Telecommunications: Culture Killer or Catalyst?

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Nothing has eaten into the Japanese cultural industries more than the spread of cell-phones (keitai). Where kids from the ’80s and early ’90s had ¥10,000-20,000 a month to spend on records, clothing, and karaoke, kids today have to scrap together the same amount just to pay their monthly phone bills. Numerous studies on the decline of the music market blame keitai, and since the Japanese still primarily go “online” through their phones, using the Internet appears to have an inverse relationship with cultural participation.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the post-industrial world, the computer-based Net is relatively low priced, and for most kids under 22, provided for free by parents or universities. And what’s more, all the illegal downloading and file trading has provided amazing access to music and movies at the rock bottom price of zero. The long-term effects on the cultural industry have yet to be seen, but at least the American markets have fought off constant decline like in Japan.

Of course, the Japanese record industry blames CDRs and file-trading on their yearly 10% descent, but file-trading culture here is still in its infant stages. For starts, there aren’t massive networks of T3-connected college kids in dorms, and most Japanese Internet users are men in their 30s and 40s who don’t have so much incentive for illegal downloads. There is not much to suggest that the number of music fans has remained constantly while fewer pay for real releases. Simply, less Japanese people care about music than in the past.

With print media and fashion, there is no real threat of bootlegging, and yet there are similar rates of market contraction. The phone bills and general economic malaise have redistributed funds out of the “leisure” business into the communications business, and I would not assume that kids are using phones to access more culture. They easily rack up ¥10,000-20,000 bills just talking and emailing friends.

For at least the last twenty-five years in Japan, all pop/youth culture has been consumer culture, and now that kids can’t buy anything, “culture” has gone into a strange transitory period where the old “buy=participation” market structure remains, but the values and consumer abilities have changed. Meanwhile in the United States (and possibly, in Korea and elsewhere), youth Internet usage may not be increasing media sales, but it seems to be boosting overall participation and involvement in culture.

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

17 Responses

  1. Andreas Bovens Says:

    “Numerous studies on the decline of the music market blame keitai, and since the Japanese still primarily go “online” through their phones, using the Internet appears to have an inverse relationship with cultural participation.”

    “Numerous studies”: any references?
    “[blaming keitai for] the decline of the music market”: I’m sympathetic to this argument – falling sales may be caused by a shift in people’s spending habits. In other words, I can imagine exessive keitai bills resulting in less money for CDs. Not really convinced that it’s the only or even main reason for the decline though.
    “the Japanese still primarily go “online” through their phones”: I am not so sure about this. According to a recently published white paper on internet usage in Japan (http://www.impressholdings.com/release/2005/025/20050607_d.pdf page 4), 24,479,000 Japanese access the net via their own computer, 12,258,000 via school/work computers, and 23,603,000 via both their own and school/work computers, while only 9,430,000 Japanese access the net uniquely through their mobile phone. I think you underestimate the number of Japanese having fast internet access at their disposal.
    “using the Internet appears to have an inverse relationship with cultural participation.”: (supposing you’re talking about the mobile internet here,) what about soaring Chaku-Uta downloads, Japan’s mobile gaming market, mobile BBSes, the exchange of self-made mobile pictures and videos, etc? Isn’t that also “cultural participation”?

  2. Sameer Says:

    I don’t like marxy’s implication that teenagers are somehow being coerced or literally forced into spending big bucks on keitai use (“now that kids can’t buy anything…”). Surely it makes more sense to say that they are choosing keitai over cinema, etc. (Unless the parents are requiring kids to get keitai, and expecting the kids to pay for it. But I doubt that…)

    Now, one could make a sociological argument about how network externalities / peer pressure among teenagers is making the demand for mobile phone use very high and inelastic. Well, why has the coordination equilibrium converged on keitai? How was keitai able to lure kids away from fashion or whatever?

    If teenagers are making “bad” (empty; not mind-expanding) choices with their cash, does this call for some paternalism (either literally from their families, or from the state) to guide them toward more soulful activities?

    One more question: Where are teenagers getting all this cash? Is it “arubaito” alone?

  3. dzima Says:

    America’s Terminal Decline:

    http://thetyee.ca/Views/2005/06/22/USCreativeDecline/

  4. Jesse Says:

    But what exactly do you mean by “culture” and “cultural participation”? Which culture? Whose? If you define it narrowly as “buying stuff from large corporations” then of course you’ll see a decline in “cultural participation”. Is buying less stuff that bad? You can view this development positively and say that Japanese youth have decided to value the creation and maintenance of social networks over the perpetuation of raw consumption.

    I also take issue with the title, “Telecommunications: Culture Killer or Catalyst?” Again, that view is predicated on a rather narrow definition of “culture” as “stuff people buy”, instead of a view of culture as “a process that people participate in”. What we are seeing is potentially a value shift in Japanese youth culture (note this word), so I don’t see how “culture” can be killed by simple changes in its configuration.

    I also think the causes of lower consumption would be obvious: the declining birth rate. Less kids = less consumers = less money. Why are the experts so puzzled? Or is it that sales are lower than even the lesser number of kids can predict?

    BTW I’m new here.

  5. marxy Says:

    Allright. My comments are back on after a day of server problems.

    But what exactly do you mean by “culture” and “cultural participation”? Which culture? Whose?

    I woke up yesterday thinking the exact same thing, and I hoped to change my use of the word “culture” to specifically “pop culture.” As Raymond Williams says, “culture is ordinary.” Culture is everywhere, and it’s not just buying things. So I meant, “consumer culture” – music, fashion, furniture, gadgets – which have all been traditionally strong markets in Japan, but are now in a downward spiral. (Except cell phones.)

    Again, that view is predicated on a rather narrow definition of “culture” as “stuff people buy”, instead of a view of culture as “a process that people participate in”

    True, but with “pop culture” in Japan, there is a really cynical underlying factor that it’s not “culture” or “cool” or “legitimate” unless you can buy it. The whole industry doesn’t even have a Bohemian veer to mask its profit-making intentions. There are a few subcultures not based “buying stuff,” but for the most part Japanese teens have not shown interest in “culture” that’s not buying stuff. Every hobby magazine is a shopping guide, and there are few that ignore hobby magazines.

    the declining birth rate. Less kids = less consumers = less money.

    This is surely happening, but at a much slower rate than the market decline. If this were only demographic, the 90s should not have seen such a huge boom. Now with a slightly lower amount of young people around, the music industry has lost 10% of its value for the last 5 years.

  6. marxy Says:

    Andreas, nice to have you here. I will defer to you a bit because this is your field of study, but here’s some answers to your questions:

    “Numerous studies”: any references?

    Kawamata’s article mentions cell phones as leading to the decline of culture markets. So does Dando Yasuharu’s article on the music business slump. Steve McClure echoes the same idea in his article on the music business’s decline. Maybe “study” was the wrong word, but it has become “joushiki.”

    I can imagine exessive keitai bills resulting in less money for CDs. Not really convinced that it’s the only or even main reason for the decline though.

    It’s not the only reason, but surely can’t help. Other reasons include, the declining birth rate and the fact that the industry was taken over by very, very few jimushos whose music has a very limited appeal (I’m talking about Morning Musume etc.) I would guess that a lot of consumers have exited the market, especially when CD prices are still artifically high at 3000 yen. That is way above the market price.

    I think you underestimate the number of Japanese having fast internet access at their disposal.

    Yes, but I think that these reports overestimate the way that Japanese people have embraced the internet. This is soft and fuzzy evidence, but I’m just not “feeling” that the internet has taken over as a new source of culture. It’s still early, I guess, and also demographically, it’s not kids and semi-Bohemians using it, mostly just professional white-collar men and women. And they aren’t going to make it a haven for youth culture and generally wackiness.

    One of the other reasons that the Internet is having a hard time taking off as a youth information disseminator is that it lacks legitimacy. This goes back to the manual magazines; if you can’t learn the “right” way from the Internet, what good is it?

    what about soaring Chaku-Uta downloads, Japan’s mobile gaming market, mobile BBSes, the exchange of self-made mobile pictures and videos, etc? Isn’t that also “cultural participation”?

    The Chaku-Uta downloads are really fascinating, because they may outpace record sales very soon. This is odd; people want to use songs as a personal signifier but not actually listen to music. But as Prof. Nomura Kauzo says in Dando’s article on the music biz, “I cannot help but have my doubts as to whether the young people who are the targets of such marketing today could truly be called lovers of music.” That is to say, they liked music in the 90s only within the praxis of social activity – karaoke, etc.

    Again, these BBS and social networks are really interesting, but they are not “culture” as defined in the old Japanese way of “buying things.” The problem is, the traditional magazines and advertising companies can’t make money off of these social networks, and so they are not quick to change their ideas of “cultural participation” to not include purchasing objects. This is a huge raging war at the moment. Oricon and its sponsoring companies are trying to fight off the new Chaku-Uta companies, and they have refuse to make “Chaku-Uta” charts because of it. So, in some ways, there are some big problems within the producer side of the equation that are making a mismatch between consumer actions/preferences and “seken” ideas of what “culture” is.

  7. marxy Says:

    I don’t like marxy’s implication that teenagers are somehow being coerced or literally forced into spending big bucks on keitai use

    They aren’t being forced, but there is great social pressure to own one. Keitai now are like TV sets in the 60s, and TVs killed off the Japanese movie business.

    How was keitai able to lure kids away from fashion or whatever?

    I think it’s just a question of how to use disposable income. If a phone is a “must” (or at least, greatly necessary for modern life), then there is just no money left over for fashion. And with the birth of Uniqlo, you can dress “correctly” for very little money.

    If teenagers are making “bad” (empty; not mind-expanding) choices with their cash, does this call for some paternalism (either literally from their families, or from the state) to guide them toward more soulful activities

    Oh, I’m not trying to say that “culture” is good/”keitai” are bad. For a long time, the music and fashion markets were overhyped and overheated, full of kids who don’t really care about what they are buying. This is just a natural evolution of the youth market, but not especially good now that everyone has decided Japanese culture is going to save the world.

    One more question: Where are teenagers getting all this cash? Is it “arubaito” alone?

    When I was a teenager, I was lucky to have $20 a month to go rent/see movies and I’m not from a poor household. There’s just not an American culture of kids buying $400 camo jackets. We mostly spend it on cars/insurance/fuel.

    I’ve never quite understood how kids here were so flush with cash, but I think it can be explained through the “six pockets” – mom, dad, grandparents, grandparents – and part-time work. In the 90s, a lot of schools stopped banning arubaito, and with relatively high wages and no competition from cheap foreign labor, kids can easily get 10,000 – 20,000 in their pockets every month.

  8. marxy Says:

    America’s Terminal Decline:

    http://thetyee.ca/Views/2005/06/22/USCreativeDecline/

    Thanks for this link. It was interesting.

    1) Does anyone want to make the point that all this new anti-Americanism isn’t the product of Bush? I don’t remember everyone being so mad at America during the Clinton years. That 2000 election changed everything.

    2) Isn’t Japan even worse off in terms of tolerance than America?

    3) Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Europe seem the most progressive, creative, and slow-life oriented? Can Europeans tell me where the rub is?

  9. dzima Says:

    Sorry for the link slightly off-topic but I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Yes, the American foreign policy hasn’t changed that much in the last couple of decades. Clinton bombed Iraq too, for no apparent reason.

    Europe gives me the same impression of tolerance within, while becoming one of the most foreign-unfriendly country confederations around. I think it would be almost impossible for you or me to move there on a permanent basis since we would “steal” Europeans jobs. The other side of euro-agricultural subsidies, which Momus praised recently, is, among others, poverty in Africa and other nations.

  10. nathaniel smith Says:

    (first comment even)
    Hmmm…..
    But but but
    1. the spread of flets/ADSL/YahooBB et al didn’t really start until the *post*-1990s.
    2. but everyone had cell phones before that.
    3. and haven’t cell phones been getting cheaper? especially for the young-uns with Au’s 学割 and the new 使い放題 ones out now.
    4. I’d echo the earlier comment on population decline: “less Japanese people care about music than in the past” or there are less Japanese people to care about music than in the past?
    5. who is paying 20,000 a month for phone bills? my poor-ass friends certainly aren’t. nor have I. the most was 13,000, but I usually topped out around 7,000.
    6. where do CD rental shops fit in to all this bizness?
    7. and iPods! what about the iPods dammit!?!

    ps- hey andreas!

  11. marxy Says:

    Nathaniel – nice to have you here.

    1) Japan has been quick with the broadband catchup, but they don’t seem to have let the whole Internet shebang into their hearts.

    2) Am I wrong to assume that Japanese “telecommunications” culture is more rooted in cell phone usage than computers?

    3) My cellphone with 学割 and a disdain for calling people gets me at 7,000. Don’t trust me too much, but I *hear* of kids spending 二万円. They apparently do a lot of calling/text messsaging.

    4) “less Japanese people care about music than in the past” or there are less Japanese people to care about music than in the past?” Again I say, the rate of decline for that industry is faster than the rate of decline of the population. If it was just demographics, the music market should have never grown in the 90s.

    5) [see 3]

    6) Kids are rentin’ like crazy, but I don’t think they’re renting more to fill in what they’re not buying. Or are they? Anyone seen stats on this?

    7) iPods started 3 years late here, and they have still failed to reach American-levels of diffussion. The Shuffle’s been big, but a 20 gig tanker is a bitch if you’re not hooked into the file-trading IV to start with.

  12. Jesse Says:

    nathaniel smith – 3) Don’t the youths demand the latest and best cellphones, with more and more bells and whistles? And don’t the crappy old cellphones get dumped on the ash heap of history, viz., between the sofa cushions? Mark my words, someday cellphones will have laser guns and pot on demand, all to entice the increasingly jaded consumers manufactures have created.

  13. marxy Says:

    I think there is some kind of saturation point where people realize they don’t need the next batch of features on a gadget. Last year, the big rage was keitai with TV capabilities and I know no one who has that, and if they do have it, they don’t seem to talk about it. And those “movies” you can take with most cellphones are totally worthless.

  14. Sameer Says:

    Speaking of crappy old cellphones being dumped on the ash heap of history…

  15. Andreas Bovens Says:

    Hey Marxy. And hey Nate!

    Kawamata’s article […]

    Thanks :-)

    Other reasons include […] CD prices are still artifically high at 3000 yen. That is way above the market price.

    True. And the recently introduced right of import (for records) doesn’t help either – prices will stay high for the foreseeable future, I’m afraid.

    […] This is soft and fuzzy evidence, but I’m just not “feeling” that the internet has taken over as a new source of culture. […] And they aren’t going to make it a haven for youth culture and generally wackiness.

    I don’t know – stuff like the Matrix flash mobs, the NBK shaka (which was the most popular Google search query in Japan in the period Oct-Nov 2003), or the recent Train Man meme (2ch → book → movie) can count as wacky, I think ;-)

    One of the other reasons that the Internet is having a hard time taking off as a youth information disseminator is that it lacks legitimacy. This goes back to the manual magazines; if you can’t learn the “right” way from the Internet, what good is it?

    What about the conversations on blogs and BBSes? Although the writing style used is often very different from what you find on their Western counterparts, people must be reading and using this stuff.

    The Chaku-Uta downloads are really fascinating, because they may outpace record sales very soon. This is odd; people want to use songs as a personal signifier but not actually listen to music.

    Hmm. The personal signifier thing sounds strange to me. I’d expect they buy because they want to listen to it.

  16. marxy Says:

    What about the conversations on blogs and BBSes? Although the writing style used is often very different from what you find on their Western counterparts, people must be reading and using this stuff.

    Right. 2-ch is a way for people to communicate, blow off steam, complain, get the “dirt.” But the Internet is not a good way for teenage consumers to know what to buy. That’s a huge hurdle when one of the fundamental roles of the media in Japanese society is guidance.

    Hmm. The personal signifier thing sounds strange to me. I’d expect they buy because they want to listen to it.

    With Chaku-Uta, you only listen for a few seconds, right? We’re not talking about a portable player, but just hearing a crappy MIDI version of “Can You Celebrate?” everytime Asshi-kun calls you. It seems to be that these are the 21st century equivalents of band t-shirts. More about defining self than actual “listening” to music – even if the ringtones go 16-bit.

  17. Andreas Bovens Says:

    With Chaku-Uta, you only listen for a few seconds, right?

    Sorry, I was referring to the growth of Chaku Uta Full.