The Great Shift in Japanese Pop Culture - Part Three

In Part One and Part Two, we looked at how decreasing incomes, a declining birth rate, increased spending on phone bills, and the lack of cultural relevancy for the Internet have all led to shrinking markets for cultural goods like fashion, music, books, magazines, manga, and TV. In this installment, we examine how these changes affect the makeup of consumers within the cultural markets — a shift from mainstream consumers to mostly marginal subcultures.

Part Three: Mainstream Consumers vs. Marginal Subcultures

The collapse of spending on popular culture in Japan makes the country an important laboratory for understanding how a “cultural ecosystem” of consumers, producers, distributors, media, trend-spotters, and advertisers operates when market activity decreases. In this context, we must first look at the degree to which middle class consumers made up and then retreated from markets for cultural goods.

The rise of middle class consumers

After World War II, Japan’s entire economy was in shambles and spending focused exclusively on the basics for survival. By the late 1950s and through the late 1960s, however, a buoyant consumer culture emerged for upper middle class salaryman and business owning families. In the mid-1970s, the Japanese economy had undergone its “miracle” and now a broader Japanese middle class finally had enough income for discretionary spending on culture. As Japan entered the 1980s, most everyone in the country was consuming products related to music, fashion, and manga to an active degree — especially normal middle-class teenagers with “standard” Japanese tastes and conventional life paths.

Cultural producers and advertisers needed to target social segments with the largest possible size and the highest amount of discretionary income. At first this meant Tokyo’s upper and upper middle-class, and for obvious reasons, these groups had pioneered consumer culture in the immediate post-war. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, the affluent still had disproportionate buying power, so the first fully consumer magazines for young people like JJ and Popeye built those lifestyle expectations into their message. Middle middle class consumers likely read those magazines at first as aspirational, but theygrew rich enough in the bubble era to become the most dominant and lucrative segment of the market. As a result, manufacturers went for both the giant middle class mass, and the resulting mainstream culture ended up reflecting the values — or what were perceived to be the values — of standard middle-class consumers.

The market responds to the tastes of those actively buying goods, so consumer culture can feel akin to a political election. Consumers “vote” for their favorite products/creation through the act of purchase. Producers in turn continue the creation of popular items, stop making unpopular ones, and make new products based on the templates of previous hits. Unpopular manufacturers and producers disappear or adapt to winning formulas.

Thus at the height of the cultural market in Japan, normal, middle-class consumers had the most “voting power.” Whatever they liked, the market took most seriously. In the peak of the publishing industry in 1996, for example, issues of a mainstream “good girl” fashion magazine like non•no sold nearly a million copies — vastly more than any niche title like Popteen. Big apparel companies then made brands that fit within the non•no style. At the same time, styles and items with mass consumption like those seen in non•no or JJ enjoyed social legitimacy. In other words, whatever everyone was buying was the “right” thing to buy. Hence non•no had greater influence over the social norms of fashion than smaller titles thanks to huge sales and an industry structure built around it. This principle carried across most major cultural fields: mainstream consumers outnumbered niche consumers, and the markets overwhelmingly created products for mainstream tastes.

The rise and fall of “counter-consumers”

While mainstream culture mostly spoke to mass consumers, the 1990s saw disproportionate dominance on Japanese culture from a group of sophisticated, educated Tokyo-based consumers, who are best described as “counter-consumers.”

Japan had a strong political and artistic counter-culture in the 1960s, but as it shed its political aspects after 1972, this “underground” community gradually shifted their attention on creating physical goods sold to small niche audiences built upon tastes in opposition to the mainstream. For example, Kawakubo Rei aimed to push fashion into avant-garde directions through her line Comme des Garçons, which before its Paris debut had only a fractional audience in Japan. The members of this millieu then mostly participated and supported their community through the act of consumption — rather than politics or true Bohemian drop out culture. They were “counter-consumerists” — demonstrating personal allegiance to a deep niche through buying goods counter to mass culture.

They had likely expected their world to stay small, but as Japanese economy started its exceptional rise in the 1980s, the number of media and shopping buildings increased, and the well-informed types who curated content for these institutions moved to introduce more and more leading-edge culture to their increasingly sophisticated consumers. The PARCO Theatre in Shibuya, for example, opened with a performance from avant-garde dramatist Terayama Shuji. The end result was a twenty year “culture bubble” where Japan’s college and art-school students made up a powerful consumer bloc, supporting cutting-edge creators within Japan and buying products from all over the world with similar values. In this era, art magazines like Studio Voice sold over 100,000 copies, and unreadable post-modern works like Asada Akira’s Structure and Power became best-sellers.

This small group of Tokyo elite continued to stake out a huge claim on Japanese culture in the mid-1990s through magazines like Olive and relax. The street fashion style Ura-Harajuku — led by Fujiwara Hiroshi, who had started out in the underground London Nite scene — became the most popular look for men around 1997, and like Shibuya-kei musical artists like Pizzicato Five and Cornelius had certified chart hits. Members of this taste culture saw their values reflected in Tsutsumi Seiji’s Saison Group retail chains Parco, Muji, Wave, and Loft. Furthermore the small counter-consumerist minority ended up working themselves in the increasingly lucrative cultural industries, thus propagating this set of tastes and values to a new generation.

At the turn of the century, however, the counter-consumerist wave started crashing. As fewer and fewer middle-class consumers bought goods, they stopped experimenting on “weirder” products. Cultural producers could thus no longer justify making goods that worked as branding projects but had no financial return. Furthermore the new millennial youth generation could not understand the values of either the superficial Bubble kids or the cultural elite obsessed with Western art, music, and fashion. Magazines like Studio Voice and relax folded, while famed Shibuya record stores Maximum Joy and Zest closed their doors. Even HMV — the birthplace of Shibuya-kei as a mass-market genre — disappeared and was replaced with a Forever 21. Avant-garde brands returned to having tiny audiences. Comme des Garçons started up myriad new low-priced, logo-based lines that would appeal to younger and less daring customers.

The culture bubble had popped, and counter-consumerists went back underground.

Marginal subcultures on the fringes

From the 1960s to the end of the 1990s, the upper-middle class and middle-class controlled Japanese pop culture, yet there had always been a few important marginal youth consumer groups outside of the Japanese mainstream. The most solid subcultural voting blocs since the late 1970s have been the otaku — anti-social “nerds” interested in science fiction, comic books, video games, and sexualized little girls (lolicon) — and the yankii — “delinquent” non-urban working class youth with low levels of education and a blue-collar destiny. (The gyaru subculture — originally upper middle-class — should now be seen as the female manifestation of yankii values.)

These marginal groups are true minorities when compared to the mainstream market, but their size is not what makes them marginal. The use of “marginal” here measures the distance from the subcultural consumer segment to both middle-class social norms as well as from the tastemakers, gatekeepers, and workers within the large companies that produce pop culture. The counter-consumers, for example, were never large in number, but they had their hands on the reigns of the culture industry. Otaku may likely work at independent game publishers who make erotic titles, and ex-yankii run yankii magazines, but Japan’s largest and most hallowed culture companies such as Magazine House, Nintendo, Sony, and Uniqlo mostly hire graduates from Waseda, Keio, and other top universities. Otaku and yankii had strong outcast communities, but they essentially had to live on the fringes of pop culture. Yankii and otaku spent their formative years as true social outcasts — blamed as juvenile delinquents and sociopaths.

In times of a substantial and profitable mainstream consumer market, large companies were justified in ignoring the yankii and otaku segments as potential customers. Moreover the culture industry had a great risk in indulging too conspicuously in these subcultures, lest they offend their core of middle-class consumers. Fashion magazine non•no could not have shown a yankii or ganguro girl as a style icon — the editors’ curated style is not just different from the yankii style but fully premised on being a style that is not yankii. Accordingly the major consumer magazine publishers — Magazine House, Takarajima, Shueisha, and Kodansha — never made titles directly appealing to yankii youth. This was left to smaller fringe publishers like Kasakura and Million. Large advertisers — magazines’ true consumers — also demanded that media material be in “good taste” for the very same reasons. They wanted to connect with aspirational upper middle-class culture rather than despised outcast culture.

So until very recently, Japan’s culture industry — dominated by educated upper-middle class counter-consumers — worked hard to appeal to Japan’s large middle class. Tokyo’s powerful consumer base and Tokyo as industry center of cultural production made the wider culture gravitate towards the specific tastes of Tokyo upper middle-class youth. This, however, has drastically changed in the last decade with the fall of middle class consumerism. Next time we will look how the otaku and yankii have taken over the vacuum left by the middle-classes as they exit markets.

W. David MARX
November 30, 2011

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

14 Responses

  1. zoltan Says:

    So are otaku, yankii and gyaru are still at the margins of society in the present times?
    If they set cultural trends through their consumer power, is it more sociable acceptable to be one?
    When I went to Japan last month, this does not seem to be the case but I’m just a tourist

  2. M-Bone Says:

    @ Zoltan

    It depends. In the deep inaka, it is not at all uncommon for salaryman types to step out in a jersey and mirrored sunglasses on weekends. In addition, many of the “middle class” jobs over vast areas of the country are in construction, farming, and fishing which tend to skew yankii.

    Most importantly, there are Otaku (buy nudie figurines in Akiba) and there are otaku – lost of working professionals with families still watch anime and buy the occasional GUNDAM kit. I know central government bureaucrats and university profs who have tonnes of the stuff. The Otaku industries rely on the type who buy hug pillows and 45,000 yen DVD box sets, but there is still an ageing mainstream / ex-hardcore fan audience / or cultural consumers who don’t see buying a manga as any different than going to a movie or checking out a novel that introduce some measure of sanity.

  3. mt-i Says:

    My colleagues all hold Ph.D.’s from kyūtei universities (usually Tokyo) or Tōkōdai, and the small talk over lunch the other day was about a late-night anime from a few months ago, Mahou shoujo Madoka Magica, and how some of them bought every Blu-Ray of it (which does amount to just under 45,000 yen for 12 episodes).

    That’s a bit anecdotal, and that show in particular was a pretty atypical commercial success compared to your average late-night anime. Still, it seems safe to say that otaku culture isn’t anywhere near as marginal as it was 20 years ago, when even the word “otaku” itself was a mondai-yōgo (now you have programs like MAG·NET on NHK G).

  4. Implosion Of Japan's Pop Culture: Any Lessons For Us? | Stop The Spirit of Zossen 2.0 Says:

    [...] analysis of the decline of Japanese pop culture and what emerged afterwards. They’re up to part three as of now. The collapse of spending on popular culture in Japan makes the country an important laboratory for [...]

  5. M-Bone Says:

    Madoka Magica is, for my money, the best series of the year and probably of the last 2-3 years. It does for magical girls what Eva did for giant robots and it does a rather brilliant job of both exploiting and subverting the typical otaku aesthetic. It has been a big hit and I hope that people get the message that quality, ambitious shows can be moneymakers – especially if they make people like your colleagues, who are probably not typical otaku consumers, shell out.

  6. zoltan Says:

    But does anybody in Japan aspires to be an otaku?
    So many people in the West will fall under the otaku trope and are successful and rich. Zuckerberg (programming) and Bill Gates and Notch comes to mind.

    The only person i Know in Japan that is successful and a bona fide otaku was Horiemon and that dude is in jail.

  7. M-Bone Says:

    Horiemon isn’t an otaku by the definition that Marxy uses (or the conventional Japanese usage). He is a nerd (as are Miyamoto Shigeru, Miyazaki Hayao, Tanaka Yoshikazu, and many others). If Gates had just been a Star Trek fan, he might still be living with his parents. Otaku culture is consumed widely, but to be an otaku suggests some kind of social pathology and inability to think beyond the narrative world of certain titles (and thus the discussion that Leonardo and I were having about Sandman is nerdy, but would be anathema to most otaku for whom characters don’t fill narrative roles, they fill affective ones). Horie was all about the booze and broads and fast cars by most accounts. He talked like an alpha male nerd which is just as far from otaku as a pro athlete would be.

  8. zoltan Says:

    Gates was a computer nerd b4 it was big bucks. Miyamoto was never a nerd, he was a art school hippie. Same with Mizayaki, whose ideas were shaped by radical student left of the late 60′s. And you miss Notch.

    But by answering my question, you have pretty much confirmed that otaku and success are consider two separate entities and not related in a person for Japan anyway.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    Otaku are totally different than American nerds and there are successful Japanese nerd businessmen and creators who are like American nerds. Being a post-Eva otaku is in complete opposition to real world success.

    Miyamoto liked to go hiking alone and exploring caves around his home town and went to art school because he was interested in manga. Miyazaki joined a children’s literature research circle in college and was only tangentially involved in student politics. He was anti-war but made loads of model planes. Sounds like nerds, no?

    Notch is like Miyamoto or Miyazaki, really – nerds who decided to create. 2000s Otaku are easy enough to understand – don’t look people in the eye, don’t distinguish between mainstream culture and pornography, either don’t think about or are afraid to meet members of the opposite sex.

  10. MattA Says:

    “otaku and success are consider two separate entities”

    I suppose this comes down to how one defines “success,” but I’ll bite: what about Anno Hideaki? Is he the exception that proves the rule?

  11. M-Bone Says:

    I’ve been taking “otaku” here to mean Marxy’s description of the contemporary consumption phenomenon. If they are an identifiable group, they have changed greatly over time.

    Anno and other early 1980s otaku often had it in their minds to create from their college days so I think it is a bit different. I see them as being far more social, more likely to be broadly fluent in Euro-American scifi (just look at the menagerie that is Daikon Video), less likely to obsess over a single series or character, and overall quite different than the 2000s moe otaku who DO create but most put out derivative works (porn or parodies).

    It also stands that Anno had battle suicidal depression and make Eva – which is a tear down of the anti-social otaku mindset (Shinji masturbating over the comatose Asuka being the single most uncomfortable statement on otaku ever) – before finding money, happiness, and really wide acknowledgement of his career success.

  12. Aeon Says:

    Are modern otaku really that bad? Reading “otaku” being used as a punching bag in these comments is making me suspicious of the sentiment that they are really that vile. Even if they are unsociable and prone to conservative tastes toward new material, I find the disdain directed toward them here to be very excessive. I can’t imagine how a group that has a reputation of not interacting with others very much or very well, nor have very much (non-cultural) power be able to do anything to really cause a disproportionate share of causing Japan’s problems.
    I also find the “nerd”/”otaku” “difference” to be a difference without a distinction- a “nerd” seems to be defined in this dichotomy as able to socially function, as opposed to the anti-social “otaku”; this completely ignores the long running sterotype of the nerd as a socially inept intellectual type, usually without any friends or only being friends with other nerds. This only changed with computers becoming more dominant and the majority of the people working with them were the “nerds”, this made nerds no longer be considered social pariahs because they were the people who made and used the technology that runs the modern world. However, even after that, people still consider nerds socially inept, declaring that many nerds must suffer from Asperger’s syndrome or somehow are lacking in empathy; nerds are cultually “pathologized” for not conforming to behavior expected of “normal” members.
    The unsocibility of modern otaku I would say is more likely due to sociocultural forces that fail to emotionally invest them in (for a lack of a better word, there is no actual thing as ‘normal society”, only whats acceptable to the majority of members) “normal” society, which is unwelcoming, and integrate themselves in an insular yet realativly inviting subcultural group. These sociocultural forces work together with poor economic prospects to encourage an extended bachelorhood that focuses on cultural activity. I really don’t think ill of them because I really don’t see anything that they do that especially wrong.

  13. MattA Says:

    “I think it is a bit different. ”

    Point taken. But then I’m a little hazy on what we’re arguing here. If we say a marginal subculture (the otaku being one) is taking root without a mass core, how do we explain things like the life-sized Gundam statue in Odaiba attracting four million plus visitors in the summer of 2009? (Many of whom appeared to be families with children, on the days I was covering it.) Perhaps otaku values have percolated a little deeper into the mass core than we think.

    I also have to question this bit: “Japan’s largest and most hallowed culture companies such as Magazine House, Nintendo, Sony, and Uniqlo mostly hire graduates from Waseda, Keio, and other top universities.” I think this is true for the managerial level, but it is absolutely not the case for the actual workers producing the content. I know this because I have interacted with some seriously off the wall dudes (and very occasionally dudettes) who were brought on board because of their coding skills or whatever. And if that’s the case are otaku really outcasts anymore?

  14. M-Bone Says:

    Of anime/manga and related cultural products, I would guess that 50% are consumed by 16 and unders (who it is difficult to talk about in terms of pathology), 25% are consumed by ordinary manga readers and people who consume diverse cultural products and 25% are consumed by what you could describe as committed otaku – who are indeed a diverse group. I’ve been using it to describe the moe/dojinshi consumers.

    If it sounds like I am being mean to otaku, guilty as charged. 2000s otaku are the ones responsible for 50% of anime product being geared around showing the panties of 14 year olds to the audience. They are directly to blame for the decline in serious Japanese scifi as their affective tastes have changed the industry. They have created something truly special in the form of a billion USD fan art dojinshi community that blurs the line between producer and consumer, but squandered pretty much the whole thing on images of little girls being brutally gang raped. If we need to settle on a definition of otaku, this should be it as it is this group that has been most new, visible, and successful during the 15 year shift that Marxy describes. I actually have a lot more sympathy for fujoshi – at least their “boy’s love” stuff isn’t so ruthlessly hetero-normative.

    It isn’t just me anyway, just about every creator from Oshii and Miyazaki to Anno and the 80s generation speak of them with contempt.

    I actually don’t think that it has directly negative social effects (outside of the individual).

    We need a typology of otaku, I guess.