Posts Tagged ‘Ebihara Yuri’

The End of Gyaku-Yu’nyū

Friday, April 11th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Where Are You?

Friday, 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.

Can Cam: The Number One Fashion Magazine in Japan

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

The Japanese magazine market has seen relative decline over the last few years after peaking in 1996. Some blame the increasingly large amount of free information available on the Internet, but the sales drop began well before online media made a significant penetration into the Japanese market. Since most youth-oriented magazines in Japan are mostly “consumer guides” — with loads of product information and very little in the way of critical review — it logically follows that the decrease of consumer budgets in the recessionary environment would cause less need for consumption guidance of the latest and most fabulous items. Whether this is the main reason for decline or not, women’s fashion magazines are generally holding their position against the market turbulence compared to other categories of titles.

One particular magazine Can Cam has seen unmatched growth in the last few years, and broadly speaking, dominates the women’s fashion world. The name derives from an abbreviation of “I Can Campus,” reflecting the magazine’s roots as a publication for college and junior college students. Now the median reader age is 23.02 (2005 data), and more than half of the readers are employed. The publisher reports sales of 715,417 (2006 data), but even Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC)’s more conservative estimate of 594,499 for late 2005 is an astounding sales figure. (For reference, magazines with much wider general audiences and longer histories such as Shukan Bunshun and Shukan Post only hit 575,343 and 436,775 copies in the ABC data from late 2005, respectively.)

Like other magazines, Can Cam peaked in the late 1990s and saw a steady drop in readership. From the nadir of 320,135 in early 2001, sales increased and grew to the current number – entailing an 85% increase in four years. Most attribute the growth to the magazine’s innovative use of senzoku moderu (専属モデル) – a half-dozen young female models who appear exclusively within Can Cam. Each month’s fashion features employ these girls wearing the latest styles and products, and they rarely materialize in rival publications. Readers make strong associations with themselves and these female models and pick up a copy of Can Cam with the guarantee that their favorite will appear in at least 20 to 30 pages of the magazine every month. Rival publications such as Ray, and JJ offer similar content, but the exclusive celebrity models have given Can Cam an edge over the competition. (Titles JJ and ViVi targeted at a similar audience have seen sales fall in the last two years. ) Can Cam’s sales cannot be solely attributed to readership movement within the same fashion look, however. Female fashion magazines in totally different “lifestyle genres” such as non•no and Classy have also seen a decline.

Lately, the most prominent three of these models – Yamada Yu, Ebihara Yuri (aka Ebi-chan), and Oshikiri Moe – have branched out into other media like TV with the backing of their strong-armed production agencies to become stars in their own right. Ebihara in particular has been the “it girl” of the last two years and found herself as a top spokesmodel for many consumer goods.

Young Japanese consumers have always made their fashion choices through strict adherence to “manual magazines,” and the aggregation of females into the Can Cam readership has created a certain level of visual homogeny in the streets. Issues frequently hit 600 pages – almost all of the content dedicated to detailed information on mixing and matching specific apparel items. Although the mass of information presents a large number of possible arrangement options, individual permutations upon the ingredients would all lead to similar results: a style fun and young, safe for work and play. The general strategy is inexpensive clothes augmented with luxury brand accessories, such as bags and jewelry. Hairstyle and make-up advice run somewhere between a catalog (which prices and brand names off to the side) and detailed instructions for scientific experiments.

The Social Phenomenon

The Can Cam style hardly resembles a traditional “conservative” look, but its basic philosophy is fundamentally aligned with the goals of mainstream society. The core readers may want to have fun in college and in their first years serving the corporate world, but there still remains a subtext focusing upon the teleological mission of finding an appropriate husband (and less explicitly, of taking on the responsibilities of wife, then mother). Serious discussion of long-term career would be best served by another publication. For this large class of young women, the clerical assignment immediately following college or junior college is something like a set course of “quaternary education” — a period of life to be passed through as a shared experience with other girls in other firms, and Can Cam provides guidance towards its successful “graduation.” Long ago, there may have been more pressure for girls of this age range to marry earlier, but their current divergence into fun and consumption has become their de facto accepted social task — especially when other segments of society have slacked on their appropriate consumption duties. Choosing luxury brands over domestic concerns is no longer widely regarded as a deviance from the “proper” social path, and in this meaning, Can Cam is “conservative” — albeit a conservatism transformed to meet the realities of today’s society.

Opposed to the “erotic cute” of recent pop idol Koda Kumi or seen in popular lingerie catalog Peach John, Can Cam readers are less determined to use fashion to express their own individuality or show off their sexual appeal and more interested in attracting widespread interest from possible boyfriends. In Japanese, this style is called “mote-kei.” A central concept to the current milieu is the goukon (合コン) — traditional parties where an equal number of boys and girls meet at an izakaya (sit-down bar) and get to know each other. Ebihara Yuri is the golden child of the moment, precisely because of her perfect fit within the goukon paradigm. Rival Can Cam model Yamada Yu on the other hand has a more stylish, sexy image that is somewhat perceived as threatening to boys, and therefore, relatively unsafe for the dating environment. Designer fashion is also a no-no for these dates, although designer bags would not cut into the cuteness.

What is the winning prize in the goukon game? From the looks of Cam Cam’s photographic-comic series “Double Fantasy” (starring Ebihara), dream boyfriends may have stubble and designer haircuts, but they are still in suits. Things have not changed so much since the ’80s when “the Sankou” (tall, well-educated, high salary) was the ideal. Young women, however, may be less “realistic” than their ’80s counterparts, who usually “settled” for a nearby opportunity at their own companies. Can Cam now suggests widespread social desires where liberation is celebrated through brand consumption and communal dreams are upwardly-mobile.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.