The Fragility of Pop Culture

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On Click Opera, Momus wrote in response to a comment:

The media reports tendencies and directions and changes and trends rather than underlying solid states. (This same tendency is a real weakness in Marxy’s analysis. Incremental changes seem to him like definitive states.

We’ve had the solid state vs. change debate before, but the problem with ignoring incremental changes is that the Japanese Cultural Explosion of the ’90s grew out of a combination of very fragile social conditions.

Japan’s pop culture market first came together in the 1970s when rich Baby Boomer families spoiled their kids endlessly. The ’60s were all tear-gas and pentatonic melody, but by the 1970s, income equality reigned and companies found themselves rushing to fill the huge mass market for children’s products. Classic animations like Gundam went on the air as a way to sell toys, and toy firms moved into the field of video games to appeal to kids in new ways. In the ’80s, only the rich got richer, but mass tastes massively inflated in the spirit of unbridled wealth. In 1980, a laid-back Ivy league style was the standard; by 1990, designer European labels ruled.

Despite the growth of the internal market, however, the rest of the world generally ignored Japanese popular culture and art before the mid 1990s, except for toys/animation and the occasional eccentric band (Y.M.O., Japanese metal) or fashion label (Yohji Yamamoto). The system had become so advanced in its Western trend-spotting, media importation, and cultural cataloging that the 1990s creators were playing with high-level cultural ingredients completely unknown and forgotten to most of the West. In a span of a few short years, Japan’s pop culture became one of the most vibrant on the planet — a fact which the U.S. and European media now explicitly concede.

In spite of this unprecedented rise, the underlying conditions that spawned and maintained the Japanese pop cultural surge are starting to deteriorate. For example, 20% of the population of 1970s Japan was in their teens or younger, compared with 20% of the present population being over retirement age. The Japanese pop culture market is almost completely youth-oriented, and a shrinking number of youth means less market expenditure and production. Furthermore, income equality is greatly increasing, meaning that consumption of “good taste” is solely a leisure activity for the upper echelons of society. And the success of the market itself has led the younger generation to ignore Western influences and primarily consume domestic products, leading to a closed feedback loop. There’s less money, less consumers, and less openness, and this all changed quickly in a half-decade.

The American pop culture market has so many deep roots within the international system that very little can stop the tank from advancing. Japanese pop culture, however, is internally unstable and being externally processed as a fad with uncertain long-term prospects. Therefore, small incremental changes mean the difference between life and death. If the current trends continue, Harajuku will be even less Undercover and more Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Starbucks in every passing year.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
March 20, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

22 Responses

  1. josh Says:

    Japan’s 15 minutes are over… next up is China.

    Now Japan can return to the “solid state” it’s best at, namely “tradition” not “style”. It can slowly absorb outside influences, domestic them and ossify them into unchanging codes.

    The spectaularly, craptastic explosion of bad taste that is the norm (outside of Tokyo, at least) in architecture and interior furnishings is a result of the new found economic freedom the common folk aquired after WW2, combined with a complete abadonment of what were thought to be “natural” Japanese attributes, such as restraint, balance, simplicity.

    When income equality has sufficiently increased and brand name authority has replaced the vanished strictures of tradition, “good taste” will once again reign. The chimera of an equable, pop culture will recede and Japan can once again return to the beautifully designed, stratified society it once was before this whole WW2 thing ever happened.

    Of course, this is all hyperbole and bullshit, but how could anyone possibly think that “good taste” is anything but a bubble to be popped.

  2. marxy Says:

    Japan’s 15 minutes are over… next up is China.

    The Colonialists and Capitalists are already fleeing into the Mainland, but the Culturalists are still arriving by the boatload. I’ve never seen so many white American indie nerds here as I have the last couple of years. (Yes, of course, I am also part of the problem.)

    When income equality has sufficiently increased and brand name authority has replaced the vanished strictures of tradition, “good taste” will once again reign.

    I think your sarcasm brings up a valid arguement: traditional Japanese aesthetics are more interesting than the Japanese curation of Western styles. Although I’m more interested in Japan’s Internationalism, I often wonder why it is an “either/or” in modern architecutre. Why not build a house that has a Japanese facade and a Western interior? Or maybe just an attractive Western one.

    By the way, are they dismantling Hida-Takayama’s old city or protecting it?

    Of course, this is all hyperbole and bullshit, but how could anyone possibly think that “good taste” is anything but a bubble to be popped.

    I think I should have said this as well: the worldwide media are a fickle bunch, and only in the 90s, did Japanese pop culture start getting external attention. Outside interest can fade and still leave a vibrant, isolated culture, but I don’t get the sense that Japanese cultural effetes are really that happy with the current internal circumstances. Lately a Japanese magazine editor told me: “The Brits had Britpop and now they have nothing. Japan will follow the same fate.”

  3. josh Says:

    By the way, are they dismantling Hida-Takayama’s old city or protecting it?

    Remarkably, it’s being preserved, and NOT as a theme park, or special “village”. It’s intergrated right into the daily fabric of the place. The buildings are 400-500 years old, but are all occupied and/or doing business. And not just the expected tourist stuff either, there are several working sake breweries, dentists, health clinics, etc. It’s kind of an examplary approach. Perhaps it’s a bit of the “yet/also” (props to Momus), historically consistent yet also contemporary. Wish there was more like it.

    BTW, I don’t think a “Japanese facade on a Western interior” would necessarily work. Just a better integration of the 2.

  4. Chris_B Says:

    I’d just like to see a japanese style building done with insulation, etc. But lets not beat that dead horse any more. I like my little pseudo-western house with one japanese style room.

  5. marxy Says:

    I’ve been to Takayama quite a bit, and I have to say I find it more authentic than Kyoto in that it’s a real working city housed in old buildings. The area by the river is great. If Japan discovered a “Back to Tradition” New Urbanism, surely they would copy Hida-Takayama.

    For a long time, Western-style archictecture was more practical when budgets were strapped for reconstruction, but I don’t see any real adjustment back to traditional methods now that the top elite could afford a Japanese-style house. I should take pictures of all the nouveau riche houses in my neighborhood. Not pretty.

  6. porandojin Says:

    i think some western stuff suits Japan very well- they should build their houses and rooms in Shakers sect style ;] …

  7. porandojin Says:

    but China??? are you serious? … hmmm… it seemes this country will be like russia with even worse taste … anyway Hongkong and Taiwan never were and still aren’t aything interesting …

  8. Momus Says:

    For example, 20% of the population of 1970s Japan was in their teens or younger, compared with 20% of the present population being over retirement age.

    Come on, compare like with like! This is sloppy statistics. You’re comparing young people with old! If you look at the statistics

    http://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/ipc/idbagg

    and compare like with like, you’ll see that today 19.418% of the Japanese population is in their teens or younger. Hardly any change from the 70s.

  9. Momus Says:

    Link to census data should read:

    http://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/ipc/idbpyry.pl?cty=JA&maxp=5576744&maxa=100&ymax=250&yr=2005&.submit=Submit

  10. Momus Says:

    By the way, although I’m picking up poor statistical arguments here, I’m not saying that basic picture — which is of an ageing population — is incorrect. There are some very interesting animations of Japan’s population pyramids since the 1880s here:

    http://www.wwq.jp/indexf.html

    (Wait for the page to load, then click play to watch the pyramids changing to a much more top-heavy shape.) The move away from a pyramid-shaped population structure is characteristic of all societies as they develop. (The dwindling numbers of young people in modern Japan are the result of women having more choices, too — not something Neomarxisme deplores, presumably.) I don’t quite know how population stats are supposed to correlate to the vitality of youth culture, though. I doubt there was much youth culture in 1880, despite the huge numbers of young people (as a percentage of total population) there were then in Japan. Deterministic links between population or money and art are pretty silly.

  11. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Although I’m more interested in Japan’s Internationalism, I often wonder why it is an “either/or” in modern architecutre. Why not build a house that has a Japanese facade and a Western interior? Or maybe just an attractive Western one.

    We could have quite an interesting discussion about this. I spent most of today and yesterday, as well as last weekend looking at various types of houses and apartments.

    There is currently a “machiya boom” going on, with all sorts of approaches to reforming and re-using traditional housing, including just the one you mention – Japanese exterior and western interior.

    Probably the nicest house I considered (which I nearly chose) was the converse – a kind of western front (though on a narrow Japanese street with wa-fu atmosphere in a neighbourhood with lots of well maintained 京町屋) with a very tasteful Japanese interior. I’d say the interior was classic modern traditional Japanese. Only one tatami room downstairs with two smaller good quality “flooring” rooms, but it had a proper 床の間, 縁側, 奥庭、 and very 和風お風呂, 便所. Upstairs there were two rooms with flooring。One of the rooms had a wall of excellently capentered drawers made with fragrent wood, such as are used to store kimono – this house is 西陣, the textile district.

    SOunds like I fell in love with the place? I didn’t take it though. The problem was that I’d have to walk along a busy unpleasnt pachinko-parlored street with lots of traffic to get to and from the train and I would have to commute on weekdays.

    I’d really like to see European-style traffic zoning in Japanese cities. That alone would greatly increase the quality of life.

    I’ve chosen a マンション mainly because of the location that allows me to walk along a riveside rather than a busy street on my way to the train station.

  12. marxy Says:

    Momus, I appreciate the fact corrections. I can’t seem to find where I got that 70s youth demographic stat – it’s somewhere in my undergrad thesis notes and I need to go troll for it. Maybe the number in the 70s was higher. It seems impossible that the birth rate has shrunk drastically and the proportion would still be the same. Certainly the elderly ratio is higher than ever.

    I wish those links worked.

    I doubt there was much youth culture in 1880, despite the huge numbers of young people (as a percentage of total population) there were then in Japan. Deterministic links between population or money and art are pretty silly.

    Boo. The links between art and population may be “silly” but the links between population and markets are not. Rock’n’roll started directly from the development of a youth market, and exodus of families from radio to TV, leaving radio in need of a new market.

    At least in America, we think our pop products can also be art, but in Japan this is not the case (which I’ve shown through many examples before), and it makes sense that producers could allocate more resources towards Silver-targeted products if they appear to be a bigger market.

    Art does have a lot to do with societal conditions. I don’t know any body from Madagascar in the MOMA, do you?

  13. marxy Says:

    I found it, the 16-24 year olds in the 1970s made up 20% of the population. Do the 16-24 year olds still make up that much? I don’t know. And will they in 10 years? I doubt it.

  14. Momus Says:

    15-24 year olds today in Japan are about 11% of the population. The 19% figure represents everyone under 20 (since you said “In their teens or younger”).

  15. Momus Says:

    Of course, these figures are not very meaningful. Japan has two factors going on right now, declining birthrate and increasing longevity. They both impact on the age-range-as-percentage-of-total-population figures, but they’re not both equally meaningful as a way of looking at cultural markets. And it’s worth considering that the very freedom that allows men and women to hold back from child rearing longer and longer into their 30s is actually benefitting cultural consumption patterns, creating a sort of “prolonged adolescence” or “adultescence” or “kidulthood” which might more than make up for the smaller numbers of teens. Their lack of children will also give them more disposable income to spend on cultural products.

  16. marxy Says:

    Of course, these figures are not very meaningful.

    Well, Japan’s pop culture market – much more than the other big pop culture markets – is completely youth oriented. Very few people over 22 in the work force buy pop music products. So if the youth market has dropped in half, that’s a substantial drop in their one target market.

    A solution, of course, is to start creating adult-oriented music, movies, and television, etc. but with work/leisure patterns as they are, men in the workforce don’t have time to really participate in culture.

  17. marxy Says:

    Of course, these figures are not very meaningful.

    One more note: check the confidence/arrogance in this statement. Of course – these figures are not very meaningful. Who would think they are???

  18. Momus Says:

    Your theory about declining youth population being correlated to declining quality (and, surprise surprise, our old friend “terminal decline”) fails to account for the fact that pop culture only begins in Japan when the population curves stop looking like a third-world style fat-based pyramid and start looking like today’s tubby middle-aged spread curves. You seem to think Japanese pop culture was in great shape in the late 90s, which in terms of youth population is almost identical to today. By your theory, Japan should have had the best youth culture in the 1880s, and countries like Algeria and Egypt should have the best youth culture today.

    As for arrogance, how about the all-too-familiar assertion that your own country is exempt from any problems whatsoever? “The American pop culture market has so many deep roots within the international system that very little can stop the tank from advancing. Japanese pop culture, however…”

  19. marxy Says:

    As for arrogance, how about the all-too-familiar assertion that your own country is exempt from any problems whatsoever?

    Hey, I’d be happy if the rest of the world stop watching Friends and listening to D-12 and drinking Starbucks. I just don’t think American cultural expansion is easily uprooted.

    By your theory, Japan should have had the best youth culture in the 1880s, and countries like Algeria and Egypt should have the best youth culture today.

    My theory is that it is a factor, but not the factor. If the Japanese in the 50s (if not today) didn’t really believe in pop culture as anything other than product, they wouldn’t make it unless there’s a market. Group Sounds bands didn’t storm onto the scene until they were packaged by companies to sell things. The baby explosion of the 70s PLUS the post-industrial social structure PLUS equal wealth distribution all catalyzed the pop culture market’s growth. Algeria only has one part of that equation.

  20. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    I hear Alegeria and Egypt have very vibrant traditional music scenes. A (Japanese female) friend of a friend who is a professional violinist spent several years in Egypt learning about the music and playing with a Egyptian ensemble.

  21. ndkent Says:

    It seems to me you are making selections that piqued your own interests. The time frame is too coincidental Think about devoted music fans. It’s always that era and only that era the stuff that first bit you came from. You’ll concede that a couple newer acts “get it” or had it for a while but the things that meant something that first time round have to become the center of your solar system theory. It’s the work that became accessible to you and you could latch on to. Bringing up the 90s then coincides with the start of your being able to actualize on these interests. You only hope that that was the silver age because you demonstrate the ability to analyze it.

    It is interesting though that the 80s brought limited access to pop culture product to young Westerners. This included residual 70s material to draw history from. Then it was the mid to late 90s when they actualized their connection to it. If there wasn’t something worthwile to appreciate nothing would happen, but there is likely something of interest somewhere all the time. I’m seeing a greater number of young Western kids now in the mid 00s. Trouble is they’ve not had 20 or whatever years to refine their tastes and there’s a lot of them so those people who discovered Japanese stuff in the 80s and found art in the 90s want the credit that they feel is due.

    oh, btw, Gundam is just barely 1970s culture and the TV to toys phenomenon was developed in the 60s not the 70s in Japan, and toy and entertainment tie-ins have been around as long as the mass media.

    It’s true you have less youth now, more then, but does that mean it really was better or just more nostalgic?

  22. r. Says:

    david said…

    At least in America, we think our pop products can also be art, but in Japan this is not the case

    and i say…

    but david, aren’t japan and america working with different definitions of ‘art’ in mind? and can’t we say that instead of japan thinking its pop products can also be art (like you say america is), isn’t japan really thinking that its art can be pop products?