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Japanese Cool from Economic Meltdown? Not really.


A certain explanation about the rise of Japan Cool has wiggled its way into the conventional wisdom: The creative explosion in the 1990s that enabled the mass-exporting of Japanese popular culture to the rest of the world happened precisely because the Japanese economy went sour. The pundits employing this argument posit an inverse-relation between economic growth and culture. In other words, creativity increased once the Japanese stopped obsessing over economic expansion. A relatively eloquent version of this argument appears in Roland Kelts’ Japanamerica (180-181):

Younger Japanese had grown-up amid the wealth of the post-war Japan Inc. machine just as its cogs were starting to falter. But instead of stymieing them, the resulting slump actually cultivated their creativity. In a weak job market, graduates and dropouts alike had little to lose.


“The recession was enormously productive for [Japan’s] counterculture,” says 2dk’s David d’Heilly. “Previously these people were at Dentsu cranking out Honda ad’s. Now they’re setting up their own indie fashion labels, or coding the Web, or doing other things that are closer to what they want to be doing.”


Novelist Haruki Murakami points to the role that adversity, albeit in a relatively mild form, played in fostering Japan’s less corporate cultural identity: “When we were rich in the 1980s, we weren’t producing any kind of international culture. But when we got poor again, we got humble. Then we became creative.”

There are very serious flaws to this reasoning. (The following points may seem familiar to long-time Néomarxisme readers, but we — learn — by — repetition.)

Problem 1: The So-Called “Lost Decade” Saw the Greatest Consumer Spending on “Cool” in Japanese History

The Japanese stock market may have crashed in 1990, but the “Bubble Era” did not really end as a cultural period until around 1993. Even if we mark the “lost decade” as beginning in that year, it really took the sarin gas attacks and Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 to deeply etch a more permanent shadow on the Japanese psyche. But despite these human tragedies and the clear descent into “不景気” (recession) by the mid-1990s, spending on import fashion still managed to reach its highest level ever in the year 1996. That’s because incomes did not start to fall until 1998.So fashion consumption was much more expansive in the middle of the 1990s than in the “rich” days of 1985-1991. (Although the market went into decline from 1997 on, the superbrands of LV and Gucci etc. continued to grow and grow up until recently.)

The Japanese music market followed a similar pattern. From 1989 on, consumers gobbled up CDs unlike anything ever seen before. The market kept growing until peaking in 1999.

General consumer spending may have taken a hit in the 1990s, but the “cultural markets” never had it better. Essentially, consumers had learned to live a certain consumer lifestyle in the 1980s, and they did not immediately cease spending on aspirational items once the Bubble ended. The only real change was the target of spending — values moved from a conspicuous consumption to more “cultural” means of discrimination. This aesthetic change, however, was part of a global phenomenon and did not happen in total isolation.

The creative markets were so big in the 1990s as to elevate the amounts of money on the fringes to a level of serious profit. Not only did tiny record labels like Escalator, for example, make livable sales for their artists in the mid-1990s, mega-labels like Sony used their massive profits to essentially subsidize the releases of niche musicians such as Yoshinori Sunahara and Supercar. The unprecedented market size and market diversity in Japan in the 1990s seriously questions Murakami’s idea of the Japanese becoming “poor” and suggests that the mass consumer expenditure on a wide variety of products was primarily responsible for the energy in pop culture.

Problem 2: The Salaryman-to-Creative Profession Transfer Has a Lag

The Japanese employment system is so rigid that those aiming for white-collar positions must start moving down the one-way path at the high school level. Those students who have chosen to go to art schools or trade schools instead of universities are not traditionally recruited by the most prestigious companies to enter as formal employees in the way that the phrase “Japan Inc” implies. They have already decided to forgo this career track.

Therefore, a sudden jolt to the economy and subsequent breakdown of the traditional white-collar dream in the early 1990s would not have had much direct influence on the graduates of this period. White-collar recruitment may have been slower in the mid-1990s, but those gunning most rabidly for a creative job at the beginning of the Lost Decade had already made that choice before knowing the downturn would transform into total stagnation. The first youths to have had time to readjust career plans to match the realities of the recession would not have reached career age until later in the decade.

Problem 3: The Oft-Cited “Creative Geniuses” of Japan All Decided to Be Creators Before the Bubble Collapsed

Welts names Takashi Murakami, Nigo, DJ Krush, Yoshimoto Banana, and Amy Yamada as Japanese artists who really brought attention to the high-quality of Japanese pop culture. For the moment, let’s accept this list as at least partially canonical. If we set the age of “occupational decision” to 20-22 (as is usually required in Japan), all of these individuals had already cast their die by the end of the Bubble. Nigo attended Bunka Fukuso Gakuin to study magazine editorial and dropped out to start working as a DJ and stylist. By the time he started Nowhere in 1993, he had already destroyed any chances at taking up a white-collar job — not that he cared.

The writers included in this list are too old to prove anything about the post-Bubble. Banana Yoshimoto grew up in an literary/intellectual family and hit the big time with her debut novel Kitchen in 1988. Amy Yamada — born in 1959 — began her career in the middle of the Bubble.

Takashi Murakami reached 22 in 1984 and spent the ’80s finishing a doctorate at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. DJ Krush very literally spent his youth in the yakuza. Needless to say, Dentsu wasn’t calling.

If you want to consider the Shibuya-kei guys, Pizzicato Five debuted in the mid-1980s, and Kenji Ozawa and Keigo Oyamada in Flipper’s Guitar had released three albums by the time the Bubble ended. Their fame in the mid-’90s was contingent on their prior success.

In sum, the 1990s saw the creative peak (ages 25-35) of Bubble-raised or Bubble-debut individuals rather than those shaped by the recessionary environment in their formative years.

Problem 4: The Creative Market was a Viable Choice

The aforementioned creators not only had chosen their career by the time the Bubble burst, but the creative markets were so strong in the early 1990s that choosing art over “white-collar life” was a perfectly rational economic choice. Instead of having “nothing to lose,” these artists had “everything to gain.”

There is also something insulting about the assumption that these highly motivated and talented individuals chose their careers only when the door closed to lifetime employment at a white-collar company. Whatever you think about Nigo, the man clearly did not set out to be a millionaire; he simply wanted to live a creative/celebrity lifestyle, and his pecuniary success was serendipitous.

Problem 5: Now with a Real Lack of Formal Employment, Where is the Creative Explosion?

Compared to the early 1990s, the job market now offers even fewer full-time seishain positions to young people. Part-time, contract, and temp workers have become the norm. Despite an almost universal understanding that the white-collar “Japan Inc” system only helps a minority of top-level university graduates, where are the armies of young people who have chosen art above all and have found success in both Japan and the West? Putting aside my pessimistic “termial decline” meta-narrative, very few critics in Japan or elsewhere see Gen Y in Japan leading a second creative explosion matching the 1990s. Some freeters may claim to be pursuing artistic dreams, but the evaporation of the consumer market for their work makes it difficult for them to establish their careers.

Solutions: So What Did Happen?

I think the better explanation is something like this:

1) The lifestyle demands that accompanied the Bubble Era led companies to build the prerequisite informational channels, retail infrastructure, and taste standards needed for a vibrant (consumer-based) creative culture. The era itself, however, did not yet have a surplus of artists who could locally produce world-class material. Economic conditions have a more direct influence on infrastructure more than just aesthetic mood — especially in Japan where the cultural markets were still under development.

2) The creators in the Bubble Era were children of a much less “privileged” era, and while the isolation from global standards worked perfectly well for some art forms such as anime and manga, those indulging in the hard-to-define “cool” sectors such as fashion and music could not produce enough materials that created an impression abroad. (Rei Kawakubo [b. 1942] and the YMO crowd [b. 1947-1952] are the most obvious exceptions.)

3) At least for the Ura-Harajuku and Shibuya-kei crowds, the most famous creators of the 1990s had used their Bubble years to indulge in niche foreign cultural products to a completely new degree (made possible by the infrastructure outlined in point 1), so by the time they hit an age where they could be cultural producers themselves, they had the know-how to make culture on a global level and could use the more sophisticated retail environments to achieve mass recognition.

4) Like almost all artists, the 1990s creators naturally reacted against what came before them. In their case, their movement away from the superficial nouveau riche tastes of the Bubble Era brought them (and their consumers) to more “artistic, creative” pursuits. These values worked well with the reactionary chic zeitgeist, but in the case of Shibuya-kei, for example, these value changes began way before the Bubble even ended.

So the logic is not “recession shifted resources and attention away from economic pursuits,” but “the economic boom of the 1980s created the infrastructure and human inputs required for the 1990s creative boom.” There was a value shift, but the creators who best represented this shift began operating within an anti-Bubble aesthetic before the Bubble even ended. Consumers may have found their message more compelling in a recessionary environment, but the artists themselves did not choose “creativity” over “white-collar career stability” because of the economic downturn.

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

11 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    Typo: “The era itself, however, did not yet have a surplus of artists who could produce locally produce world-class material.”

  2. marxy Says:

    That’s not a typo. It’s mots-en-liberte.

  3. M-Bone Says:

    Excellent analysis.

    Too early, I think, to tell if today`s freeters are going to usher in an era of great popular culture. Good stuff continues to be produced and to find export markets. Not quite sure if population change is going to wipe that out, especially if markets for older consumers are tapped (Nintendo DS, New Lone Wolf and Cub manga, etc., etc.).

    Also, why the hell does Amy Yamada make any kind of canon? People who write things as grossly essentialzing (perhaps over the racism border) as `Soul Music Lovers Only` disqualify themselves in the quality department….

  4. ian Sit Says:

    “Instead of having “nothing to lose,” these artists had “everything to gain.”

    There is also something insulting about the assumption that these highly motivated and talented individuals chose their careers only when the door closed to lifetime employment at a white-collar company.”

    I think the assumption does carry some weight. Attempting to become an artist is significantly more risky than choosing lifetime employment at a white-collar company. The financial instability that comes with trying to be a professional artist is likely to deter many would-be artists from choosing an artistic career, no matter how insulting this notion may be. Especially when the other option is to choose a career that guarantees lifelong financial security.

    I’m not doubting that there are many highly motivated and talented individuals that would chose to pursue a career in the arts regardless of the levels of financial risk between the two options. But that is of less interest. -because wouldn’t these individuals chose to be artists no matter how the economy is doing?

    I think the point is whether or not an economic downturn has the potential to affect the career paths of talented people who are more risk-adverse than this aforementioned group of highly motivated individuals.

    If lifelong employment is no longer a guarantee as a result of an econoimc downturn, the opportunity cost of choosing a career path as an artist decreases. Although choosing to become an artist is probably still more risky and more difficult, it has become a more appealing career choice as a result of the increase in risk in white-collar jobs.

    It’s not that they had “nothing to lose”. -The creative market was a viable choice, but after the economic downturn, it became a more appealing choice as well. This slight leveling of risk between the two options was probably enough to affect the decisions of potential artists.

    Considering this, I don’t think its wrong to assume that the economic downturn increased the pool of artistic talent in Japan.

  5. erisdiscordia Says:



  6. marxy Says:

    Well said, erisdiscordia.

    “Considering this, I don’t think its wrong to assume that the economic downturn increased the pool of artistic talent in Japan.”

    I just need some concrete examples of individuals for this to make sense to me.

    A lot of electronic musicians and DJs – Moodman and Ken Ishii – worked for Dentsu. Moodman has no plans to quit his job even though he is one of the busiest DJs in town. Ken Ishii, I am assuming, worked his white-collar job until he realized that there was enough money in music to go full-time. Again, the impedance to move out of corporate life was how BIG the consumer market was – not how dark job prospects were.

  7. ian Sit Says:

    I’ll have to do some research and try and find some concrete examples. I have to admit that my support of the magazine’s argument was based purely on speculative theory.

    I’ll also admit that the more I think about your counterpoints and the more I read your post, the more I’m being swayed by your arguments.

    It also got me thinking about this art boom in China. I don’t know what the particular contributing factors are, but an economic downturn or a bubble burst in the Chinese economy certainly doesn’t appear to be the case. Rather, like you said, it’s more likely that individuals are moving away from corporate life (or rural farmlife) because of the expansion of the creative consumer market and the establishment of retail infrastructure and information channels. – the opening of opportunities for artists.

    I’ll have to research this too, in order to make any substantial claims. But already, the argument for the negative relationship between economic strength and culture isn’t making as much sense to me as before.

  8. Aceface Says:

    “just need some concrete examples of individuals for this to make sense to me.”

    Yeah,but what about those Akiba dudes?Most lively cultural sector in Tokyo nowadays and attracting foreign media is Akihabara,not Shibuya.No?
    You are right about Ura-Hara and Shibuya-kei figures that represent Japanese”cool”,musicians,designers,Children of Fujiwara Hiroshi.They are indeeed coming from upper middle class.
    But what about the darkside.The anime and manga and computer game geeks are basically un-cool.They either work in rental video shops or local convenience stores or even worse,they may not even be working at all.Ever heard of hikikomori?
    The increase of these misfits otakus may not be the product of the decade long recession(but definitely increased since the days of the bubble),but economical hardship is the reason why they can’t marry and make family and because of that,otakus can enjoy extended adolescence or even childhood.

  9. Aceface Says:

    and they are the engine of the so-called Japanese cool.People outside are spending money on anime made by the nameless Japanese otakus,not super-flat Murakami Takashi anime exploitation.

    I better learn the art of typing short.

  10. marxy Says:

    Maybe so. But what you are describing is “consumers/fans spending money/life on ‘cool’ because they don’t have real jobs,” not “producers choosing cool careers.” That’s a better version of the argument.

  11. Aceface Says:

    I saw Keigo Oyamada at Narita on April 23.He was looking at Japanese folk souvenir corner saying to the guy he was with”I’m looking for a souvenir for Wayne”(I was right in front of him)He could be heading some tour in the States or somewhere.
    But still,I assume that nobody knows anything about Cornelius in the red states while there could be some fandom of anime or manga there.

    Some otakus actually making carrer by being amateur manga artist/figure sculptor/game designer selling their marchandise at comic market or web and eventually become professional.The melt down of the barrier between the consumer/producer relation is what makes Akiba interesting and that was accelarated with both IT revolution and recession,no?