A 1977 issue of Japan Echo contains an article called “Hordes of Teenagers Massing” written by an NHK researcher named Fujitake Akira. He looks for answers to a question that had been plaguing society at the time: Why do youngsters mass in crowds and pursue the latest fads? Viewed with hindsight, this may seem like asking why water is wet, but Fujitake notes that this “youth massing phenomena,” which we now accept as a standard part of Japanese culture, was a “major change” for society in the 1970s.
One example of massing:
On May 4 at about 4:30 p.m., a group of petitioners assembled in force before the entrance to Yokohama City Hall. Their petition was to make Yokohama Municipal Cultural Gymnasium available to the Bay City Rollers for a concert in Yokohama. Consisting of about 100 girls, the group had collected 5,000 signatures which they asked to be able to present to Mayor Ichio Asukata. The British rock group, which is scheduled to come to Japan again this autumn, has recently been riding a popularity of boom of almost unreal proportions. The Rollers’ fans are mostly schoolgirls between the fifth and tenth grades, with an average age of about 14. The ¥2,500 albums put out by the Rollers are, of course, selling like hot cakes.
Damn youngsters with their blasted Bay Cities and hot cakes.
If we concede that a majority of Japan’s significant “popular culture” is comprised of “youth-oriented consumer culture” (Sanrio, Gundam, video games, Pink Lady, etc.), then Fujitake’s article essentially pinpoints the beginning of what we know as “Japanese pop culture” to the mid-1970s.
The 1960s saw amazing economic improvement for the Japanese nation, but individual consumption mostly involved bringing up the standard of modern comfort in the sphere of hardware (air conditioning, color TV, cars) rather than frivolous spending on “soft” cultural items. Instead of indulging in fashion and manufactured pop, college students in the 1960s flocked to the New Left since it was the most obvious and meaningful way to engage in social organization at the time. These kids did not prioritize accumulating “stuff” — outside of helmets and fighting sticks (ゲバ棒) needed to battle cops and ideological foes.
After the implosion of the Red Armies in the early 1970s, however, mass consumerism established itself as the new, friendlier vessel for the same socialization that the New Left had provided. Consumer products and information became a ticket to peer inclusion — i.e., if you owned the right product or knew about the right musical group, it was easy to find adoption into loose or formal organizations. Seventies’ teenagers may have still mobilized to present petitions to political leaders, but not to remove Japan from the defense umbrella of the United States as much as to open up Japan to the thrilling manufactured Scottish pop sounds of Rollermania.
Massing itself was not a brand new thing to Japan, but in the mid-’70s, children and adolescents suddenly became the driving force behind mass culture. As Fujitake writes, “One might even be inclined to say that what we are witnessing is no more than the spread to the younger generation of phenomena that had previously been the exclusive preserve of the adult generation.” For example, there may have been a very long tradition of reading and writing manga, but the 1970s youth embrace of that particular medium laid out the foundations of today’s entrenched manga culture. Fujitake calls ’70s teenagers the “comic book generation” — which suggests that comic book reading caused a generational split. He writes, “Some parents are somewhat scornful of the comic-book generation, or perhaps we should say that they disapprove of comic-book reading.” One problem with comic-books, he explains, is that they are a “private” media enjoyed alone. This breaks from the wholesome and communal nature of television, where the entire family sits around the set and chooses programming together. Just as ’50s rock’n’roll developed from American teenagers being able to listen to music away from their families on personal transistor radios, youth culture in Japan needed private and personal media outlets like the phonebook manga comics in order to properly develop.
So why did Japanese youth culture explode in the 1970s? Appropriate economic conditions created the necessary discretionary income, media diffusion, and distribution networks to allow for a consumer society, but why did youth consumers make the best target customer for manufacturers?
In the mid-1970s, Japan was an extremely young country compared to its economic equals. In 1975, only 7.9% of the Japanese population was aged 65 or older. (For comparison, the rate for the U.S. was 10.5%, the U.K. was 14.0%, and Germany was 14.8%. Only South Korea had a lower rate at 3.6%.)
Those who began to have kids in the late ’60s and early ’70s had grown up with very little in the way of consumer luxuries and never experienced enough prosperity to know how to spend money on themselves. When the Japanese economy started putting real money in their pockets by the late 1960s, they chose to spend this money on their children rather than themselves. They hoped to provide their own youngsters with the pleasurable and comfortable adolescence they had not experienced in their own youth.
This value shift towards child-oriented consumption hit the fuel of a very large youth generation to create an army of young cultural participants. And due to an extremely limited set of media guides to products and services, kids all “massed” at the same events and stores. More and more companies were obviously happy to get into the youth market once they understood that this was the locus of consumer fervor in society. Soon youth culture had enough artifacts in circulation to really assert itself as a major part of the total market system.
If demographics helped launched the Japanese pop culture explosion, how do the current conditions appear in comparison? Very, very gray.
Japan’s elderly rate skyrocketed to 17.2% in 2000 — the third highest in the OECD. Predictions for 2025 expect it to push 28.9%, and recent extrapolations have the population reaching 36% elderly by 2050. More than a third of society will be over 65.
I will concede that “youth culture” may not exist in its current form in 50 years regardless of demographic change, but why should we assume that Japan’s manufacturers will continue to focus on children when children no longer make up a robust consumer segment? Even now, the conventional wisdom paints the retiring Baby Boomers as the real goldmine, and producers are shifting their strategies accordingly.
Interestingly though, luxury apparel companies and street fashion brands in Japan are all massively expanding their children’s lines based on the concept that the rich grandparent generation will concentrate spending on their few grandchildren rather than on themselves. This will keep money moving into youth products for a while, but instead of the 1970s strategy of hitting as many people as possible in the masses with inexpensive goods, producers are concentrating on the sale of expensive high-grade goods to a handful of elite kids.
Fewer youth also may lead to a more “adult” cultural environment, which is not necessarily a bad thing. That being said, Japan has spent the last forty years moving more and more ex-adolescents into the kind of infantile consumption originally developed for children. Before children took over consumer culture, the 1960s mainstream culture often relied on an elitist mix of serious subject matter. Magazines like Hanashi no Tokushu (「話の特集」) offered intellectual discourse, political philosophizing, guerrilla music, and avant-garde art/theatre all in one bundle. Popular and youth culture these days (including much of the counterculture) seems completely stripped of an explicitly intellectual element. Evangelion creator Anno Hideki recently was quoted in the Atlantic Monthly article “Let’s Die Together” as saying:
“I don’t see any adults here in Japan,” he says, with a shrug. “The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children.”
This sentiment echoes Asada Akira’s idea of Japan being a state based on “infantile capitalism,” but regardless of whether Japanese society is adult enough or not, the truth of the matter is that Japan has a relative lack of infrastructure for producing “adult” popular culture. Between Pokemon, the Wii, crayon-colored Bape hoodies, and Naruto, etc., a vast majority of the Gross National Cool export success stories are either childish in target or childish in spirit. Japanese companies learned to make extremely innovative and exportable youth cultural products because of the conditions of their own market: a huge consumer base of young people and fierce competition for attention. The question is, will the Japanese manufacturers be able to retool their machines to make “adult”-oriented material or will they be able to provide the world’s children with products when there are barely any children in Japan to provide the test laboratory?
Maybe the key is the Nintendo DS — a product developed nominally for children with widespread usage amongst adults. So maybe culture has no demographic destiny. If adults themselves are a huge market for infantile products, the number of children has only minimal impact on the vitality of youth culture.