For the next six months, I’ll be dedicating myself to unlocking the mysteries of Japanese media collusion through enormous music market data sets. Early numbers show that there are indeed cabal-like relations between television shows and artist management companies: How else could Johnny’s Jimusho get more than fifty appearances for their artists in 1991 on the weekly show Music Station without scoring a single Top 100 hit? As we’ve seen, Japanese magazines show little restraint in printing an entire book of unlabeled advertorial, and I, for one, automatically assume that this is all “bad” for consumers.
Japanese consumers, however, do not appear to mind, because for the most part, they don’t want to know what’s good or who’s talented or who’s next — they just want to know what’s right.
Certainly, there is a minority of Japanese youth consumers who reject media guidance for their lifestyle, but we cannot deny that there is massive demand for “manual” style magazines that show exactly how to construct certain looks. Unbelievably popular Can Cam and J. J. run at 600 pages a month and outline detailed strategies for brand shopping and outfit coordination. Compared to Western fashion magazines that suggest a vague theme and then offer subtle hints towards subsequent action, these magazines are explicit and authoritative. And if you dress exactly according to the instructions, you can rest assured of being beyond peer criticism.
Magazines legitimize objects, and this influence is easily apparent. The Lower East Side is filled with Japanese clutching the store maps from Brutus and Relax, and brand directors often complain that if a magazine prints a picture of a shirt in black, the kids will only buy the black version, even if the same shirt is available in red. Apparently, no one can quite take the risk of interpolating or improvising.
In this particular atmosphere, a magazine based on subjective reviews has an uphill battle with consumers. Music Magazine was very popular in the ’70s for its critical, thrashing music reviews (!), but had to soften its rhetoric in the ’80s once music fans started to prefer the corporate info-sheets from Sony and Shinko Music. Recently, I asked an ex-editor at Rockin’ On Japan why they had yet to put Yura Yura Teikoku on the cover, when the universally-despised Orange Range got the royal treatment. He said, “Only about 1/5 of our readers are hard-core music fans, and the other 4/5 just want to know more about music on the charts.”
So, here’s the catch: Music that is popular is that on the charts, but the only way to get on the charts is to belong to the right corporation or artist management company, who are happy to pay magazines for the cover and main article. With magazines refusing to buck producer and consumer demands for unfiltered information from the most well-endowed companies, there is little room to promote innovation. Magazines and other media provide one of the few chances for rearranging product messages before they hit the consumer, and if magazines become unfiltered product information, then all information is just advertising.
This leads us back to why there are no subjective reviews in Japanese culture: They are not a trustworthy gauge of social correctness. If orthopraxy indeed moves social behavior towards the right “path” (道) and doing the “right” thing, then there is no possibility that was is “popular” could be “wrong” or “bad.” Marketing thus becomes not a quest of offering the best product, but creating the highest level of legitimacy. In the past, magazines had more authority to curate their own lifestyles, but something has drastically changed in the past few years. As media sales decline, magazines are more desperate to please the manual-seeking consumer and the fund-providing advertiser. If no one wants innovation, why would there be innovation?