Japanese Consumers Want Manuals

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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?

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

28 Responses

  1. Chris_B Says:

    you started with
    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.
    and ended with
    If no one wants innovation, why would there be innovation?

    Ok at least you recognize the paradox here. This begs the question, what is the goal of your six month study? To prove the existance of what is obviously there to begin with? If so to what end? Perhaps what we see here is a different way of consuming. If “we” Americans want to buy what has been validated by (theoretically) independant authorities, then why is that any more right than “they” wanting to buy what has been validated by “legitimate” authorities?

    I’m not trying to go all momus on you, or even to float relativism (although that does seem to be what I’m doing), but I’m wondering if there is any real difference between the two 道 of consumerism? Both serve the purpose of eploying the masses involved in producing, distributing and selling things as well as providing the sweet sweet opitates for the masses to consume. As long as both goals are satisfied, what difference does it really make how we get there?

  2. Chris_B Says:

    BTW a friend of mine who does layout work for one of the programming magazines tells me that consumers dont like magazines that are too serious, thats why they have to include lifestyle info in their magazine. Weird.

  3. marxy Says:

    I’m not trying to go all momus on you, or even to float relativism (although that does seem to be what I’m doing), but I’m wondering if there is any real difference between the two 道 of consumerism.

    Well, there is a difference between the systems in that there is more innovation and bigger, faster, broader changes in the US/UK compared to Japan. This is something that is vaguely known, but not yet shown in hard data.

  4. Momus Says:

    there is more innovation and bigger, faster, broader changes in the US/UK compared to Japan

    That is just outrageously wrong! And anyway, it would be impossible to show it in hard data, because the judgement on what is “innovative” is a personal, subjective one. Here in New York I can tell you that the most innovative film to be seen currently is, in my opinion, Katsuhito Ishii’s “Taste of Tea”. The most innovative gadget you’re likely to buy in an electronics store stands a good chance of being Japanese. And all the most advanced indie bands are in thrall to people like The Boredoms. A quality Western pop project like Gorillaz owes a substantial debt to a figure like Cornelius. And there is nothing in the West comparable to the inventiveness of Japanese street fashion, even diminished as it is.

    I don’t say these things validate the way Japanese magazines work. But I also feel that the array of magazines in Kinokuniya is likely to contain just as many things I consider innovative, creative and inventive as the array of magazines I see in Universal News. It’s absurd to try to portray Japan, one of the most creative and innovate cultures on Earth, as somehow mired in stolid, authoritarian, stale ways. It just isn’t the case.

  5. marxy Says:

    Cornelius has never broken into the Top 100 year charts in Japan. The Gorillaz have in the US/UK.

    I am still waiting for the Japanese to top the iPod.

    How many NKOTB singles chart in the US these days? Who had the top selling single of 2003 in Japan? Smap.

    There are plenty of examples and counterexamples. I guess, the better question is, how does innovation happen in these different systems? In Japan, it’s all top-down. That’s not totally true for the US.

  6. marxy Says:

    And the point is not that Japan is “conservative”: Japan has generally way more market oligopoly than the U.S. There is an Anti-Monopoly law, but the gov’t looks the other way when there are ties between firms that the U.S. usually chooses to regulate. And when a handful of very crooked, boring firms control the industry, they try to keep themselves from being outmoded by keeping innovators out.

    My point is not that there’s no innovative music in Japan – there is (used to be) a lot, it’s just not in the charts. So much American music is absolutely terrible, but it’s hard to argue that Outkast, Timbaland aren’t legions better than Jpop’s current offerings.

  7. Monroe Says:

    there is more innovation and bigger, faster, broader changes in the US/UK compared to Japan

    ….

    Perhaps…

    I don’t have any direct experience of the Japanese scene to use as a basis for comparison but this ‘feels’ wrong to me.

    Terrestrial radio in the US (to pick one important element of pop culture here) is, as you know, dominated by tightly controlled formats that appeal to dead-as-Lincoln rock nostalgia (so-called “classic rock”) corporate sanctioned hip hop and shout fest ‘I hate libruls!’ talk programs.

    Of course, there’s the net and ardent new music / new culture fans use it to learn and share but it seems that for every 1 person who’s aware of the riches available there are 10 more who’d prefer to pick up the latest Jessica Simpson CD and leave it at that.

    And they learn about Jessica et. al. via multi-platform marketing blitzes…in other words, I think Americans are as likely to use corporate provided ‘manuals’ as the Japanese (or at least, the Japanese as you describe them).

    It’s possible to expand this topic beyond ‘manuals’ for music/clothes/self-presentation to examine the fads and trends that sweep corporate boardrooms (manage like Ghengis Khan, manage like Jean Luc Picard, the Sun Tzu guide to corporate war…yadda, yadda, yadda, etc) but this isn’t the forum for that.

    American ‘manuals’ may not be as comprehensive as their Japanese counterparts but the effect is no less real.

    .d.

  8. Momus Says:

    American ‘manuals’ may not be as comprehensive as their Japanese counterparts but the effect is no less real.

    I think that’s a good point, and very relevant to the techniques employed on this blog. Marxy picks things that happen all over the world, but singles out Japan for unique blame, even when the phenomena in question are much more toxic elsewhere. He’s become a sort of inverse nihonjinron writer, underscoring time and again Japan’s (negative) particularities rather than looking at what it has in common with other postmodern consumer cultures.

  9. marxy Says:

    I’m not saying manual-culture is bad or good, but I don’t think that it exists as strongly anywhere else in the world. Japan is an extreme exaggeration of postmodern tendencies. It has always been Jessica Simpson before Jessica Simpson. As much as you all bitch and moan about American top 40 hits, they are a lot better in hindsight than what graces the Japanese hit charts.

    We all know what Japan has in common with other postmodern cultures. How it’s different is what matters. That’s what’s sexy. No one wants to read that “the Japanese like music too!” I don’t go out of my way to write about how Japan is worse about fuel efficiency than the US, because I’m not sure that’s true and it’s not my field of interest. But the Japanese cultural industries – my field of interest! – are way more tied up with payola, backroom deals, mafia money, and other hijicks than those of the other post-industrial nations. If anyone else would actually like to research this and show me I’m wrong, that would be much help for my coming Master’s thesis. But it’s a lot easier to just bitch from some arm chair and pretend like all the innovative things coming out of Japan somehow are actually popular here.

    And since I’m going to compare Oricon and Billboard data, we’ll know how things really work!

  10. Momus Says:

    Japan is an extreme exaggeration of postmodern tendencies.

    This is where you sound like a nihonjinron writer! Another way to phrase that same idea would be “Japan is the most advanced contemporary civilisation in the world” or even “Japan is the future, don’t you think? Because we don’t need religion, we just have the big power of entertainment” (Takashi Murakami). You just need to replace the idea of “an extreme exaggeration of tendencies” with the idea of “they’re slightly ahead of us”. The “slightly ahead” thesis (which is the one I subscribe to, although I think the rest of the world will only become “Japanese” if we’re very, very lucky) has been given added weight by things like the New York media’s recent Japanese art fever (I was speaking last night to a gallerist who just opened a new gallery in Chelsea devoted almost exclusively to showing Japanese artists “because they’re hot”), the Gwen Stefani album, etc etc.

    It’s funny, the publisher and editor of Vice magazine came to my opening last night. I was talking to them about the Japanese edition, and gave them the standard Marxy line: that Japanese mags never do negative reviews, that editorial is totally tied up with advertising, etc. They said they’d be delighted to work that way, and Jesse (the editor) said he’d actually been trying to eradicate all negative comment from the Japanese edition of Vice, but that the problem is he doesn’t really know what’s considered a diss in Japan, and suspects that the things he intends as disses are perceived totally differently by Japanese readers.

  11. Monroe Says:

    As much as you all bitch and moan about American top 40 hits, they are a lot better in hindsight than what graces the Japanese hit charts.

    ============

    Maybe.

    Again, I won’t claim to have expert knowledge of the Japanese scene so I’ll accept your assessment for the sake of argument.

    But as regards “better”…

    Well, I don’t hate top forty music, I just don’t consider it to be innovative (generally speaking) in the sense I think you used the word in one of your replies.

    I’d say that it’s very, very well produced…impressive from a technological point of view the way a fighter jet is (you can admire the tech and question the use). I was listening to a mainstream hip hop tune the other day with a friend and at one point he turned to me and said “…it’s not really interesting but it is slick and catchy and that’s all right sometimes.”

    Which, I think, captures the American scene — in the main — precisely. Jay Z (for example) puts out very nice stuff from a pure-skill-on-display POV. You can dance and it’s excellent for long drives so I’m not a Jay-Z (or Jessica Simpson) hater.

    But it isn’t particularly innovative.

    American films display the same technical excellence/content paucity dual nature.

    .d.

  12. marxy Says:

    Momus,

    I would be sympathetic to your comments if they in any way reflected what’s going on in Japan right now. Perhaps this current cultural malaise is the “future of the world.” I sure hope not.

    Marxy

  13. marxy Says:

    They said they’d be delighted to work that way

    I openly hate Vice for many reasons, but why would a magazine editor be delighted to give editorial control to his advertisers?

  14. Momus Says:

    Well, I may be terribly cynical, but I don’t care where innovation and colour and even rationality come from, I just care that they’re there. If they’re imposed from above, fine, if they surge up from the grass roots, great. In Japan they arrive from both directions, and are more extreme at both ends: street fashion is genuinely creative (more so than western street fashion) and demotic, but also the experts and guides and manuals are more detailed and more lovingly put together than they would be anywhere in the West. I approve of both those things. No guide to New York by a New Yorker points me in the direction of anything as interesting as the guide to New York put out by Japanese Figaro. The Switch guide to Shimokitazawa may have been put together with financial assistance from the legions of small shopkeepers featured; I don’t care. All I care is that it features and promotes what I consider good taste. And if you want to ask why that happens, I’d say it’s nothing to do with the nature of the system involved, with following money trails. It’s to do with the soul of the Japanese people. I’m sorry if that’s vague and you can’t measure it with statistics.

  15. marxy Says:

    The Switch guide to Shimokitazawa

    You know why they did that issue?

    Because they’re gutting out the entire central neighborhood of Shimokitazawa in the next few years to build a road! But of course, it’s good that all that culture will be totally destroyed: it has to do with the soul of the Japanese people.

  16. Momus Says:

    But Marxy, if the government and the media are in collusion to inculcate political quietism in the Japanese populace, as you’re always telling us, why would Switch magazine do a feature on Shimokita if the government just want it to go quietly under the bulldozer? Switch magazine suddenly has a touch of the Jane Jacobs about it, ne? How does this issue of Switch fit in with your model of a quiescent, commercial mediascape? Has Switch, faced with a choice between the government (and its sinister links with the construction industry) and the small businesspeople and artists of Shimokita, chosen the latter? And if so, isn’t that a somewhat political choice to make?

  17. marxy Says:

    That issue seems to be a silent plea, but not a clarion call. They’re not taking to the streets to stop the bulldozers. Just kind of saying passively, look at all this we’ll lose…

    I guess this is political in a certain sense, but it’s not really a “counter-movement.” In some ways, the editors have already resigned themselves to having the neighborhood demolished, because, well, you can’t really change anything in Japan, can you?

  18. Chompsky Says:

    On the issue of Shimokitazawa, it’s not a done deal, is it? And you are aware there is/are grass-roots campaign(s) to oppose the building of the road?

  19. matt Says:

    marxy, do your two biggest dissenters live in Japan? I don’t care if they have before, but if they don’t now, I’m afraid I can’t take their comments with as much sincerity. Pop culture here (and likely elsewhere) changes in the subtlest ways that you really do have to be living here to make a defendable argument. and frankly i find their arguments pretty weak.

    I don’t care where innovation and colour and even rationality come from, I just care that they’re there. If they’re imposed from above, fine, if they surge up from the grass roots, great.

    I agree that innovation is important, but if it’s “imposed from above”, it is highly less likely for the betterment of the majority. In fact, by definition it isn’t. The “West” places (arguably too much?) reliability on market forces while Japan (note, not “East”!) is too risk averse, and I think this is exemplified by the “innovation strategies” exercised through both cultures.

    but in all I’ll have to side with marxy on this one. keep ’em coming :)

  20. Sarmoung Says:

    I totally agree with Momus’ mention above concerning Japanese guides to New York. As a London native, with little knowledge of NYC outside of Lou Reed lyrics and the like, when I visited earlier this year I found them much more useful than any guide I’d seen in the UK and certainly far better designed.

    I wish the best of luck with the task ahead, but I wonder how far you can go when these various cabals all link with organised crime, or certainly its money, at some point or another. You were understandably reticent about details when discussing BAPE not long ago. I’m not sure how much leeway you’ve got in discussing these things in Japanese academic paper. I’m a little concerned about this:

    We all know what Japan has in common with other postmodern cultures. How it’s different is what matters. That’s what’s sexy. No one wants to read that “the Japanese like music too!”

    I’m not sure we do in fact know what Japan has in common. That’s the problem! Western perceptions and descriptions of Japan from Kaempfer onwards have been founded on detailing difference, rather than finding parallels, symmetries and so on. Yes, difference is what might sell the magazine article or film, but we’re talking about academic research here. Sexiness might well encourage you to get up in the morning (and I don’t envy you there wading through this info) but at the end of the day, surely you need to be prepared to possibly conclude that “difference” masks as much or more than it reveals in any description. It shouldn’t matter what people want to read. People want to read Cam Cam and J.J.!

  21. Chris_B Says:

    So far momus has performed his script with great aplomb! A round of applause for momus!

    matt: he doesnt live here but he flies in and graces us with his magnificence from time to time.

    marxy: I for one support statistical research in any field.

    sarmoung: interesting point… I dont pretend to understand pop culture here by a long shot, but you got me pondering, just what exactly is in common? “They” like & copy a certain ammount of “our” musical styles, but the result does not sound the same. What can I say besides parroting what marxy said “the japanese like music”. This is something I’m gonna have to chew on for a while.

  22. marxy Says:

    Yes, difference is what might sell the magazine article or film, but we’re talking about academic research here.

    I should point out here that my academic writing is far from “sexy,” and the arguments are being constructed in the proper protocol. However, when I write essays, I’m not sure that people want me to catalog all the ways in which Japan is identical to the U.S. – unless it’s surprising, like with bowling allies.

    I wish the best of luck with the task ahead, but I wonder how far you can go when these various cabals all link with organized crime, or certainly its money, at some point or another.

    You’ve hit upon a very big obstacle. Most of these artist management companies are indeed backed by dirty money, and these small firms, for obvious reasons, do as little public disclosure as possible. And what’s more complicated, is that all these 100s of tiny jimusho all work in unofficial keiretsu that are very hard to prove.

    On the issue of Shimokitazawa, it’s not a done deal, is it?

    I heard that it was. Who can stop the government and construction agencies once they’ve decided to do something?

    And you are aware there is/are grass-roots campaign(s) to oppose the building of the road?

    Yes, although Japan has a pretty poor record on grass-roots movements. 70s pollution went well. Narita is still unresolved, no?

  23. marxy Says:

    Bowling allies? I meant bowling alleys.

  24. marxy Says:

    Momus,

    In the course of our spats, I forget to mention that I like most of the things you like about Japan. I’ve always liked Japanese magazines a lot, but I have three issues:

    1) The line between editorial and advertising is thin.
    2) The quality and amount of pure editorial have been decreasing lately.
    3) A lot of Japanese trends have been sold on the idea of authoritarian social pressures to conform.

    You don’t believe in 3, don’t care about 1, and don’t know about 2.

    I also think you tend to assume that great Japanese magazines have always existed, like Brutus has had the best NYC maps forever and this will exist indefinitely. Certainly, you weren’t into Japanese style circa ’88 because nobody was. And I’m not sure you like Japan 2005 as much as the “residue of Japan 1998.”

  25. Sarmoung Says:

    I haven’t lived in Japan for four years now and I can’t say I’m at all aware of what changes there may have been over that period. But I never paid much attention to the charts anyway, apart from thinking that most music I heard sounded pretty dreadful, but I’ve felt the same here in the UK for a long while. The only song I can ever recall as specifically being a number one in Japan was that novelty record with stations on the Yamate (?) line being announced. Last time I was there I was much more interested in food and film than pop music.

    At times the lack of subjective reviews would annoy me like hell and at others I found it quite refreshing. Although I read restaurant reviews here, I’ve always preferred the Japanese equivalent where I’d get to see a number of shots of the food and the interior. Seeing food is much closer to eating for me than reading about it. That was something I liked about the Japanese guides to NYC, they followed that format – they looked rather than spoke. I don’t want to know that Journalist X thought a particular dish was this or that, since their taste is rarely the same as mine and I end up carrying their prejudices in there with me. That said, I’ve rarely been to a bad restaurant in Japan, but I have bought some very bad records!

    I think there’s a fair element of truth to Marxy’s observations about subjective reviews and their trustworthiness, but I’m not sure how much of this is due to the fact that reviews period are unreliable as a guage of quality, whether in Japan or elsewhere, and consumers aren’t ignorant of this unless they’re idiots. That said, how often in Japan do reviews (of any product) tell you if something, say a video game, is stuffed full of glitches and just stinks? How much do people in Japan, like they do here, rely on their peers for this sort of information?

    With regard to what there is in common and what’s different, I’ve always tried to steer away from the comparative between Japan and the UK. Otherwise there’s a risk of it becoming a “topsy-turvy” view. I worked as a librarian for a while in perhaps the UK’s finest collection of books about the British in Japan from Tokugawa through to Meiji and the present day and I’ve readmy fill of this stuff. Now, Japan and Korea, that is more intriguing. Or Kanto vs. Kansai and so on. But then I’m a social historian by training and I’m more fascinated by documenting subjective personal experiences of people in Japan than interpreting things on the larger (supra-)national scale. I leave that tricky pistachio nut to the theorists!

    Marxy: Point taken about the essay. There’s a profund lack of work available that discusses such dirty money in Japan and you could be just the man for the job! If it comes to it, I can put in a good word for you with the fading old school in Shibuya and Yokohama, but you’re on your own with the young guns and in Kansai!

  26. marxy Says:

    Just for the record, I want to say that the best “subjective” reviews are when writers champion small bands you would otherwise not have a chance to hear about. But you need the structure of potentially negative reviews and the freedom from advertising pressures to really get the message across. Otherwise, the praise feels hollow. (And if you’ve read Japanese music reviews, they feel hollow.)

    I guess my problem with Japanese reviews is not that they’re too positive, but that they rarely champion small time Japanese acts at the expense of larger ones.

    They have done a good job in talking about/selling relatively unknown Western acts, because they are more free from market pressures.

  27. Dave Says:

    The 70s pollution grassroots movement certainly didn’t succeed. The mercury emitting plant stayed open for years later until it was closed because it was subscale and unprofitable. Laughable compensation was paid.

    Apart from stopping caring, I’m actually hard pressed to think of a Japanese citizens movement that did succeed.

    Unless you include Tamagochi or Pokemon of course.

  28. Chris_B Says:

    the best “subjective” reviews are when writers champion small bands

    Thats pretty subjective…

    Anyways why should Japanese reviewers cover small bands? They dont usually have enough money to pay the review costs.