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The Emissaries of Cool Japan
November 30, 2011 3:12 PM   Subscribe

The Great Shift in Japanese Pop Culture: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

This has implications for the government's Cool Japan strategy.
posted by subdee (36 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
Blah, I already regret the post title, Cool Japan is way overhyped. It's about Otaku and Gyaru, and what happens when "culture" means basically "consumer culture" and no one has the money to buy anything anymore.
posted by subdee at 3:28 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is it really the case that Japan still hasn't fully recovered from the market crash of the 90s? How is that even possible?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:35 PM on November 30, 2011


I'm kind of torn at this.

Part of me likes the fact that marginalized groups get a bigger seat at the table, at least culturally speaking. But if the only reasons these groups get such relevancy is by being massive consumerists, it's much less enjoyable. And things like this:

The clearest example of this is AKB48. With the letters AKB in their name, this group of girls was unequivocally marketed towards older males based in the Akihabara otaku culture. Compared to past mass market groups such as Speed, the girls are intentionally chosen and styled to look like elementary schoolgirls and lyrically address older men with direct sexual references. (See the “cat-eared brothel” video for “Heavy Rotation” and the unambiguous “love knows no age” lyrics for “Seifuku ga jama wo suru.”)

Is it really the case that Japan still hasn't fully recovered from the market crash of the 90s? How is that even possible?

Sort of a mirror of what's happening in the US. We're seeing growth, but a lot of that growth is not showing up in employment increases. See Japan's Lost Generation.
posted by zabuni at 3:39 PM on November 30, 2011


This was a great read. The tl;dr

Even with falling demand for beer-like drinks, third category beer is seeing growth. This is a sign that the consumer living standard considered normal just a decade ago has fallen dramatically into a new “basket of goods” that would once have be seen as only appropriate for the relatively destitute.

Luxury goods will likely never again be a part of the middle-class “standard.”

Lower salaries have decreased consumers’ discretionary income with which they buy cultural goods.

The otaku spend their time as avaricious collectors of goods and trading information with other otaku. In shunning away from mainstream standards of sociability, sexuality, and career success, the act of maniacal consumption becomes their raison d’être. They cannot relate with other people if not commenting upon these cultural goods. Culture — most of which must be purchased and enjoyed as object (even when it is just physical media holding content) — is the great satisfier of their deepest desires

The end result is that the otaku and yankii have an almost inelastic demand for their favorite goods. They must consume, no matter the economic or personal financial situation. They may move to cheaper goods, but they will always be buying something. Otherwise they lose their identity.

So in this collapse of the mass market, a magazine representing a marginal taste has become one of the best-selling.


I could have gone the rest of my life without knowing that AKB48 exists and has a prominent place in current Japanese pop culture. Thanks a lot, subdee
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:42 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is it really the case that Japan still hasn't fully recovered from the market crash of the 90s? How is that even possible?

When people say that Japan "hasn't recovered", what it means is that Japan's economy has fundamentally changed as a result of the market crash more than 20 years ago.

In a nutshell, a credit crunch wiped out financing for small businesses in regional Japan, and fewer jobs were created. A credit crunch, combined with deflation wiped out consumer demand, and fewer jobs have been created. Competition from China and Korea up the value chain have resulted in the "hollowing out" of Japanese industries as they overshore production, resulting in fewer jobs. The aging Baby Boom and smaller GenX cohort means less demand, and fewer jobs.

It goes on and on, but basically Japan has changed into a slow-growth, aging society. It's not great for GenY and millenials, who can no longer look forward to stability, but it has been great for Boomers, as deflation effectively lowers the cost of living.

Deflation has all sorts of short-term benefits - food is really, really cheap, as are cars and houses and clothes. On the other hand, deflation means lower corporate profits and fewer jobs.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:55 PM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


Between Gojira, Hello Kitty, and buying used panties in vending machines, Japan has cool sewn up for eternity.
posted by Renoroc at 4:01 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cool post, btw.

I was watching a news segment last night that talked about Japan's cultural diplomacy in SE Asia, notably Singapore.

The show interviewed a Cool Japan government employee tasked with marketing Japan in Asia. He took note of the Hyundai sedans and Samsung billboards that dominated downtown Singapore. "A generation ago," he said, "these would have all been Japanese, but not any more. One by one our traditional advantages are evaporating, so we have to plot a new course."

So, the Japanese government, for the time being, spends a lot of time marketing Japanese culture in places like Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. In this case, the government is subsidizing a high-end clothing shop in Singapore stocked with Japanese premium brands.

The shop manager (who represents a consortium of Japanese fashion houses) said it was great because the government assumes all the risk for marketing and selling these high-priced goods.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:03 PM on November 30, 2011


I think the stuff discussed in this series of posts, about niche players becoming the biggest drivers of the market by default, has happened in the US music industry. "Emo" fans in the aughts were never more than a small subgroup of music fans, but they bought CDs, so Emo became the most important genre by default. The US music industry woke up after that and changed its business model, so that CD sales are no longer the central pillar of the industry, though, so maybe that won't happen again.

What's hard to believe about Japan, but is true according to this article, is that their culture industries can't make a similar shift. Is it a demographic problem? A corporate culture problem? A clueless government problem? A credit problem?

There's a lot of great otaku stuff. But it's lame when an industry panders too much to its core fanbase (see: the US comics industry), so the market becoming too atuned to otaku tastes probably isn't a good thing. On the other hand, quality picked up again this year, so maybe anime producers are adjusting.
posted by subdee at 5:36 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


subdee, has quality picked up again? I'd pretty much given up hope of anything new being produced that was worthwhile so I stopped paying attention. Any examples you can offer?
posted by Aznable at 5:50 PM on November 30, 2011


--=REDDORAIN
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:14 PM on November 30, 2011


Yeah, Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero are good (and by the same author, hmm). I also enjoyed No. 6, despite the lower production values, and new episodes of some older series (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, Natsume Yujincho) that are still kicking around.

I guess you could pick a couple good shows out of any year, but there was a real dry spell for a while there. I think the last time I liked more than two series in a year was 2007 (Higurashi, Saiunkoku Monogatari, Seirei no Moribito, Baccano!).

I think mainly it's that anime producers are finally trying to get out of the otaku cage, even though they don't escape it entirely: in some cases, by doing deconstructions of the genre (Madoka, Higurashi) or going for the "female otaku" audience (No. 6, Natsume, Mawaru-Penguindrum); and in other cases by looking for alternate revenue streams. I didn't necessarily like Panty and Stocking or Tiger & Bunny, but they are an attempt to find a different kind of (paying!) audience, overseas.
posted by subdee at 6:40 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you want a vision of the future, imagine an otaku buying a dirty manga, forever.
posted by neckro23 at 6:55 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


> I could have gone the rest of my life without knowing that AKB48 exists

Be comforted. They do not look anything at all like little girls. Not even much like your standard impossibly pretty Asian Idols, actually; well on the wholesome college-graduate-next-door side of that.
posted by jfuller at 6:57 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that notional culture outside of mass market or industries catering to it were dismissed so readily. Granted, his conclusion is that there are two marginal subgroups which are increasingly driving and influencing Japanese culture, but I also wonder to what extent massive user-content-driven sites like Naver and 2ch spin off content and influence the mass market. One example that comes to mind is Vocaloid, which would not have been nearly as popular without hundreds or maybe thousands of people using the software to produce their own music, and the boards to post them, discuss them, and riff on them -- some of which have apparently even ended up becoming mass-market hits.

I'm interested in seeing an analysis of that particular cycle of commercial products leading to folk creativity leading to more commercial products, possibly instigating more folk-level cultural elements for industries to capitalize on. This might be outside of this author's interest, since he seems to write mostly about above-ground phenomena and econonomics, but if it's a time where marginal interests can exert undue influence, I don't know how readily it should be ignored. After all, in the US, small bands on indy labels are appearing on the pop charts and winning Grammy Awards, indicating marginal interests have greater power here in the States, too.
posted by ardgedee at 7:07 PM on November 30, 2011


Meanwhile, in the US, the Steampunks, Rivetheads, Crafters, Hackers, Modders and Makers will save us all.

Increasingly, cultural status objects are what you can make, not what you can buy. Off-the-shelf is no longer cool. Bartering a soldering skill for a dressmaker's touch is now common. I believe this will strengthen domestic business, now that manufacturing is all but gone, as tool-makers and materiel suppliers always make more margin than manufacturers, and luxury goods are simply made for personal consumption or bartered or sold in small batches locally.

Here. Take this test. Which would make you a celebrity among your friends at a the holiday party - a $150 bottle of Hennessy cognac, or a bottle of home-distilled sambuca and fresh eggnog to make Black Christmasses? Ten years ago, the answer would have been the cognac. The yuppie dream is dead. We have something new, now.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:24 PM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


massive user-content-driven sites like Naver

did you mean nico nico douga? (naver being korean and all ...)
posted by needled at 8:39 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here. Take this test. Which would make you a celebrity among your friends at a the holiday party - a $150 bottle of Hennessy cognac, or a bottle of home-distilled sambuca and fresh eggnog to make Black Christmasses? Ten years ago, the answer would have been the cognac. The yuppie dream is dead. We have something new, now.

Whiskey. Good riddance to the Yuppie dream, but the Twee dream can die too.
posted by spaltavian at 8:43 PM on November 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


At work, so I can't read more right now than the first article, but the stuff about the beer and the boom in 'cheap' stuff is pretty much spot on. It's pretty rare when I see anyone in line at the supermarket with an actual sixpack of real beer. If someone is buying Sapporo, Kirin, or Asahi (or even Malts or Yebisu), it'll usually be a can or two. People with a sixer? Almost always something like Draft One or Nodo-goshi, which are pretty big among 3rd category beers.

The stuff is awful. It's loaded with additives to replace the flavor lost from not using malt. It's high in sugar (except for the diet versions). Some of it is even vaguely salty. And it's cheap. A can of regular beer is anywhere from 185-210 yen, depending where you bought it (yes, almost $3 for a can of beer), and about 1,000-1,200 for a sixpack. Draft One is usually around 130 yen, or about 700 for a sixpack, and that's pretty much what gets bought. The supermarket I go to has even switched their beer aisle displays, putting the cheaper stuff near the front where the registers are, because people are more likely to buy the crap on an impulse that otherwise wouldn't be strong enough to get them to open the wallet for more.

As for UniQlo, they've even opened a discount brand here called G.U., which was pretty big for a time, selling jeans for under 1,000 yen, among other things. H&M and Forever 21 have really taken off here, as well. Meanwhile, Ms. Ghidorah, working at a brand name kiosk in a well-respected department store chain in Tokyo frequently comes home telling me that, in the course of business, they sold a single handkerchief or necktie. More often than not, the customer has asked for the item to be wrapped as a gift.

Food, which is secretly Japan's true obsession, is also changing. The rollout of the Michelin guide to Tokyo was huge news last year, but the big news this year is 'B-kyu' cooking, or B-grade food. There have been big festivals (with contests, of course) where people line up to try samples of working class classic Japanese food like yakisoba (Japanese chow mein), ton jiru (a soup made mostly of potatoes and daikon with bits of pork for flavor), curry, and stuff like motsu-ni (stew made with pig intestines). There's a boom right now in restaurants that specialize in this food, which is basically Japanese comfort food.

One of the lingering issues, though, is that most, if not all cheap stuff comes from outside of Japan, usually America and Australia (meat), or China (vegetables, frozen food, cheap consumer items), which sends shivers down the spine of most nationalists here. That, and as anyone who's been reading Mefi for a while knows, China has had some issues with food safety. That gets magnified through the historical grudge match of nationalistic issues between the two countries. During the big scandal a couple years back, a lot of people said they wouldn't buy food produced in China, and several discount supermarket chains had to deal with a massive consumer shift. Now, a couple years later, people are buying what's cheap again.

As for the jobs side of things, hiring of new university graduates continues to be at or near all time lows. More people live at home longer. Large numbers of people under 20 work at temporary or part-time unskilled jobs. As time goes on, those people aren't finding full-time work, and now more and more are in their thirties working at convenience stores or fast food restaurants.

tl;dr: Yes, it really has been two decades of stagnation and slow decline. The standard of living in Japan is still (housing aside) pretty fantastic, but people are spending differently than even three-five years ago, and frugality, and the appearance of it, is becoming the new social norm.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:46 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


> nico nico douga

Yes. My bad.
posted by ardgedee at 8:50 PM on November 30, 2011


This was a great read. The tl;dr

Don't use tl;dr when you mean summary.
posted by Yakuman at 9:08 PM on November 30, 2011


@the article
unreadable post-modern works like Asada Akira’s Structure and Power
you do realize its written in japanese right
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:27 PM on November 30, 2011


As for the jobs side of things, hiring of new university graduates continues to be at or near all time lows. More people live at home longer.

I think the number of university grads this fall who have secured a job for the spring is about 60%... Talking to my wife and sister-in-law, 20 years ago there were 3 jobs for every university grad.

Ghidorah's comments about the beer are spot-on, too. The "sparkling malt beverage" tastes like piss. Why bother? On another note, I'm back in Japan for a couple of months and decided to go buy some local sake (kind of like microbrewed beer). I couldn't find the sake brands I used to drink 10 years ago. Instead, the big box liquor store sells extremely low-end generic crap sake, or premium sake, but not much in the middle. On the other hand, a bottle of French wine can be had for about seven bucks (700 yen).
posted by KokuRyu at 10:57 PM on November 30, 2011


About the sake, you're dead on. There's been an abundance of commercials (again, staring Koyuki) for giant cardboard box sake, and the shelf space it takes up has definitely grown. Also big, shochu sales, and yeah, that god-awful hi-ball in a can whiskey crap. Chu-hai, the generic alcohol with artificial flavoring drink has really boomed as well. At most supermarkets, you can get a can of fruit flavored swill for about 100 yen. One of those blinking-lights, 'the economy sucks' signs is just how many of them are extra strong now. Beer and Chu-hai in Japan are usually about 5% alcohol, recently, there's been a proliferation of 7, 8, and even 9% Chu-hai drinks (usually lemon or grapefruit, tastes like battery acid), selling for the same price. Chu-hai and non-beer canned drinks have definitely taken a larger market share recently.

I have experienced other aspects of Japan aside from alcohol, I swear. It's just that booze is one of the easiest ways to see just how much the economy is affecting Japan.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:14 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it really the case that Japan still hasn't fully recovered from the market crash of the 90s? How is that even possible?

I like economist Richard Koo explanation, it could apply to the U.S. today: "So we put in a fiscal stimulus, the economy improves, then we said 'oh no the budget deficit is too large' so we cut it again. Then expanded it again etc. The private sector was still de-leveraging throughout. We had this zig-zag for a full 15 years."

Richard Koo - Japan's balance sheet recession & the 1930s Great Depression
posted by bobo123 at 11:33 PM on November 30, 2011


Pardon my orientalism, but I can't help but be tickled by the congruity of Hong Kong Cat III cinema and Japanese Cat III beer. Also, this was a great article, thanks. I wonder if those familiar with Japanese pop culture could comment on what the masses who used to buy cultural products are now doing with their time? Like, they aren't buying clothes, do they now spend all their time on Facebook or something?
posted by whir at 11:54 PM on November 30, 2011


I have experienced other aspects of Japan aside from alcohol, I swear. It's just that booze is one of the easiest ways to see just how much the economy is affecting Japan.

Visiting liquor stores is my favourite thing to do in Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:14 AM on December 1, 2011


Be comforted. They do not look anything at all like little girls. Not even much like your standard impossibly pretty Asian Idols, actually; well on the wholesome college-graduate-next-door side of that.

Wearing outfits based on high school/junior high school uniforms. Ick.
posted by emmling at 2:58 AM on December 1, 2011


Whir, what kind of products are you talking about? Clothing? Fast fashion chains like Uniqlo and H&M have become huge here. People still buy clothes, just for a lot less. Recycle shops, as second hand stores are known here, are everywhere, with noticeable differences in price range and quality of merchandise. Discount stores, or 100 Yen stores have exploded in the last ten years. Unlike $1 stores back home, they tend to sell decent quality merchandise.

It's not that consumption has ended, it's that people are spending less, and less often. As mentioned in the article, there's a lot less Louis Vuitton and Prada being carried around, and more simple things, like cloth shopping bags used instead.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:03 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whir: I wonder if those familiar with Japanese pop culture could comment on what the masses who used to buy cultural products are now doing with their time?

They're working. Or looking for it.
posted by jet_manifesto at 4:09 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Real wages have not risen in 15 years in Japan, and in many cases have declined (even in spite of inflation).
posted by KokuRyu at 4:25 AM on December 1, 2011


I wonder if those familiar with Japanese pop culture could comment on what the masses who used to buy cultural products are now doing with their time? Like, they aren't buying clothes, do they now spend all their time on Facebook or something?

Japan has 3 large social/gaming networks (Gree, Mixi, DeNA) aside from Twitter which is insanely popular as well as Facebook which is still niche but gaining popularity quickly. Money that used to be spent on CDs is being spent on virtual goods in online games or on other Internet services or the smartphones and the plans that accompany them.
posted by gen at 6:09 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is really interesting! Good post!

I'm wondering, though -- now that high-end brands and items are not "Cool," is Japan seeing the same sort of luxury blow-back that we are? As in, if I (or anyone in my circle of friends) was carrying a handbag with an obvious label on it we would consider them ostentatious, silly, wasteful. They would be less cool in our eyes.
posted by AmandaA at 8:20 AM on December 1, 2011


carrying a handbag with an obvious label on it we would consider them ostentatious, silly, wasteful.

How much of that is a dislike for luxury products and how much of that is a taste thing? I mean huge labels seem to signal "this is my one nice thing 'cuz I'm poor" where I live, so I'd assume a giant "Prada" on someone's purse meant they paid for it with their tax return because they make so little that they (deservedly) get a kick back from what they paid in.

I have family in the 1% (well, I assume that from looking at career and obvious property) and they effect a look that's tastefully preppy. The only people I know who label all their property with gigantic expensive brands are decidedly working class and I had to train myself out of going "Ewwwww, why would anyone get that?!" because I realized it was sneering. Of course it could be different where you live...
posted by Phalene at 9:55 AM on December 1, 2011


Part 5.
posted by subdee at 5:34 PM on December 1, 2011


I was in the Big City (Osaka) on the weekend, and it was a wasteland of Uggs.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:35 PM on December 1, 2011


Was fooled by the fact that Part 4 had no "next time I will discuss" into thinking it was that last part. This is the final part.
posted by subdee at 5:35 PM on December 1, 2011


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