It is no longer fun to wait in line

archive1

Ever since I first lived in Tokyo back in 1998, the concept of lines/queues has always been inextricably central to my understanding of Japanese consumer culture. I hate to keep retelling the story, but perhaps nothing was more pivotal to my life and career than waiting in line three hours at A Bathing Ape’s Busy Work Shop Harajuku with hundreds of Japanese youth to buy an $80 red-and-white border shirt with a small Ape face tag on the sleeve. Three hours for a single piece of clothing? Sure, there are lines often in the U.S. for certain consumer goods (Tickle-Me-Elmos at Christmas et. al), but there seems to be such fundamental dissent against the idea in such a efficiency-obsessed, competitive society, leading to pushing-and-shoving, sour attitudes, and verbal sparring. How many freaks-outs and abject rage have I witnessed at the Burger King on Delancy St. at noon, and those lines were maybe ten people at max. On that fateful August day in Harajuku, the kids lining up failed to show any signs of discontent or annoyance. I can’t remember much excitement on their faces, but I instantly became intrigued by their pleasant resignation to the situation.

The Japanese line (行列, gyouretsu in local parlance) has always been an accepted part of the consumer landscape. Opposed to old tales of Eastern Europe and grandmothers enduring the bitter cold to line up for bread and borscht, the Japanese line up for access to exclusive products — most often fashion goods made intentionally rare by producer intention. Often though, the centralization of the media system and the obsessive adherence to the media message by consumers mean that some stores with no structure in place to deal with a mysterious massing of customers start getting hundreds of people one morning in search of their cream puffs. In the case of Ape, the problem was less of supply and more of physical restrictions of how many could fit in the store at once. In actuality, two of my three hours were waiting in line within the store. With only a small counter and one clerk, the sluggish transaction speed was the real source of slow down.

The ubiquity of lines in Japan, however, transformed the occurrence from commerce malfunction to visual sign of success. The Ape lines in Tokyo may have been a nightmare for the staff, but the queue started looming so large in the Ape legend that I caught the Osaka store in 2000 clearly limiting customer entry to two in the store at a time to create a conspicuous backup.

Whether real or artificial, the line to me was always a sign of energy in the consumer market, a symbol of youth’s obsession with the culture around them. This energy was also exported: Can you imagine a line at Supreme in New York without Asian faces?

Obviously, the Buddhist/consumerist perspective on lines would be much darker. R. channeled Tyler Durden in his comments about the PS3 “get” on Brad‘s blog: “The things you own end up owning you.” Moreover, I met a semi-famous graphic designer years ago who had a collaborative shoe with one of the major sneaker houses, and he attended the first day of sales for his limited-edition kicks. He noted how pained everyone looked, how the kids appeared to be there out of duty/responsibility to their collection rather than a joyful curiosity towards the product at hand.

The word from the Playstation 3 lines seems to paint an even less jubilant portrait of where this consumer phenomenon is heading in Japan. Read the excellent report from Brad about obtaining a PS3 from the Yurakucho Bic Camera on Saturday morning. The store’s lack of preparation and the lack of information about product quantities surely did not help, but the scene was hardly one of happy consumers lining up to get their hands on a dreamy toy. Most importantly, the main two parties present were Chinese adults and homeless men. Long dead are the days of nine year-old Slime-freaks waiting with their parents to get a copy of Dragon Quest II. The line in Japan has gone professional — and foreign. Bic Camera employees had to start making announcements in Mandarin to stop the line from getting out of control.

Much is going to be made about the “dark side” of the PS3 lines, but let’s be honest: This is Japanese consumer culture globalized, post-auction sites and post-income disparity. Unclear if the Chinese present were working class immigrants day laboring for higher ups or whether they intended to sell back to the mainland, but can you imagine a similar massing of foreigners even ten years ago? Also, does anyone think that Mr. Tanaka at Tokyo Gas or Mr. Sato at Hakuhodo is paying homeless men to stand in line for them? Seeing that the market price of these machines is still higher than the set price, everything has descended into scalping — with grey-black market forces trying to hoard the supply. Kotaku quotes “opportunistic Japanese businessmen” being behind things, but I kind of doubt these are white-collar salarymen pooling their money together. In the Kotaku comment roll, Brad identifies the homeless men’s employers as organized crime, and this makes the most sense. Of course with Ape and all the old-style consumer queues, resellers were always a big part of the equation, but instead of sneaking in with bright-eyed children and trend-conscious teenagers, these arbitrage merchants have become the majority.

Lines are destined in Japan to be what they are elsewhere — unpleasant routines of consumer mechanics — where we give hours of our lives in competition to obtain things faster than our peers. Especially now with international auction markets on the Net, these events — which used to bring out the ideal consumers for fun photo ops and human-interest business stories — are now solely going to be a distribution structure for resellers. There was something “Japanese” about the cold social harmony of peaceful queuing, but when the stakes get this high, propriety and innocence will be pushed aside by the sinister forces festering underneath. Blame foreigners or globalization or the yakuza or capitalism in toto but the Japan-style queue may be facing demise.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
November 13, 2006

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

30 Responses

  1. alin Says:

    the .. queue is dead

    as i mentioned recently the queues for 太陽, the movie, near my place here were enormous week after week, while the hype factor limited. the queues to famous, obscure restaurants are the same all over the country which suggests there is another more ‘stable’ level beneath.

  2. marxy Says:

    Good point. I… must… fight… journalistic… tendency… to… call… things… dead.

    You are going to see lines in Tokyo for normal things. Too many eyeballs on the same media with little stigma for being interested in the same things as everyone else and too little supply/space to cater all of the consumers. For a lot of these products, lines are a pain. It would make more money to just serve everyone instantly and move on. Tech/fashion/trend companies can use the line, but I doubt that movie theatres care about the prestige of long lines. Just a logistical nightmare.

  3. Carl Says:

    I wasted many a Saturday morning this spring lining up outside a Toys R Us a couple hours before opening for a DS Lite then shipping it off to one of my friends in the US.

  4. Jasong Says:

    Hi Marxy,

    Interesting post. Especially:

    He noted how pained everyone looked, how the kids appeared to be there out of duty/responsibility to their collection rather than a joyful curiosity towards the product at hand.

    This is so true of consumer behaviour here, whether it’s clothing, bags or games. People don’t seem to enjoy what they’ve bought, at least not outwardly. It’s more like ticking off an infinite list of tick boxes.

    Friends from Kansai, especially Osaka, say “Lining up? What’s that?” I’m sure some of your readers out there can attest to this. Tokyo is the epitome of 行列.

  5. Carl Says:

    Sorry about the double post. For the record, this was out in the sticks, not Eastern Capital.

  6. marxy Says:

    (We just moved to a superior version of MT and there are still bugs. You will be able to post, but probably get an error message.)

  7. alin Says:

    … fight… journalistic… tendency…

    it might also help differenciating consumer/pop japan, as basically established in the 80s and defined (in the west) in the 90s from japan das Ding an Sich.

  8. marxy Says:

    I think there are two kinds of lines in Japan (at least):

    1) Superexclusive product lines (PS3, Ape, etc.)
    2) Normal undersupply/overdemand lines for actual spaces at an experiential event (new movies on the weekends, hot ramen stands, etc.)

    I would still argue that Type#1 was much more teen/child-oriented and less cynical before. Type #2 is less up for infiltration seeing that you can’t sell the ramen on an auction site.

  9. alin Says:

    i don’t understand why you always go back to bape (or conversely LV) and completely ignore say the fact that it was the japanese market (basically a combination of your 1 and 2 – a margiela or a raff simmons piece is ‘normal’ in this country) that actually made the 90s belgian fashion movement viable – and thereby pretty much changed the face of fashion on the entire planet. don’t forget the fact that belgian fashion itself would not have been quite what it is/(was) hadn’t it been for a handful of japanese individuals a decade or so before.

  10. marxy Says:

    Bape is like Coke, Levi’s. I find it hard to ignore.

    I don’t talk much about Belgian fashion by name, but I think you can pretty much talk about most things in the world just by this:

    the fact that it was the japanese market that actually made ENTER MOVEMENT NAME HERE viable – and thereby pretty much changed the face of fashion on the entire planet.

    Would there be a APC or Agnes B without Japan? No way. They admit it as well. And my whole “terminal decline” argument is that the shrinkage of the Japanese market (and ensuing loss of mass fashionability) means that the Japanese market is now so much less in position to make a foreign movement viable and influential to the world. Japan may still have more power in this area, but the 90s was surely a high water mark.

  11. Adamu Says:

    Instead of declaring queueing dead you should have told us it has hit that other journalistic cliche, the “turning point.”

    Lots of the trendy ramen places have ridiculously small seating capacities even in areas that aren’t all that crowded, for whatever reason, probably having something to do with building regulations or poor planning on the restaurant’s part. So it becomes a vicious cycle that makes these lines both a logistical nightmare and a sign of trendiness to the extent that “gyoretsu no dekiru” (line-forming popularity) is a national buzzword. So a restaurant with a small seating capacity can hold a small cadre of regular customers, and then serve the necessary buzz-building function when they gain some notoriety (say in a mention in Walker magazine). And anyway, a ramen place (or okonomiyaki or what have you) with the seating capacity of a conveyor sushi place just wouldn’t be natural, at least for the customers who don’t like those tacky chains.

  12. Adamu Says:

    Instead of declaring queueing dead you should have told us it has hit that other journalistic cliche, the “turning point.”

    Lots of the trendy ramen places have ridiculously small seating capacities even in areas that aren’t all that crowded, for whatever reason, probably having something to do with building regulations or poor planning on the restaurant’s part. So it becomes a vicious cycle that makes these lines both a logistical nightmare and a sign of trendiness to the extent that “gyoretsu no dekiru” (line-forming popularity) is a national buzzword. So a restaurant with a small seating capacity can hold a small cadre of regular customers, and then serve the necessary buzz-building function when they gain some notoriety (say in a mention in Walker magazine). And anyway, a ramen place (or okonomiyaki or what have you) with the seating capacity of a conveyor sushi place just wouldn’t be natural, at least for the customers who don’t like those tacky chains.

  13. Momus Says:

    Hisae read on some guy’s blog that his friend made more than $15,000 profit a day by employing 30 people to queue for PS3s then reselling them. Time is money. Now we just need to pay people to actually play the games for us too.

  14. marxy Says:

    A good point worth mentioning again: Sony could sell the first 80,000 for $2000 each and cut out the middlemen. What is the outrage about a high initial price when no one “normal” is going to get one anyway?

  15. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    Not sure if this was Brad’s cherry breaking for this stuff, but its been going on since the Playstation launch. I made good money on the Dreamcast and PS2 launches, some friends of mine used to regularly clock a good US$50K/yr on this sort of thing. It came as no surprise to read about this launch.

    Marxy: Not sure this was worth 8 paragraphs. Though I did like your point about how some consumers just dont seem to give a rats ass about what they are lining up for.

    Truth really seems to be that the whole artificial scarcity thing is a great way to milk the suckers as long as you are on the cashing in end.

  16. Momus Says:

    Of course, Chris, you can’t really appreciate the full impact of these eight paragraphs unless you compare and contrast their mature disillusionment with Marxy’s classic early essay, 1998’s seminal Waiting in line is incredible fun in dippy, groovy Tokyo!

  17. Brad Douglas Says:

    Wow, my post being fodder for a post on neomarxisme! Does this mean I’ve finally made it?!

    Chris, it was my first lineup, but not for my friends who are veterans of those consoles you mentioned and then some. None of those were anything like this. The resellers were far more well-organized than any previous launch any of my friends had ever seen. The sheer numbers of Chinese and homeless were astounding. Plus, the lack of organization at Bic Camera was new. Remind me to never go there again. Next time I’ll line up at Yodobashi in Shinjuku.

    Plus PS2 launched with 10 times the number of units. That kind of inventory helps to cut down on this sort of thing.

  18. jona Says:

    It ain’t elecronics or sneakers, but I can vouch that the line for public seating at big criminal trials has also gone professional, if it was ever amateur. Six hundred and forty people lined up for 64 non-media seats at ex-Livedoor CEO Horie’s trial last week. (It was Horiemon’s first day of direct testimony, and so something of a media event.) I was intrigued that half to two thirds of those in line seemed to be university students. Yet in the courtroom, the non-media seats were filled with — media. For non-press-club reporters and big media outlets that want to send more staff than their quota allows, the going rate to get a student to stand in line for 30 minutes or so for the lottary draw is 3,000 yen.

    I had to wonder what happens if your clutch of student hirelings is unlucky and your paper comes up empty, or they do too well and you end up with more seats than you need. Is there a secondary market for extra seats? And why not just dispense with the flat rate “arubaito” system and just have freelancers try their luck, auctioning their seats to the highest bidder? Something about egalitarian attitudes to income distribution and ingrained distrust of markets, no doubt.

  19. check Says:

    Waiting in line for 17 hours @ ~$115.00 an hour?

    Sounds pretty fun to me.

  20. Ret Says:

    1) kids aren’t the only people playing games anymore, particularly for high end equipment like a PS3 (or the PS2 which many seem to have gotten for the DVD player)–it costs less than the Blu Ray player inside.

    2) I’ll bet quite a few of the people in line were there only for resale (check the prices on Yahoo Auctions Japan or Ebay (US)–or Taiwan or Hong Kong). The people lining up won’t seem nearly as odd then.

  21. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    Not sure if this was Brad’s cherry breaking for this stuff, but its been going on since the Playstation launch. I made good money on the Dreamcast and PS2 launches, some friends of mine used to regularly clock a good US$50K/yr on this sort of thing. It came as no surprise to read about this launch.

    Marxy: Not sure this was worth 8 paragraphs. Though I did like your point about how some consumers just dont seem to give a rats ass about what they are lining up for.

    Truth really seems to be that the whole artificial scarcity thing is a great way to milk the suckers as long as you are on the cashing in end.

  22. Mulboyne Says:

    Paying people to wait in line is not a new phenomenon in Japan: it was part of everyday life in postwar black markets. It’s interesting that Japan came up with that economic solution whereas Britain built a national identity on the back of willingness to queue and an intolerance for queue-jumpers (an institution under threat according to this link:
    http://www.visaeurope.com/pressandmedia/newsreleases/press260_pressreleases.jsp )

    One of the complaints the gamers seem to have is that there was less sense of community in queues for the PS£ compared with, say, lining up for a new Star Wars film. It’s interesting that you identify two types of queue:

    “1) Superexclusive product lines (PS3, Ape, etc.)
    2) Normal undersupply/overdemand lines for actual spaces at an experiential event”

    The point about the first type of queue is that the queue itself is an experience rather than just something to be endured. People queuing for ramen don’t usually try to bond with everyone else.

    Before the internet, gamers didn’t have many ways to easily meet each other face to face but queueing for new products was one place they could do so. The internet has facilitated online gaming, forums and conventions so if the community loses out on the fun out of the queue because of the growth of online auctions, that seems a small price to pay.

  23. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    sorry for the double post there.

  24. Elliott Says:

    Perhaps a side note but lines in Japan aren’t exclusively limited to designer goods, electronic products or high-profile courtroom trials. The elderly folk in my neighborhood line up outside my local supermarket at 9am every Sunday morning in order to be one of the first 50 people in the door and therefore entitled to a free bunch of three flowers. The normal retail price for this particular bunch of flowers is 199 yen ($1.75).

  25. marxy Says:

    Everything everyone is saying makes sense.

    Two related stories:

    1) Akiba Blog (first time reader, honest to god) looks at the fact that Yodobashi in Akihabara got 1400. Apparently, Sony only delivered large shipments of PS3s to stores that would not do lotteries and instead do line-ups.

    2) As some of you may know, 5000 PS3s showed up on Yahoo! Auctions. Oops. Luckily there is an organized effort to run the auctions up to ridiculous prices.

  26. Mutantfrog Says:

    In 2002 I was in Urumqi, a city in Western China, and stepped into the local Xinhua bookstore for a moment to see if they had any books on local topics in the foreign language section (this was before I started learning Chinese) and instead ended up leafing through a book written in English by a Chinese writer for a Chinese audience entitled “Introduction to Anglo-American Culture” which contained one line so fantastic that I still remember it to this day.

    “In England, there is a phenomenon known as ‘queuing.'”

    This sentence says far more about Chinese culture than about England.

  27. john Says:

    I had a pretty easy time acquiring my PS3.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGD9MJM4Pfg

  28. alin Says:

    “In England, there is a phenomenon known as ‘queuing.'”

    that’s great. every queue is different: queing for borsch in the red square , for bape shirts in 96, at the tokyo mitsubishi ATM etc are incommeasurable phenomena.

    “terminal decline” argument is that the shrinkage of the Japanese market (and ensuing loss of mass fashionability) means that the Japanese market is now so much less in position to make a foreign movement viable and influential to the world.

    but stuff like uniqlo expanding etc basically point in the opposite direction.

    take the odd assumption that history can repeat itself and japan is to take again that bizzare role of world fashion curator/validator. to the extent that it might have been a conscious phenomenon it was determined by evidently financial affluence and some sort of confidence, in the 90s obviously having quite a lot to do with the international success of kawakubo & co. you’ve pretty much got the same situation now , minus i guess a layer of creative auteurship, which is not a japanese issue anyway. i mean the uniqlo shop or say last night’s ‘ai-nori where they go to sweden to find bizzare moe clubs, german boy band ‘tokyo hotel’ etc etc . it’s obvious who’s holding the stick, the question is rather what is the rest of the world doing?

  29. smack Says:

    mulboyne touches on something that would seem to be a significant part of the queueing phenomenon in Japan, the post-war black market. if you want to understand its arc, maybe you have to look a little past the 90’s. ill just make points, and im sure everyone can fill in. this is purely my own speculation and undocumented.

    immediate post war to late 40’s early 50’s. essentials like food and clothing are scarce. money is worthless. people line up with family heirlooms to exchange with gangsters to get at bag of rice and a coat. kids growing up in this generation think nothing of lining up, in fact its life and death fact of life. 50-late 60’s. life is getting better, but luxuries are still scarce. travel outside of the country is restricted so even things like spam and sanka are highly prized commondities that people will line up to get. this generation still used to lining up, but now its associated with luxuries (like spam), but still carries that desperation of the earlier period. maybe with a sense of irony. 70’80’s, lines are for increasingly frivolous things – the bragging rights to say you tried something, bought something, etc. status. but it still has not dawned that lining up is lame. the life and death aspect of lines is still too fresh in the gestalt. can’t see past the market manipulations. 90’s there is no scarcity of anything anymore, lines are all about exclusivity and combined with japanese packrat tendencies (also a post war phenom?) that require people to collect the entire collection of whatever is issued just because. the bragging rights are still in effect. or rather the ostentatious markings of somebody down with the know, an intangible (manufactured) status, carries more weight than ever. the new millenium, kids are broke, lines are no fun because everyone knows that none of the commodities are really scarce. the 90’s ruse is up. this generation will not be a patsy to greedy marketers. this generation is keeping it real.

    maybe the last part is a little too optimistic about young japanese. they’re probably bummed about missing the roaring 90’s the same way i regret not cashing in on the new economy bubble around the same time because i was in india smoking charis with a bunch of sadhus. sigh.

    oh, just watched an episode of entourage where turtle got vinny to line up for limited edition sneakers in LA. of course everyone on line was beastie boys white, japanime freak black or asian.

    one last note though, the line phenom probably goes back to the edo period. i remember reading about some crazy temple/freakshow in the edo period that got lines every weekend. can’t name the reference. sorry. might be able to find it if someone is interested. and there’s need to mention the lines for rationed commodities during the war. but ill leave it at that because i’ve written too much that is not really on point.

  30. r. Says:

    Although a bit out of context, I think the last line of Nick’s 2000 “Metaphysical Masochism Of The Capitalist Creative” Though For The Day (which I have quoted before on numerous occasions) best captures how I felt when I read Brad’s blog entry about his PS3 quest:

    “…the [行列/queue] in which you see most clearly the masochistic triumph of the capitalist creative, falling in love with the great machine even as it cuts the death sentence into the flesh of [Brad’s] back.”

    Thanks for that amazing and chilling line, Momus!