Terminal Decline... of a Certain Subculture (Which Had its Many Foreign Fans)

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Breaking news from Jean Snow: Relax Magazine will soon cease publication. This is like the Bible going out of print, if Japanese teenage hipsters were Christians, and there were still Japanese teenage hipsters left. For anyone refusing to admit that Japan is no longer Pizzicato Five, bossa-nova cafes, A Bathing Ape, Puffy, skateboarding, graffiti, collaboration goods, Ryan McGinness art, toy collecting, old records forgotten in the West, taste-discrimination over capital-discrimination, ultra-advanced consumer culture, limited-edition sneakers, Mike Mills, Parco exhibitions, Hiromix the amateur photographer, Godard films, and Cornelius (but instead, Louis Vuitton leather, Roppongi Hills, tight white pants, brown haired Onee-kei, fancy suits with no ties, $200 dinners, Uniqlo, Orange Range, Densha Otoko, Hiromix the celebrity, fake beer, and CanCam), your dream is officially over.

Relax‘s monthly pages singlehandedly codified a certain international aesthetic style emerging out of the post-grunge 90s. Although launched a bit after the Shibuya-kei and Ura-Harajuku trends, Relax was the sharpest media of this unofficial movement and further proved that Japan had more to offer in this curation/sampling based consumer-art than other countries. American kids used to buy the magazine even though they could not read the text, because no one else was going to list 300 obscure reggae records next to pictures of adorable girls and Mark Gonzales art. (And even though it was targeted to boys, the publication apparently had mostly girl readers, which gave the book a post-sexual harmony hovering between male informationitis and female peaceful tenderness.)

Of course, the world moved away from this aesthetic and onto less product-friendly art, and Japanese youngsters moved away from $300 monthly allowances and interest in the outside world. Relax in response reinvented itself as an anti-consumer “lifestyle journal” focusing on health, travel, and eco-sustainability. These are all neat and commendable topics, but they don’t move records, or t-shirts, or double-name camo jackets, nor do they tell you what to wear to your date on Saturday night or how to get girls in bed and what to do with them once you have gotten them there (the way that Popeye once could). Japan’s most popular fashion magazine at the moment is CanCam, selling something like 500,000 copies a month. If one million young females are moving in that direction, there is no way one million young males would have the time to glance through something like Relax without totally and completely falling off the track towards sexual conquest.

As much as I everyone thinks I am always in constant withdrawl about these social changes, I actually shed few tears for Relax or Shibuya-kei. But I do wish that something as sophisticated and world-class would appear on the mainstream Japanese popular culture scene. Art in Japan has gone back underground to certain extent, but it feels like Alternative in 1995, where bands got kicked off Sire and then were not really “Indie” but just “washed-up.” So much under-the-radar art at the moment still operates in the Relax mold: the obsession with products and sales, the attempts to please the same masters, the similar self-framing. Indie bands pass out consumer surveys about their tunes. Art galleries have DJs.

There should be no surprise that Relax is folding in the current Japanese cultural climate, but let us take this moment to remember how important its cultural codification was for boosting the image of Japan in the West. The Relax wave still rolls across the globe. Does anyone think the CanCam wave will be half as fun?

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

24 Responses

  1. alin Says:

    A hard earned win for Marxy. How long did studio voice have left again?
    i personally rather liked the way relax was going (the onsen issue’s been my bible this winter) (trying to elbow itself between something like brutus and lohas with touches of an inspired fashion mag , like say earlier ‘commons and sense’ – nice effort but as jean snow said by the last issue it pretty much evaporated).

  2. alin Says:

    Bijutsu Techou seems to me to be in terminal decline. their issues look like it’s still 1998. but then those guys seem to have mastered the art of survival. Oh, i forgot, i don’t think art-related things should be mentioned here.

  3. marxy Says:

    i personally rather liked the way relax was going

    Objectively, however, it is difficult to connect the LOHAS themes to consumerism – the main impedance for magazines in japan.

    Oh, i forgot, i don’t think art-related things should be mentioned here.

    Whether you think Relax and art should be mentioned in the same sentence or not, a whole generation of Japanese kids grew up thinking that the A Bathing Ape X Kaws limited-edition thermos is art.

  4. Momus Says:

    What’s just not right in this otherwise lyrical obit is this:

    Japan is no longer Pizzicato Five [etc]… but instead, Louis Vuitton [etc[…

    Now, it’s not like Louis Vuitton, or office ladies, were invented yesterday. All this stuff was going on throughout the 90s too. To say that Relax readers will now turn to Can Cam demonstrates a rather poor reading of markets for someone who’s got a master’s degree in marketing. These are different demographics, people with different cultures.

    There’s are two cliches in publishing:

    1. Every good magazine creaties its own readership.

    2. A good magazine only has ten years or so.

    If you think Japanese magazines will never again list 300 obscure reggae records next to pictures of adorable girls, you’re dreaming. Maybe there won’t be Mark Gonzales art next to it, but that merely bespeaks the terminal decline of American influence.

  5. marxy Says:

    Now, it’s not like Louis Vuitton, or office ladies, were invented yesterday. All this stuff was going on throughout the 90s too.

    No, but if you came to Japan in 1996-2000, you couldn’t help but notice that my first list were very prominent. My lists are Zeitgeists. There was an era when Japan was very “Relax” overall. It was not just some obscure subculture. Japan is now very, very “CanCam” – for better or worse. Louis Vuitton sales peaked two years ago or so, even though the fashion market in total peaked in 1996.

    Also, if CanCam is a “different beast,” where did all the Relax readers go? What are their little brothers and sisters up to? Not Relaxing, that’s for sure.

    1. Every good magazine creaties its own readership.

    But Relax was not sui generis. Have you ever seen the original issues? The Editor-in-Chief was a genius to tailor the content to what he saw as “domestic street culture.” He put disparate movements together and made it all work together. I don’t think he built a “readership” as much as he brought together different groups under one umbrella.

    If you think Japanese magazines will never again list 300 obscure reggae records next to pictures of adorable girls, you’re dreaming.

    People do this – just no one cares anymore.

    Also,

    These are different demographics, people with different cultures.

    What do you mean by “cultures” when magazines in Japan are the primary agent for creating the “consumer lifestyles” that get confused as “cultures.” There is a good chance that girls that would have read Relax on the sly, now read CanCam.

  6. marxy Says:

    On second thought: Maybe it’s more like, everyone who isn’t a 20 year-old non-career clerical staff members has moved out of consumer culture and into nothing. The remainder is Can Cam.

  7. Momus Says:

    A more sober-headed magazine world insider would probably also say that Magazine House publications now all have a certain look and feel that owes quite a bit to Relax, and that much of the Relax visual aesthetic, as well as its sensibility, will persist in titles like Brutus and Brutus Casa. Relax readers may, like Jean Snow, simply have grown out of Relax and into these more upmarket, more materialistic, more design-oriented titles. In fact, isn’t that where Okamura-San, the original Relax editor, ended up?

  8. alin Says:

    was relax really ever that rad ? i guess i must have missed something. (a bape tshirt?!) when i first came across it in the late 90s i was regularly buying studio voice (which did blow me away first and continues to impress me) and was familiar with brutus, casa etc. relax seemed little more than a bastard child of a lobotomised SV and a shopping catalogue.

    Magazine House publications now all have a certain look and feel that owes quite a bit to Relax. i’m really not sure about that. i mean the way i see it the whole relax esthetic can be broken into 2-3 elements that have preexited and outlived it. guess it looked rad in a skate/stuff shop around 99-00, be it nyc or melbourne.

    come to think of it probably relax owes most of its little bit of esthetic originality to Dictionary which was a great little, near cult-status, free mag in the 90s , still going?? maybe less great. that’s for example where Chikashi Suzuki’s brilliant lo-key photography , which was taken through into the relax girly pages, was first published.

  9. Momus Says:

    Okamura-San, the original Relax editor

    Slip of the brain, he’s Okamoto-San.

  10. marxy Says:

    And he is indeed at Brutus. Which is why Brutus is suddenly interesting and has polar bears on the cover.

  11. rachael Says:

    the recent dorama “busu no hitomi no koishiteru” has cancam model ebihara yuri playing a character called “ebihara yumi” (which makes me wonder if she’s as hairbrained as her character)

    and although i’ve only gotten through one episode so far, there is at least one scene where an issue of cancam is lying on the desk, picked up and read for a good five seconds of screen time…

  12. marxy Says:

    I will admit that Ebihara is cute, but the “conventional wisdom” among Japanese guys is that her mental vacancy and lack of personality pretty much kill the appeal.

  13. Brown Says:

    Shouldn’t that make her all the more appealing, a la Irie? Is there a contradiction in this model of Yamada Taro 2006?

  14. Chris_B Says:

    bummer. once again I cant relate at all. Relax always seemed to me to be yet another faux alternative. Did I miss something? Was it the first of its kind or just the coolest? Maybe its because I didnt care about Shibuya Kei, etc as it all looked like another state of the consumerist paritcle beam/wave. Help me understand.

  15. Jean Snow Says:

    I’d just like to state something regarding STUDIO VOICE, which everyone seems to hold in such high regards. For me, the ridiculous amount of sponsored content is just a big turn-off. I know sponsored content happens in most (OK — all) Japanese magazines, but why does SV have to be so visible with it? For me, it just makes half of the content in the magazine feel like advertorials. Yeah, sure, I still browse every month, and they do cover some interesting stuff (I loved their recent design issue), but I do wish they would tone down the ad placements.

    As for Ebi-chan, it’s worth noting that she’s really popular with women, but not men. If we’re talking CAN CAM girls, I prefer Yamada Yu myself.

  16. alin Says:

    sponsored content

    true but it’s so separated from the content that i don’t even notice it, both the first pages and the sponsored ‘stories’ – it’s like they do in some countries having a full half an hour on tv dedicated purely to commercials then no interruptions. in the 90s early 00s i’ve always found SV and Relax incommesuarable and never understood why they always got lumped together. the last issue(s) of SV feel a lot more like a normal magazine than they used to – wonder if that’s good or bad – for a photography issue, which tend to be the most tediously repetitive in the SV cycle that last one is surprisingly positive and fresh. The last Brutus has tought me everything i never wanted to know about ice cream but the one before with takeshi honma’s swiss mountain pictures was rather beautiful. a relatively new magazine called High Fashion is not bad at all, as good as ryukou tsuushin at it’s best periods , more than a touch of Composite-like cosmopolitanism and rather in-depth stories on serious art/design often historical issues.

  17. alin Says:

    Other than the chronological factor (and a few stretched out points of reference that momus i think pointed out once ie. masafumi sanai once did a cover for konishi while also shooting for relax etc) i fail to see any connection between relax mag and so-called shibuya-kei). ok they were both embraced by an indie western audience.

    what i’ve been often wondering, with all the 90s Japan euphoria here how come i havn’t come across one reference to the band that epitomised 90s japan – of course the Fishmans, then nothing about matsumoto taiyou , kiriko nananan, sakabashira imiri etc etc quick japan etc etc.

  18. marxy Says:

    i fail to see any connection between relax mag and so-called shibuya-kei

    Ha?

  19. alin Says:

    yes i do, not that thay’re totaly disconected but 90s japan was such a rich ground that each of the 2 is closer linked to 100 other things than to each other. the most significant link to me seems the fact that they got shipped sequentially overseas. oh, let it be

  20. carolalotta Says:

    Sorry, bit late, but – Ebi-chan in Busukoi. True CanCam is read all throughout the dorama. And – it seems one focus of the dorama is to make people believe that Ebi-chan is not as dumb as might be suspected: she masters the art of ikebana in about 48 hours in one episode…so: is there wisdom underneath the pretty shell? I wonder…It seems they are trying to teach a great lesson in life: pretty girls can be clever, and busu girls can be pretty, if they are clever enough to read cancam. Life is just so easy.
    The News of relax’ end makes me sad. I also liked the new eco-approach. And – it’s not true that lohas dont consume. Where did that come from? Of course they do!! They even pay more for a product if they are told it’s healthy and sustainable, right? The lohas product range has boomed in Germany in the last 3 years. Same goes for Japan, ie. Dr. Haushka and Weleda cosmetic products…

  21. Brown Says:

    Carolalotta, you’ve pointed out the other glaring contradiction in Marxy’s comments: what is LOHAS if not a consumer fad? That’s what Slow Life was being identified as last year on these pages, and I see no reason to change that analysis. Is the Marxy on this thread suddenly living in some parallel universe where most Japanese guys don’t like intellectually inferior girls and LOHAS actually involves curbing consumption? I’m perplexed…

  22. nate Says:

    lohas/ slow life in action.

    instead of being consumptive and buying a book cover for your paperbacks (or making due with the paper one you get for free), buy a 1500yen book on making your own book covers. The necessary materials run another 1000 yen or so, plus however much you want to spend on fabric.
    The trend is perfect for japan, because it can help to eradicate the two biggest threats facing the country: free time and disposable income.

  23. Chris_B Says:

    slow life? that thing is still around? Must be like yacht rock…

  24. Brown Says:

    Of course, most people still prefer the old standby: Slow Death.