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Japan is Louis Vuitton, and Louis Vuitton is Japan. While years of recession have seen domestic fashion brands crash and burn on the home front, the French luxury brand just keeps on expanding its market share. Although LV is less dependent on Japanese customers now than it was in the ’80s, Japan still accounts for more than half of Louis Vuitton’s global sales. Those brown-and-gold trademark leather bags infest the farthest reaches of Tokyo — from the nouveau riche castle of Roppongi Hills to the chintzy supermarkets of train-station suburbia, from the rich princesses at elite universities to the lower class gyaru lumpen eating hamburgers outside of Lotteria. Proportionally speaking, Japan is not Zen, Gothic Lolita, textbook revisionists, sneaker collectors, otaku, or sumo wrestlers: Japan is Louis Vuitton.

The Japanese have been fascinated with the brand for the last several decades, but its social penetration was much more subdued in the past. The super-snobby female protagonist from Tanaka Yasuo’s 1981 work Nantonaku, Crystal refuses to get a Louis Vuitton bag on principle, because — as the comment-writer explains in note #212 — LV bags should only be carried by those who are rich enough to hire a bag-carrying servant.

The brand has always symbolized aristocratic “high-society” for the Japanese, and this made the bags an easy target for those select narikin (成金) families who found unbelievable wealth in the Bubble period. At that point, however, the media still presumed all rising tastes to be “mass,” widespread changes, and so the brand oddly became part of the “middle-class standard.” As a fashion editor told me in 1998, “Where else do you see girls with Louis Vuitton riding the subways?”

In the mid-’90s, high school girls became obsessed with owning the ¥120,000 purses, and as a result, shady, unorganized prostitution flourished among the lower-class segment of gyaru who couldn’t just ask Mom and Dad for the funds. But such sordid stories could not tarnish the image of the brand, which grew bigger and bigger in the following years. Louis Vuitton somehow defies Simmel’s traditional theory of fashion — Japan’s upper classes are supposed to abandon these cultural objects once the dirty proles get their paws on them! But no, Louis Vuitton’s Christ-like powers emanate from Old Europe and nothing that happens in Japan could dent that sacred halo.

In the past, Japanese fashion was about living up to a middle-class standard, but now that most have started to be cognizant of real class differences, everyone is scrambling to prove that they’re on the right side of the fence. The message used to be — “Don’t be left behind!” — but now it’s — “Are you in or are you out?” And there’s nothing more “in” than Louis Vuitton. There seems to be no coincidence that LV sales are rising in parallel to consciousness about class divisions.

There’s a segment of Japanese middle-class women in their 20s who read JJ and ViVi. They dye their hair a rich brown and bronze their skin a shiny gold. I can’t help but think, is owning the bag not enough? Do you really need to look like the Louis Vuitton logo?

W. David MARX
June 16, 2005

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

22 Responses

  1. Chris_B Says:

    a very fun read! I personally look forward to the day when the I see the logo pattern tattood on the faces of the (fashionable) lumpen prole OL at work.

  2. Jrim Says:

    Odd. I thought LV was becoming less popular, not more so – certainly, it’s a lot less of a ubiquitous presence here in Nagoya than it was a couple of years ago.

  3. marxy Says:

    Vuitton is bigger than ever (position) and still enjoys healthy growth (velocity), but its growth rates are slowing down (accleration).

  4. nate Says:

    I think the high end consumer has done what you say they haven’t. LV seems to be more and more the mark of aspiring/faking lower class women, and no longer an emblem that the wealthy would flaunt.

    Then again, that’s just based on TV, and the fact the the luis vuitton catalog that had been at my corner conbini has been literally replaced by an hermes catalog.

  5. marxy Says:

    I think you’re right: Hermes is the new “exclusive” product. But I don’t get the sense that this entails a huge backlash against LV. The rich are just very quietly moving over. I do, however, think that LV will suffer brand degradation at some point, but so far, they’ve held off for much longer than I thought would be possible.

  6. nate Says:

    and what happened to luis vuitton for men? It seemed to be on the rise for a bit, but it looks like a man might as well wear a skirt if he’s flaunt the brown and gold.

  7. marxy (out on the town) Says:

    Re: men.

    That may be true. I see some, but it’s looks really feminine. I feel the same way about smoking, however.

  8. Momus Says:

    Japan is Louis Vuitton, and Louis Vuitton is Japan… Proportionally speaking, Japan is not Zen, Gothic Lolita, textbook revisionists, sneaker collectors, otaku, or sumo wrestlers: Japan is Louis Vuitton.

    Hmm, somewhat hyperbolic, no? Proportionally speaking, Japan is not Louis Vuitton but stuff like eating Japanese food, going to the toilet, speaking the Japanese language, watching comedy chat shows, having brown hair and brown eyes… But for some reason you prefer to portray the culture as “fragmented and multi-cultural”.

    You also want there to be a rigid class structure. But I’m a bit confused about your model of class in Japan. You talk about “real class differences”, and yet say that a luxury item represents the whole nation. So is there class in Japan or isn’t there, and if there is, how can such an expensive handbag “be” Japan? The thing about metonymy (the literary device in which the part stands for the whole) is that it’s an artistic device, and an artist chooses the symbol. You’ve chosen these bags.

    Vox pop: neither Hisae nor Yukiko here would ever consider buying one. “The price doesn’t suit with the product. If it’s very useful and comfortable to have the bag, maybe yes, but it’s not very useful, considering the price. And once you have the bag you’re gonna be like a copy robot with someone else.”

    What about a “Birkin bag” (Hermes)? “If I could have a Hisae bag I would!” “A Birkin bag is not good for Japanese people, it’s too big!”

  9. nate Says:

    for momus: I assume you understand that the two japanese women most present in your life at the moment really arent middle of the road consumers. In fact, they’re aggressively anti-middle of the road, I’d wager.

  10. mmm Says:

    “Proportionally speaking, Japan is not Zen, Gothic Lolita, textbook revisionists, sneaker collectors, otaku, or sumo wrestlers: Japan is Louis Vuitton.”

    Hyperbolic or not, I really liked this sentence.

    On the train ride into Tokyo this morning I happened to look up from what I was reading and directly in front of me, in the small standing space between me and the person seated opposite me (who of course was holding an LV bag on her lap, no need to use peripheral vision or search wildly about the train car) I counted no less that six LV bags.

    Though some of the women were dressed pretty smart, no one looked exceedingly wealthy.

  11. Chompsky Says:

    I too am confused by the part of this post that says “but now that most have started to be cognizant of real class differences”–in what specific ways do you see these class differences emerging? And how do you know that “most” have become aware of these alleged differences? Do people come up to you and tell you, “You know, I’ve recently figured out I’m poor Japanese trash, and will always be”?

    I enjoy your blog but you sometimes seem to spin elaborate cultural theories out of little evidence and lots of vague anecdotes.

  12. Dave Says:

    What I am yet to understand is why the Louis Vuitton bag is so attractive to Japanese people. How do the owners feel about their bags? How many people own more than one? (I have heard news from a number of friends about how they were given the bags, when they would never buy one themselves.)

    Seeing how many people own such bags, I wonder if there isn’t an element of being unrespectable if one doesn’t own one (or suitable equivalent.)

  13. marxy Says:

    Grand Master of the Contrarian Movement chimes in:

    Japan is not Louis Vuitton but stuff like eating Japanese food, going to the toilet, speaking the Japanese language, watching comedy chat shows, having brown hair and brown eyes

    (Sigh.) Thanks for the nitpicking.

    You talk about “real class differences”, and yet say that a luxury item represents the whole nation. So is there class in Japan or isn’t there, and if there is, how can such an expensive handbag “be” Japan?

    This is more useful criticism. Class consciousness in Japan is certainly a different beast than America (or especially, Europe). I think you pretty much can say that feelings of class divisions were very, very low in post-war, pre-Bubble Japan, and to a certain degree, this reflected the visible reality. Producers were happy to have the media essentially make all things available to all people, and as tastes rose for the very top earners, this skewed all taste standards for everyone. While the very bottom don’t pay attention to this media anyway, the lower middle classes – who probably didn’t really have the money to buy Armani etc. – bought a lot of high-class objects.

    Certainly now, the very Japanese idea that buying luxury items is everyone’s right has not gone away. Lower earners do not say to themselves, I shouldn’t buy Prada, because “that’s not my class,” like they would in America. However, the old rationale was, I need to keep up with my next door neighbors – who are exactly like me. The new rationale is – I need to prove that I am not on the lower spectrum. These may sound minorly different but I think they represent a change.

    The middle-class standard is not LV, but recognition that even white-collar salaries are starting to bifurcate into two earnings classes is pressuring those on the lower rungs to prove that they are not what they are.

    And how do you know that “most” have become aware of these alleged differences? Do people come up to you and tell you, “You know, I’ve recently figured out I’m poor Japanese trash, and will always be”?

    Well, look, income inequality in Japan is nowhere near as bad as the United States, but the news is filled with stories about the new two-tier salary systems, unemployment, and freeter. It doesn’t take a genius to “feel” that fully equal wages across society is a dead myth. Perhaps, “class consciousness” is too loaded of a phrase, because it’s not like the yearning masses are grouping. It’s more like “a recognition of greater income inequalities.”

    I enjoy your blog but you sometimes seem to spin elaborate cultural theories out of little evidence and lots of vague anecdotes.

    God forbid an unpublished, unedited blog of essays would lack detailed footnotes and careful research! I always appreciate counterevidence to my theories, so let’s just say I’m offering the world a huge market opportunity for a carefully researched, footnoted, anti-neomarxiste Japan theory blog: go for it.

  14. marxy Says:

    Seeing how many people own such bags, I wonder if there isn’t an element of being unrespectable if one doesn’t own one (or suitable equivalent.)

    I wouldn’t go so far. There are many consumer segments (like Hisae up there) that wouldn’t be caught dead in LV. Readers of Spring and Ryuukou Tsuushin probably don’t feel this pressure to conform.

  15. Momus Says:

    Hisae’s a Mini reader! (I’m more of a Ryuko Tsushin / Hanatsubaki man myself.)

  16. ben Says:

    are there japanese blogs run by japanese that try to analyze japanese culture (pop and otherwise) like this one? or are we the only ones that care?

  17. Reality Bites Says:

    I sense we tend to see the LV bags as more a class status item through our own cultural lense. The Japanese don’t have a large houses to store endless amount of consumer trash, like North Americans do. So they choose smaller flashy pricey items to spend their money on, without much regard for price/utility analysis. An item’s popularity is more important than how much it costs. In that sense LV almosts ceases to be a luxury item in the same way we throw down money for a Starbucks coffee, regardless of economic strata. It’s a sense of quality and socially acceptable indulgence. That is if fashion is your bag.
    My guess is that Marky is right though, and the times they are a changing. My vague anecdote is that I saw “eat the rich” prominently spray painted on wall near Shinjuku.

  18. marxy Says:

    are there japanese blogs run by japanese that try to analyze japanese culture (pop and otherwise) like this one? or are we the only ones that care?

    As far as we’ve been able to tell, yes, we are the only ones that care. But I think overanalysis of pop culture is a very, very American trope – a mix of university education with stoner nostalgia, like that scene in Slacker about the Smurfs preparing kids for the return of Krisna. And Chuck Klosterman etc.

  19. Momus Says:

    I saw “eat the rich” prominently spray painted on wall near Shinjuku.

    This appears in yuppie areas like Williamsburg and Hoxton. I used to think it was poor people protesting the arrival of the monied into their areas, but now I realise it was the yuppies themselves who sprayed it. God knows why; guilt, perhaps. All it proves is that Tokyo is now a destination of choice for preppy yuppies. The kind who study marketing and call themselves “neomarxists”, perhaps. (Insert smiley emoticon and obligatory “Eat the Rich” daub.)

  20. marxy Says:

    All it proves is that Tokyo is now a destination of choice for preppy yuppies. The kind who study marketing and call themselves “neomarxists”

    Damn. The “real” Bohemian is schoolin’ me.

  21. Filip Says:

    There was an interesting article in some newspaper way back when(Japantimes, Asahi Shimbun perhaps), that women are beginning to spend more on themselves (well, duh!). Women are more likely to spend all of the “me,me,me” part of their monthly “budget” on one expensive item rather than on many cheaper trinkets. I do recall a line of ads on TV featuring middle-aged actresses telling the world that they`re buying diamonds JUST for themselves (Carellia Dimonds?). Could be because their husbands/boyfriends never do?

  22. Chris_B Says:

    “eat the rich” tags here impress me about as much as pre-studded, pre-logo’d “punk” motorcycle jackets available in stores for 60,000 Yen…

    I am however reminded of the celebrated Japanese cannibal Sagawa Issei who killed and ate his Dutch art school girlfriend while in Paris. She wasnt rich, but he made a decent living after returning to Japan on the talk show circuit and later in porno videos. I wonder if he has an LV wallet?