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.