle conspicuous consumption based on elitist aesthetic principles as a challenge to the simple nouveau riche values of demonstrating wealth through obvious big ticket items. The Bobos may equally indulge in luxury as their predecessors do, but they justify their spending using a very different ideology.

So if we may judge the hypothetical Japanese Bobos by the products in the September issue of Bobos, this fledgling group seems to break many of Brooks’ essential rules. Right off the bat, the main ads introduce readers to Maserati sports-cars and bejeweled watches from Icetek. (There is an also ad for beefy Dodge trucks, but Bobos are not allowed to slum it in ways that intersect with the real lower classes in the Heartland.) An ad for Dyson’s industrial strength vacuum cleaner does seem to fit Rule 2, but otherwise, the companies in attendance do not build a case for a “different kind” of luxury consumption than what is seen in similar magazines. I mean, how Bobo can things really be when you don’t even hit the prerequisite Volvo feature until page 108! Most importantly, the J-Bobos in these Bobo’s pages seem to have an interest in cigars and golf, which fundamentally fail the Bobo mission of using leisure and consumption to distinguish oneself from traditionally taste-impaired rich people. And I am not sure John Belushi — profiled in seven pages — is a key Bobo icon either.

(Another observation: the magazine either targets single men exclusively or assumes that their wife and children are antithetical to their hobbies, because the concept of family life never once enters into any articles.)

Whether Bobos, Preppies, and Yuppies, the group name may come from the media, but the taste segment itself is a product of socioeconomics, educational patterns, and cultural environments. We should not assume that these factors blend together in a similar way in other nations. In the case of Bobos in Japan, the Japanese media can do little more than create an imaginary “class” of Bobos with the hope that the more “creative” members of the Dankai generation move into the new category because they want to think of themselves as Bobos. Recruiting Japanese Bobos means speaking to their pre-existing tastes, and this explains why the Bobo’s Bobos look a lot like an older version of the Upper Middle Class cadets seen in Brutus or elsewhere.

If there really were Bobos in Japan, you wouldn’t need to invent a magazine called Bobos; they’d already have their own magazines and boutiques. What we do see, however, is the media-producer complex’s establishment of a new aesthetic direction for the wealthy classes. The target men may not naturally be Bobos in Brooks’ mold, but we will soon learn whether this is a lifestyle they are interested in aspiring to.


1 You can also make the point that revolutionary Marxism had less applicability to capitalist enterprise than the general hippie mode of Romanticism tied to a pacifist leftism.
2 The best example would be ex-Communist poet Tsutsumi Seiji and his Saison Group — Seibu, Parco, Wave, Seed, FamilyMart, and Mujirishi Ryohin (MUJI) — but Tsutsumi was of a much older generation that experienced university life right after the War.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Koda Kumi Plurality

July 25th, 2007

Judging by album sales and general media attention, Koda Kumi is the “biggest” female pop star in Japan at the moment. From the late 1960s onward, this was one of the most astute positions to attain in the entertainment world hierarchy. A couple of months into her Pop Queen reign, a young singer would start to enjoy the rewards — myriad product endorsements, unbridled cultural influence, and eventually, male lust, and a permanent place in the grand narrative of music history. Okinawan dance-pop idol Amuro Namie’s fame in the mid-1990s was not just limited to the world of music; she used the platform of pop to usher in a programme révolutionnaire of chapatsu brown hair and mini-skirts for teenage girls all across Japan.

Since peaking in 1999, however, the Japanese music market has experienced yearly negative growth and a weakened position in the public sphere. Even with the general economic growth of recent years, the music industry (including musical instruments and records) suffered one of the only negative growth rates among consumer product industries in 2006 (according to Nikkei’s Marketing Journal). The only industry performing even less robustly was gofuku (呉服) — traditional Japanese clothing like yukatas and kimonos. Does this mean that J-Pop too is a relic of a previous cultural era? And does it follow that the Pop Princess crown is a meaningless heirloom of a past empire?

The best-sellers of today require only a fraction of sales that the best-sellers of the mid-’90s needed to take the top spot. For example, Koda Kumi’s latest album Black Cherry has sold 998,230 copies (Oricon figure) — making her the #2 best-selling album artist after Mr. Children so far this year. In 1999, this level of sales would have placed her at #23 on the final chart for yearly album sales.

Titles, awards, and public acclaim, however, are all doled out relatively, not absolutely. The biggest stars remain the “biggest stars” — the standards are just lower. And even if the music industry is not performing well sales-wise, the J-Pop idols and singers still contribute a great deal to the entertainment world at large through their appearances as guests and actors on television programs. (A more cynical observer may comment that the Japanese music industry’s main responsibility has always been to produce general “variety television stars” and “disc-shaped fan club goods” rather than “musicians” and “CDs”). So at the end of the day, even if Koda Kumi’s sales are not as impressive as her predecessors, she has still managed to win the implicit title of “Most Important Singer” from the media, and as a result, has received her fill of product endorsement jobs from mobile phones to chu-hai alcoholic beverages. At this point in time, I think it is fair to say that the shrinkage of the music market does not seem to have an impact on general media treatment of its star artists.

Nevertheless, we should remember that the music market is so fractured and fragile that Koda’s journey to Number One did not require the levels of “mass support” previously necessary for the top spot. In a very similar manner, most of the Top Ten Oricon Singles these days are from Johnny’s Jimusho boy bands, who understandably are reliant upon a narrow niche market for their sales. Although currently #1 in a broad sense, there is no real evidence that Koda enjoys support from a wide range of demographic groups and taste segments.

Like Hamasaki Ayumi before her, Koda Kumi fans do not include panting males but are mostly young female admirers. She is most associated with a revealing post-gal fashion look called ero-kawaii (erotic cute) often seen in ViVi, which is understood to be less about male attraction and more about female self-confidence. Overall, Koda Kumi’s fans form a plurality of total consumers rather than a majority, easily giving her the top spot through concentrated action in a sluggish marketplace.

Koda Kumi, however, is not just quietly tolerated by the remaining social majority — she is widely scorned and loathed. Although not an objective indicator, she was voted the #1 “Celebrity I Want to Go Away” on Internet gossip site Tantei File in 2007. Shukan Bunshun included her in a list of recent female celebrities who are not considered attractive by the older generation (“Doko ga ii no?” Imadoki no Bijoron, 8/2/07).

Koda represents a commodity that should be quite common in the near future — the “mass star” who has widespread recognition but only appeals to a specific niche. While the quantity of Koda Kumi’s activities in product promotion are on schedule with her predecessors, the quality of her roles bespeaks a different advertising usage. Her core fans come from a singular taste culture. Therefore she is not used by companies to breed general goodwill for a product but to specifically target a product to her narrow plurality of rabid female fans. This may explain why Koda very prominently works with kimono manufacturer Nishizen Shoji to produce a special line of high-priced Koda Kumi Collection kimonos.

More telling is Koda’s new personal model of Sankyo pachinko machines called “FEVER LIVE IN HALL.” Although Koda Kumi’s public persona generally channels a low culture chic close to the world of pachinko (when her Best Of album hit 1 million sales in late 2005, she rented a small bar in Ginza and became the “mama” for the night in celebration — an act that rooted her even closer to her mizu shobai-esque image),1 Sankyo must be plotting this tie-up to lure in younger female customers.2 More mass-marketed singers may have held reservations about creating brand associations between themselves and what is widely-understood as a gauche and gaudy gambling playtime for a less sophisticated spectrum of society, but this was a good match for Koda Kumi. Those who would be turned off by her pachinko sponsorship aren’t fans anyway.

With no need to impress the masses, Koda Kumi can forgo being bland, un-threatening, or over-trendy like past idols and just constantly re-affirm her personal taste culture to shape herself as a finely-honed marketing weapon. Overall low sales in an important media market can bring the niche star into the limelight  — thus becoming an icon for one specific taste culture, market segment, or demographic group rather than the blunt instrument of the widely-beloved pop stars of yore.


1She also claimed that she would have also liked to have been a bar “mama” in another life.

2The Cohan Research Group in April 2006 reported that:

Women currently form over 20%+ of the total user base. The population of women is higher than men in Japan (65 million women compared to 62 million men in 2005). This offers an opportunity for pachinko operators to increase the participation of women in the game. Furthermore, the average days of participation of female players in the game are 32 days per year, as compared to 45 days per year by male players. The improved public image of pachinko and the availability of exciting new machines provide operators with the opportunity to grow their women customer base. According to Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute Limited, women spend about ¥2,000 more than men per visit to the pachinko parlor.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Coca-Cola Zero Channels Saigo Takamori

July 3rd, 2007

In the first Japanese television spot for Coca-Cola’s zero-calorie soda Coca-Cola Zero, a bald, middle-aged salaryman sits amongst his fellow coworkers in a large corporate meeting hall. The company president stands on stage and lectures the rank-and-file on something called “Next Cool Biz.” We can only guess that this is the latest stage in the Ministry of the Environment’s Cool Biz campaign to dress-down the workplace in the summer months to reduce excess air conditioning usage. Coke’s cruel parody takes this progressive business casual look to a comical extreme — pants shredded all the way to boxer short length matched with jackets reduced to shoulder pads. In all of their excitement, the Boss and his gushing subordinates do not seem to notice that they have lost all dignity to this beastly new uniform. The audience gasps.

As in the print ads, the protagonist wears the Coca-Cola Zero bottle on the back of his head to form a makeshift samurai chonmage. He stands up, takes a drink from a bottle of Zero and boldly raises his hand to tell the company president from the back of the conference hall, “Sir, I object!” Electric guitars fill the soundtrack, and the evil Boss scowls at our hero.

The slogan for the Zero campaign is “Japanese men! Don’t hesitate!” (日本の男よ, ためらうな。) This commercial chooses to illustrate that slogan by showing a Japanese man taking no hesitation in standing up and calling out the idiocy of the powers that be.

In an earlier post, we discussed the failure of Cool Biz to reach full diffusion due to the importance of apparel-related propriety in organizational relations. Lately, however, Cool Biz has become something of a lightning rod — a symbol for a certain type of unwanted “restructuring” to the classic Japanese workplace culture. In the Coke commercial, Cool Biz has moved past being “a good intention impossible to implement” to become something loathsome in its own right. If I were in the Ministry of the Environment, I would be livid: The commercial has taken the rationality and pro-environmentalism behind Cool Biz and twisted it to such an extreme that the uniform appears to be nothing but a total humiliation upon the individual worker.

While questionable from a pro-environment perspective, the advertisers have very skillfully used the Cool Biz issue as a way to build sympathy with their target audience. Instead of trying to graft the overly-American “individual fights the system” spirit onto a Japanese ad campaign, they have used the Cool Biz backlash to define the conflict so that “rebellion” against the top actually represents a protection of traditional values. The “bad guys” (the executives in silly outfits) advocate an outrageously dumb progressive agenda. Thus opposition to the Next Cool Biz is not insubordination, but merely a cry for the return to the classic black suit-white shirt-black tie uniform.

The Coca-Cola Zero message essentially finds its passion in reactionary zeal. Dressed as a modern day samurai and fighting against the excesses of reform, the protagonist resembles Saigo Takamori — the heroic Japanese soldier who hoped to save the samurai class by leading a rebellion against the Westernizing Meiji government in 1877. In a corporate climate besieged by neo-liberal globalizers and shareholder-right advocates, Japanese salarymen have began to tightly embrace their old corporate traditions as endangered customs. Just as Saigo tried to protect the samurai way of dress against over-eager Westernization, Coke Zero’s salaryman/samurai army clings to their black suits in a similar protest. If one cola will quench male thirst in the struggle against progressive social change, it shall be Coca-Cola Zero.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Dangerous Fiction of Fake Breasts

June 28th, 2007

OK Fred
Column: Fight This Generation
Vol. 4 – The Dangerous Fiction of Fake Breasts
(unpublished English original text)

I hate to ruin the fantasy, but Hoshino Aki’s breasts are not real. Back when the famed gravia idol was struggling to make a name for her self in 2001, her official bust line was a mere 82 cm. Suddenly and mysteriously, however, this critical metric expanded to an explosive 88 cm. Once in possession of enormous and perfectly-shaped mammaries, she quickly rose to the top of the bikini idol world and became a household name on TV. Her cleavage-exposing opening pitch for the Yokohama BayStars-Hanshin Tigers game in May of 2006 created one of the most sensational photographs of the year.

Her managers explain the discrepancy in the recorded breast size measurements as extraordinary and miraculous growth. She even underwent a “CAT Scan” on TV to prove the pair were not implants. This level of post-pubescent development, however, seems medically impossible. I do not think I am insane to suggest that she most likely had breast augmentation surgery.

Over in South Korea, plastic surgery is completely mainstream, and the practice has become an obvious part of celebrity culture. The same goes for Hollywood. In Japan, however, the rarity and general social disapproval makes plastic surgery the stuff of serious scandal. Direct mass media speculation on the topic is generally taboo, so most explorations are banished to spam-covered pages on the Internet.

Hoshino Aki’s handlers have used this ambivalent cloud of mystery surrounding plastic surgery to easily maintain their fantastical narrative that Hoshino has “perfect natural breasts.” If Hoshino Aki’s fame had come from some other skill, maybe I could ignore this bodily enhancement. But seeing that the two assets have become the entire foundation of her career, I can’t help but feel that her fame is based on a total lie. Like a singer using tuning technology to fix her voice on the CD and then going around and claiming to have perfect pitch. Or a famously tall 8 ft. basketball player who secretly wears two-and-a-half ft. tall shoes.

The myth of Hoshino Aki’s breasts takes advantage of the audience by creating a false “reality” in order to lower our expectations to the level of “non-fiction.” With these lower standards, we become very impressed with the fantastical phenomenon of her abundant chest in a way that we would not if they admitted the fakery. Our lower judgment standards make their job of entertaining and seducing much easier.

But this is not a good long-term strategy. We become angry once we discover that we’ve been tricked. Would we have gone to war knowing from the start that Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction were — like Hoshino Aki’s breasts — a fraud invented for to make us follow along? I do not want to equate the tragedy of the current war to fandom for a B-list celebrity, but if we do not get better at clarifying the line between non-fiction and fiction of entertainment and daily life and demanding an end to media trickery, we will never learn how to tell the difference when it really matters.

Non•no vs. CanCam: Girls’ Girls vs. Boys’ Girls

June 27th, 2007

Non•no faced a rough lead-up to the 21st century. From a peak circulation of 971,020 in the second-half of 1995, the famed biweekly female fashion magazine bled readers until reaching 324,736 in the bottom of 2005 (Audit Bureau of Circulation figures). After adding Tanaka Miho (田中美保) as mascot model in early 2006, however, Non•no appears to have stopped the readership hemorrhaging and has successfully moved back up to a 440,870 circulation (2007 printer-certified). The June 22 copy of daily fashion newspaper Senken Shimbun featured the front page article “Feminine & Layered: Young Brands are Recovering,” citing Non•no‘s revival and Tanaka’s popularity as key reasons behind the increased sales of young women’s casual brands.

Thanks to the tried-and-true technique of using senzoku models to create relatable personages who represent the magazine, Non•no has again become competitive to the “red-letter” (赤文字系) magazine genre represented by CanCam, JJ, and Ray. While the Non•no average reader age does not differ much from that of CanCam, the former attracts a broader range of readers than the narrow band of college students and OLs who read the latter. According to Senken, the brands featured in Non•no still attract women in their 30s who enjoyed a similar style of layered street fashion in the 1990s.

In terms of content and editorial, however, there could not be a wider gulf between the two magazines. Non•no has no clear overarching narrative in the way that the serious pursuit of an affluent boyfriend/husband underlies every single page of CanCam. There are almost no references to boys in an entire issue of Non•no. For example, two of the main Non•no models  visit Disneyland in the July 5 issue for an advertorial spread as a pair — rather than on a date. Overall, the contents of Non•no tend to create a private consumer world for young women where boys, occupation, and social pressure do not intrude.

This sets the tone for the fashion pages: Non•no mostly concentrates on “cute” but ultimately casual outfits, where skill is demonstrated through a mastery of complex layering techniques. The CanCam buzzword “elegance” is not an appropriate descriptor. There is a total lack of European luxury brands in Non•no, which almost seems to protect readers from such adult issues as social status and socioeconomic class. If CanCam is about the proper ascent into adulthood, Non•no is about the quiet avoidance of growing up. All in all, the editors of Non•no seem completely unconcerned with advising their readers on how to conform to the standards and tastes of other parties, organizations, or individuals. Girls just want to be girls. Wardrobes don’t fulfill functional roles of work or love — they just are fun.

Tanaka Miho perfectly embodies this more nonchalant and personal approach to fashion and lifestyle. She may not top the lists of Japanese men’s favorite model, but she is not positioned for such competition. She’s a girl’s girl. If Ebihara Yuri from CanCam represents the “perfect embodiment of Japanese men’s desires,” Tanaka Miho is the standout “every girl” who is cute in her “everyday way.” The Non•no look is often described as “feminine” — but this suggests “female-consumed ideas of femininity” rather than a construct for men’s desires. CanCam readers imitate Ebi-chan in their aspiration to reach her powerful levels of attractiveness, but Non•no readers gain self-confidence and respite from seeing Tanaka Miho’s unassuming charm as one close to their own.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Cucumber Soda and Other Short-Term Flavors

June 20th, 2007

At this very moment, the internet is ablaze with curiosity and mockery towards the new Japanese Pepsi flavor for summer Ice Cucumber. Not since Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray has a vegetable-cola concoction captured the imagination of the world. For those assuming that cucumber beverages have a long history in local cuisine, I have to sadly report that this drink sounds equally bizarre to Japanese and non-Japanese alike. But judging from the fact that the soda is almost sold out at our local Sunkus, Pepsi seems to have pulled off a certain level of success with its gasp-inducing product.

The cola giant would not necessarily complain if the Japanese masses suddenly demanded a permanent place for Ice Cucumber in the Pepsi product family, but the birth of this “cucumber-inspired” (not cucumber-flavored) soda has much more to do with short-term tactical retail considerations than attempts at long-term product success.

The high competition for limited shelf space at convenience stores in Japan means that food and beverage manufacturers must produce an ever-changing repertoire of new products to secure retail real estate. In their book Can Japan Compete?, Michael E. Porter, Hirotaka Takeuchi, and Mariko Sakakibara explain:

One of the drivers of…meaningless product proliferation is Japan’s peculiar distribution channels, which expect each company to introduce a fresh lineup of products almost every month to maintain its shelf space allocation (80).

A perfect example of this practice is Nestlé Japan’s KitKat — a product brand that simultaneously sells a rotation of four to five implausible flavors. To win space on the prominent and prestigious “seasonal items” shelf right in front of the cash registers in convenience stores, KitKat produces limited-edition versions like Cherry Blossom in March/April, and currently, Yubari Melon — which fits perfectly into Family Mart’s nationwide “Dosanko” campaign in celebration of Hokkaido. (10 yen from each Yubari Melon Kit Kat purchase goes directly to the famously-bankrupt city of Yubari.) KitKat currently has Orange and Pineapple flavors prominently displayed in the front shelves at 7/11 although I doubt that consumers had been long demanding a citrus or tropical twist on the famed wafer franchise. These products’ short-term sales may not make up for the development costs, but they keep the KitKat brand fresh in shoppers’ mind and prevent rival companies from stealing away precious territory at key retail locations.

Considering this retail environment, Ice Cucumber may be the most elegant solution to these distribution needs in recent memory. By choosing a flavor as improbable as cucumber, consumers will have no choice but to buy a bottle to quench their curiosity. And the total brazenness of creating a cucumber soda has managed to give Pepsi an amazing amount of free worldwide publicity that your standard “Double Cherry Diet” would not. Even amongst guffaws and cackles, the Pepsi name gets out there, and convenience stores will happily dedicate space in the soda rack to Ice Cucumber that may have otherwise gone to a rival soda. Compare the Ice Cucumber launch to the concurrent Coca-Cola Zero campaign, which looks outright staid in its practicality, sophistication, and serious long-term aspirations. Coca-Cola Zero has zero sugar, but also zero cucumber fun.

The next logical step is for manufacturers to create even stranger flavors that cannot possibly be ignored. How could anyone deny a beverage with the flavor of “Raw Umber” or “Universal Suffrage”?

Postscript, The Taste: Ice Cucumber does not taste like a green salad. The mouthwash-colored soda is very sweet with a light aftertaste of honeydew melon. In Japanese, the word for cucumber  黄瓜 (or 胡瓜) contains the character 瓜 — meaning “melon, gourd.” (Suika — watermelon — can be written 水瓜 or “water melon.”) Considering the etymological connection between melons and cucumbers in Japanese, a cucumber taste seems much less wild or ridiculous as previously believed. Bright green “melon soda” is standard in Japan, and Ice Cucumber makes sense as a second cousin.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Cool Biz

June 8th, 2007

In 2005, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment launched the quite admirable Cool Biz campaign to convince white-collar businessmen to shed the suit jacket and tie in the summer months so that companies can reduce the energy wasted in excess office air-conditioning. The campaign has been somewhat successful, but diffusion seems to have hit a wall. Two years in, Cool Biz has yet to become the “standard” for the business world in July and August.

The barriers to Cool Biz’s widespread adoption can be explained with the Prisoner’s Dilemma model as originally developed by Merril Flood and Melvin Dresher at the RAND corporation in 1950. (A simple explanation of the Prisoner’s dilemma can be found at Wikipedia.)

For our Cool Biz example of this classic game theory model, let’s say there is a face-to-face meeting between representatives from Firm A and Firm B. The workers at these companies have two options: They can wear a dark wool suit in summer to the meeting or wear a Cool Biz-approved button-up shirt with no tie and jacket. There are two factors in this decision. The comfort of the worker and the propriety of appropriate uniform to convey respect for the other company. Let us assume that each worker would be more comfortable wearing Cool Biz attire but wants to show proper respect to the other company in order to create favorable conditions for commerce. The second factor is much more important than the first, however, because the worker in Japan has traditionally prioritized being a good representative of his company over his own personal comfort.

We will use a theoretical scoring system to demonstrate the reasoning using in the endeavor — with 0 points being the status quo and positive or negative points being better or worse than the status quo, respectively. Wearing Cool Biz nets the worker 5 points compared to 0 points of the standard expectation to sweat through the muggy heat of the summer in a suit. The propriety factor is more complicated: an asymmetry of uniform causes chaos in the meeting and an asymmetry of power in negotiation. If both workers show up in the same uniform, everything is normal and there are no points scored on either side. However, the worker scores -10 for showing up in Cool Biz if the other worker is in a proper suit. The suited worker, on the hand, gets +10 points due to the improved position in utilizing the disrespect of the other party to his company’s advantage.

If both workers show up at the meeting in Cool Biz attire, both workers gain 5 points — they are comfortable (5 pts. each) and they show each other equal respect by wearing the same kind of clothing (0 points). If one worker shows up in a suit and the other shows up in Cool Biz, however, the worker in Cool Biz nets a -5 points (5 for cool biz, but -10 for disrespect) while the worker in a suit nets a score of 10 (0 for suit but 10 points for the advantageous power imbalance). If both show up in normal suits, the net score is 0 for both.

In table form (the first digit is the score for the worker from Firm A, while the second is the score for the worker from Firm B):

Firm A
Cool Biz Suit
Firm B
Cool Biz 5,5 10,-5
Suit -5,10 0,0

The solution to this problem is that they will always wear suits, because they would both rather wear be uncomfortable in suits than risk the penalty of showing up in Cool Biz at a meeting with a suited employee from another company.

Face-to-face interaction is still very important in Japanese business culture, and Cool Biz is not seen as a clothing style that demonstrates proper respect for meetings. Currently, Cool Biz does much better in the non-sales departments because of the absence of this inter-firm interaction dilemma. But since most Japanese companies still direct the majority of manpower into sales (営業), Cool Biz will never make inroads until it is condoned for outcall sales teams as well as for office workers.

How could Cool Biz be better promoted now knowing how the dilemma works? If companies had a better idea of which partner firms adopted Cool Biz, there would be less confusion in the decision to wear a suit or Cool Biz to a meeting. There could then be silent coordination to go towards the solution of both workers wearing Cool Biz: a net gain. Greater promotion of the style could also reduce the misunderstanding that wearing Cool Biz to a meeting is a form of disrespect. With the current psychological conditions, however, most workers will decide to go for suits even if they know they should be doing Cool Biz for the good of the environment and their own temperature control.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Fashion Magazines and Regional Readership

June 5th, 2007

Tokyo so overwhelmingly dominates the transmission of media messages related to fashion both inside and outside of Japan that it is easy to ignore the regional differences in style across the archipelago. Osaka fashion sense, for example, is often said to be more “individualistic” and “flamboyant” than Tokyo fashion sense. While there are some Kansai-based fashion magazines produced exclusively for Kansai-area readers, the editorial departments of fashion magazines with national distribution are almost completely based in Tokyo. Since fashion consumption follows magazine direction to an extremely close degree, the Japanese capital possesses an unrivaled authority in this market. A trend may start in Nagoya or Kobe, but unless it gets picked up and legitimized in the Tokyo media, that trend will find a hard-time becoming “national.”

The Magazine Advertising Fee Table (雑誌広告掲載料金表) published by the Japanese Magazine Advertising Association provides demographic statistics for the readership of Japan’s major fashion magazines, breaking down geographical spread by individual prefecture as well as larger regional area (i.e., Kinki, Chubu, Kanto, Tohoku, etc.). In order to understand the regional biases of fashion in Japan and which magazines (and subsequently, which fashion market segments) are “regional” and which are more “Tokyo,” we first have to compare each magazine’s readership distribution against the national population distribution to locate the areas of over- and under-representation for certain titles. We used official population statistics from 2003 in the following analysis.

The graphs below illustrate the difference between the readership distribution percentage and the population breakdown for each region. The X-axis indicates the region, and the Y-axis measures the difference between the percentage of readers in a certain area and the standard population breakdown for that area. (For reference, Tokyo and Yokohama are located in Kanto, Nagoya is located in Chubu, and Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto are located in Kinki.)

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Notes:

1) Fashion is primarily an urban phenomena. No surprise in that statement, but the high-population density, relative wealth, and high media usage for urban populations creates the much deeper needs for living up to the proper fashion standard that drive magazine readership. As a result, most fashion magazines are generally biased towards a Kanto/Tokyo readership. Fashion magazines with readership distribution similar to the total population (a flatter line on the graph) are relatively non-Tokyo in focus.

2) Fashion magazines for men are more Tokyo-centric than those for women. In general, men’s fashion magazines have significantly lower readership than women’s fashion magazines, and the males who show high involvement with fashion appear to be primarily located in the Kanto area. That being said, there are regional differences — with Tokyo men being more interested in high-fashion than their counterparts in the country. The “hi-end style magazine” Huge has over 50% of its readers just in the Kanto area. However, a “rougher” and more masculine magazine like Men’s Joker has only 26.2% of its readers in the Kanto area. On average, however, men’s magazines have greater Tokyo-centered readerships than their sister publications.

3) Fashion magazines become more Tokyo-centered as the average readership age increases. Adolescents have little in the way of personal mobility, but those in their 20s and 30s who have an interest in fashion or have jobs requiring more fashion sensibility are likely to relocate to the urban centers (especially Tokyo) after graduation from high school, university, or trade school.

CanCam, for example, is directed at office ladies in their early 20s at large companies, and needless to say, these firms are mostly located in Japan’s big cities. The magazine’s readership spikes around the main urban hubs of Kanto and Kinki. Despite such a limited geographical appeal, however, CanCam is still the best selling female fashion magazine. This reiterates our obvious insight that “fashion is an urban phenomenon,” but it’s important to not to overlook how much consumer needs for fashion weaken for women in rural areas once they reach their 20s. It is also important to note that women’s access to the brands featured in CanCam or JJ decreases as they move away from urban areas, although internet retail sites like FashionWalker.com are dramatically changing this.

Magazines for women in their 30s like Oggi, Domani, and Nikita have readerships comprised of 53.5%, 54%, and 44.5% Kanto residents, respectively. Although values towards gender roles are changing, we can assume that the traditional expectation for women to leave the workforce after marriage to become mothers and housewives — something that happens earlier outside of urban areas — means that there is an inverse relation between age and high involvement in fashion for Japanese women. Those still with high involvement towards fashion in their 30s and 40s are likely to be professionals in Tokyo. (Women in their 50s and 60s in high income households most likely return to high levels of fashion consumption, but it is unclear whether they are as dependent upon the media for making product choices as much as young women are.)

4) Readership distribution for teenage girls matches general population distribution, but there are regional differences in style. For the teen fashion magazines featured in the bottom two graphs, readerships of all three stick very close to the national distribution average — meaning they are relatively un-Tokyo-centric compared to the magazines for older women. The “gyaru” look of Cawaii!, however, tends to be even less urban than the more artsy style represented in CUTiE and Zipper. The gyaru look does relatively well in Kanto, but underperforms in Kanagawa and Tokyo (see the bottom graph) — which are understood to be the most expensive residential areas in the region. This lends credence to the stereotype that “gyaru” fashion is primarily a lower class subculture. The colorful alternagirls of CUTiE have much greater presence in Tokyo but this look has almost no traction in the Kinki/Kansai region. While the Cawaii gals seem to be living in the less wealthy suburbs outside of Tokyo, the CUTiE readers increase in proportion the closer you get to the capital.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Non-Story of Bottega Veneta’s No Logo

May 14th, 2007

Bags from Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta (part of the Gucci group) have recently moved into the pantheon of iconic accessories for women in the Japanese market. According to Nikkei, Japanese sales in 2006 increased almost 70% to reach ¥12 billion. In the June issue of CanCam, BV were tied with Hermès for the No. 4 spot (only behind LV, Gucci, and Chanel) in a poll of 100 readers about their favorite handbags. These objective numbers back up the anecdotal evidence of seeing the woven-leather bags pop up more and more across Tokyo over the last year. In an environment on the brink of Gucci and Louis Vuitton fatigue, brands like Bottega Veneta and Goyard have managed to win the hearts and minds of young women looking for fresh new possibilities in luxury.

The media spin on Bottega Veneta is that the brand’s success heralds a new era of no-logo luxury. BV bags do not brandish initials or logos, and this is an intentional strategy: A sign with the message “When Your Own Initials Are Enough” is located behind the cashier desk of their huge Ginza flagship store. The management claims to emphasize quality over easily-recognizable markings, and they are happy to announce that this is at the root of recent success. Japanese consumers, the conventional wisdom is barking, have lost interest in something as base and vulgar as logos.

The success of Bottega Veneta, however, says very little about new developments in Japanese consumer behavior. The logo vs. no logo debate is a red herring. The most representative and best selling Bottega bags feature a consistent woven texture that gives the brands a very unique visual identity. Even without logos or initials, the pattern/texture alone is able to act as asignifier for the bag’s make.

With the bags receiving so much press attention in women’s fashion magazines, the woven BV visual signifier has reached a wide enough social penetration to make the products “safe” for consumers. To be fair, logos themselves are never the appeal of a brand like Gucci of LV: It was always the safety in knowing that the signifier implied in that logo had widespread recognition. So the innovation of BV is not a change in consumer psychology as much as a slight expansion of the means of brand representation. Bottega Veneta may be more classy in its subtlety, but the company is not making a product that cannot be recognized.

Also, the success of Bottega Veneta resembles Japanese female consumer esteem for Hermès in recent years. The main lines of Louis Vuitton and Gucci have been unfortunately defined by their mass fans, and a certain group of well-to-do, upwardly-mobile women want to set themselves apart from the “luxury standard.” Bottega Veneta has been well-positioned to fill this need, and although the prices are slightly high for the important clerical sector, the prices tags are nowhere as exorbitant as Hermès. Like Chloé, the BV bags hit a price-range that creates distinction from the mass luxury sector without proving an impossible buy.

Of course, there are some Japanese female consumers who are not interested in whether peers can recognize the make of their bag, but the acceptance of Bottega Veneta with the CanCam set says that those who need social legitimatization for their products are as fine with a distinctive pattern as they are with a logo.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Intentional Rudeness in Japanese Retail

May 9th, 2007

In books like Robert M. March’s Honoring the Customer: Marketing and Selling to the Japanese, Western observers often proclaim the existence of a “Japanese” style of over-polite customer relations. This is seen as a natural outgrowth of Japanese culture and not based on marketing management decisions. March’s idea suggests that the philosophy embodied in the famous expression “the customer is God” (「お客様は神様」) drives sales clerk behavior at an unconscious level. Certainly, this ethic materializes in most retail experiences in Japan: The shopping pageant usually opens with the staff screaming out the welcoming phrase “Irasshaimase!”

While this may be the conventional mode of consumer relationship, the theory above has little explanation for the large numbers of high-end fashion boutiques and brand shops in Japan where intentional rudeness is a well-honed strategy. Walk into the Comme des Garçons boutique in Aoyama, for example, and breathe in the deep, stylish silence of calculated alienation. Not only do the staff sternly hold back on verbal greetings to customers, the managers often flash you a look of utter disbelief — as if your presence caused massive disruption in the spirit underlying the brand ethos. I can partially blame this treatment on my own insufficiencies in living up to the proper sartorial and styling standards, but the frigid atmosphere and Medusa gazes are also curiously directed towards the store’s largest consumer base: fashionable young people.

A Bathing Ape and some of the other Ura-Harajuku street brands famously followed the same rudeness strategy in the 1990s, which worked to add an adequate cachet of elitism to counter any detrimental image effects resultant from the relative low price of the clothing. This was unlike the typical antipathy of American street brand store staff, however: Bape employees were never surly as much as they seemed like worker bees programmed to not appear too helpful.

There is something decidedly uncool about deconstructing this practice of cold silence and service deficit. Viewed within the context of that deep-seeded conviction that “being cool” comes naturally to a privileged few and involves no rational decision-making, assuming that marketing policy sets the tone of staff behavior is outright presumptuous. Greeting the customer with smiles and offers of help implies that (1) the store/brand wants to assist customers and (2) the store/brand is interested in playing that dirty, low-rent game of “selling” things. This attitude is common across the entire global high-end fashion industry, but perhaps its presence is much more striking in Japan where the “average” level of service is so consistently high.

The technique of customer alienation apparently went mainstream in Japan the mid-1980s when the super-elite artistic designer brands were suddenly swamped with “average kids” who threatened to weaken the retail environment’s appeal to the original core of up-scale consumers from the art and fashion worlds. Although few brands could resist the huge increases in revenue by expanding market reach downwards, they had to devise a way to take the sales of unideal consumers with one hand while continuing to maintain brand integrity with the other. As a solution, the staff was instructed to treat the young consumers with total derision.

And it worked. First, the treatment reinforced the fact that the kids were being into something “above them” rather than on their own level. Second, specifically-targeted customers would very clearly receive better treatment, bestowing on these special consumers a sense of importance. As long as the cash-heavy young consumers do not interpret the neglect as arrogance, the strategy makes sense. Moreover, this customer relations style has become so internalized within the high-end sector that being nice has ended up being a strange, contrarian measure. (I can anecdotally state that it sometimes works well to be polite and attentive to customers who expect to be contemptibly ignored.)

As we saw with the consumer demand driving the Tokyo Girls Collection, younger Japanese women do seem to be put off by the elitism at heart in high-end brand’s rudeness. They want comfort and ease, and one of the appeals of the brands located in the Shibuya 109 shopping complex is that the staff generally resemble the shopper. Relations are friendly — not just in terms of politeness, but the shop staff is positioned to act as the best friend or older sister of the customer.

At this point, high-end brands and restaurants would gasp at the idea of abandoning the alienation strategy since it is hardly within the reach of intentional decision-making. But brands on the border — those looking to entice mass Japanese consumers with a high-quality product — may want to reconsider the effects of making average customer feel like he is illegally breaking and entering into the retail space.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.