Posts Tagged ‘Japanese youth’

Beer as Metaphor

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Over the last year or so, the Japanese press has been moaning that young people are committing an unspeakable crime against the traditional mores of Japanese culture: they have ceased to drink beer. Generation Y (or alternatively known as Generation Z) have not proved themselves to be big drinkers to start, but they seem to particularly dislike the world’s most beloved malt-and-hops beverage. “It’s bitter,” they explain. “It’s yucky!” they exclaim.

This open disgust with beer may befuddle the older generation, who generally commence every single party, reception, and drinking event with a tall mini glass of Asahi Dry or Kirin Ichiban. The anti-brew sentiment, however, may just be the perfect metaphor for young people’s overall predisposition towards culture and life.

A key point about beer: Almost no one likes it upon their first sip. College students struggle through many a kegger before moving on to drink beer because they actually enjoy the flavor. There are short-term rewards in drunkenness to keep kids on the path to Sudsville, but beer requires a long-term effort. It’s the textbook definition of an “acquired taste.” Learning to like beer has traditionally been a nearly-universal part of growing up.

Today’s current crop of Japanese youngsters, however, has proven averse to anything remotely challenging, anything that requires short-term sacrifice for a long-term payoff. In his book Aiming Downward: Kids Who Don’t Learn, Youth Who Don’t Work, writer and critic Uchida Tatsuru describes a worrying phenomenon with the current generation: When they come to a
piece of information they do not understand in a book or in real life, they tend to skip over and ignore it, rather than take the time to ask questions and solve the mystery. This principle can be extended into cultural life. As a whole, Generation Y/Z have grown extremely confident about what they already know and like, with almost no interest in pushing themselves towards anything too foreign or new.

Over the last decade, the pop music market has drifted away from experimentally-minded, yet popular musicians like Cornelius or Denki Groove to straight-forward, “honest” genres like “seishun (youth) punk.” Fashion must be “real clothes” that bolster current tastes, rather than artistic designer brands that pursue a novelty in expression (which were king in the 1980s, if not the 1990s.) Youth have ceased to watch foreign movies, because they hate having to read subtitles.

While a lot of these symptoms do not sound particularly different from equally-lethargic youth overseas, Japanese culture overall has suffered as a result. There are a lot of insular forces inherent in Japanese behavior and social organization, but these used to be counterbalanced by an enthusiastic curiosity about what was going on culturally beyond Japan’s borders or at its fringes. “Ignoring anything not immediately comprehensible,” however, is the exact opposite of curiosity. “No thirst for knowledge” seems an odd explanation for “no thirst for beer,” but these characteristics fit a pattern.

Oh, kids these days! Why can’t they better dedicate themselves to indulging in alcoholic beverages!?

Image from 1953 Asahi Beer advertisement.

Generation KY

Friday, March 21st, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

LOHAS by Default

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Don’t drink, don’t smoke
What do you do
Subtle innuendo follow
There must be something inside
– Adam Ant, “Goody Two Shoes”

This This Nikkei Business Online article summarizes some recent trends in the consumer behavior of Japanese men under-35 (U-35男子). According to the NB‘s findings, the older generation resents younger men (U35男子) for not following the accepted patterns of adult male recreation: namely, indulging in coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, paid sexual services, and gambling. The article may be too overreaching — any trip to a Tokyo bar will remind you that many U-35 men drink in excess and enjoy chain smoking — but the basic message seems to echo a lot of what we are hearing about the somewhat ascetic lifestyle of “young people” in Japan these days. Young men are being called “shirafu danshi” (素面男子) — “sober men.” One would think that the underemployed and undermotivated “freeter” and NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) would at least be drowning out their boredom and career failure in cheap booze and bummed cigarettes, but apparently, they have rejected both as a lifestyle choice.

They don’t like drinking with their bosses or haunting traditional Japanese izakaya. Some of this is a prideful resistance to being lectured by their seniors, and some of it is just a fundamental desire to pass time alone. However, the change in behavior does not seem to be based on a new set of moral values opposing these “sinful” recreations. The question is more of aesthetics and economics. Young men are bewildered why you are supposed to spend so much money to listen to old men chat in loud and smokey places. The U-35 male does not see the need to go visit semi-legal prostitutes when he can just rent adult videos or meet (fake) girls through online dating sites. Tobacco and coffee are out because this new generation is not down with the smell. (NB believes this aversion to stench comes from a spoiled childhood of clean flush toilets.)

Refreshment is the ultimate desire — whether that be from mints, quiet places, aromatherapy, or a nice tea. Walking and talking with friends is important for building human relations — not the marathon shochu sessions of yore.

In the last few years, LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) has been a strong buzzword in the Japanese media — with dozens of magazine titles like Sotokoto appearing on the scene to cater to this supposed heightened interest in environmental-friendliness and “slow life.” Broadly speaking, this Nikkei Business stereotype of the U-35 man seems to suggest a lifestyle focused on health. These men, however, are not embracing the tenets of LOHAS from a philosophical angle as much as falling into the set pattern of the movement by default. A need for refreshment is not necessarily a dedication to health or the environment.

Many producers seem to be now marketing towards young people through a LOHAS perspective, seeing that the LOHAS aesthetic most closely fits this new pattern of behavior. I have yet to see, however, any real success stories — outside of small service industries like yoga. Marketing towards the U-35 group is not so simple as just framing everything as LOHAS — where the locus of consumption shifts from “unhealthy” to “healthy” items — because these younger males are not specifically nor actively changing their behavior in order to adhere to LOHAS rules. Young people in Japan — especially males — have just grown up in a long recessionary environment and have adapted their behavior away from the joys of spending money. They find joy now in abstention, in the free walk around the block.

This may mean that some products like tobacco could be headed towards a long-term decline, but others like alcohol have a chance of revival. The challenge now is to create new cleaner and fresher contexts for the products which generational and environmental associations have ruined. Alcohol may only be “unrefreshing” because of the traditional locations in which it is served and the general manner in which it is consumed. Since the U-35 crowd are only passively-LOHAS and partially anti-consumer, they could possibly be brought back to the table — if the table is nice and clean.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.