In 2000, I asked a senior employee at the publishing giant Kodansha whether he had ever tried the $200-a-bottle, top-of-the-line Johnny Walker Blue Label scotch. He laughed and said, “During the Bubble, that’s all we drank.”
In the days of the Japanese miracle, the middle-class standard for whiskey consumption rose directly with the rising income level. In the early ’60s, Suntory created “Suntory Old” as its expensive upper-end model, but in a very short time, everyone became wealth enough to easily afford it. So Suntory Old became the standard for the middle-class salarymen, which forced Suntory to release “Suntory Reserve” as its newest upper-end whiskey. Soon, even that became the standard. They then moved onto imported blends like Johnny Walker Black.
This unprecedented rise of Japanese consumer culture meant that products considered to be “upper-class” or “high-end” in the West often became standard items for the average citizen in Japan. And as Japan’s incomes rose across the board up until the Bubble burst in the early ’90s, middle-class tastes rose as well. In America, very wealthy artists and those with overflowing pocketbooks were the bulk of Comme des Garçons’ patrons, but in early 90s Japan, the shoppers were all middle-class kids who had taken the subway to the store. During the Bubble, things got so out-of-hand that Blue Label scotch was the nonchalant standard for nightly imbibing.
Knowing this, I have been extremely worried about the rise of happōshu in the last couple of years. Happōshu is essentially near-beer — a “malt liquor” resembling beer that is half the price due to a weird hops-related tax loophole. It’s possibly the worst-tasting beverage ever. I hate American mass-marketed beer, but I have to say that even a bland Miller Light would defeat the best of the happōshu. I’d rather drink swamp water.
Regardless, happōshu has almost become the standard for beer-type beverages. If a friend shows up to your house, he’s going to be holding a six-pack of this near-beer. If you go to a convenience store, there’s so much of it in the beverage area that it’s hard to find the real beer.
I asked my professor what he thought of all of this, to which he replied, “I don’t really think happōshu is a good thing, because everyone should always be working to make things better. And clearly, happōshu is a step backwards.”
I tend to get a lot of slack for believing in a “Decline of Japan,” but the new lowering of cultural standards seems to be a market correction in middle-class tastes. In the ’90s, everyone went on shopping as if the Bubble never burst, but finally after a long recession and the current short-term growth with no consequences for consumers, everyone’s tastes are following their skinny pocketbooks. Given a choice, no one would choose happōshu over beer – it’s an “inferior good” in economics lingo. But more and more, the Japanese are choosing these inferior goods – happōshu, Uniqlo, etc – over their more-expensive counterparts.
The new “happōshu culture” is certainly a more realistic set of tastes for this current economic environment, but what we all liked about 90s Japan was its choice of high-taste goods over economic rationalist concerns – ie, quality over price. Are these currently popular subcultures with inexpensive fashion codes – punk and hip hop – more examples of this embrace of inferior goods? Will we still be drinking happōshu five years from now?