Last time we saw that the tastes of upper and middle-class “mainstream” consumers dominated Japanese pop culture from the post-war to the end of the 1990s. This time we will explore the most important cultural change of the last decade: the greater proportional power for marginal subcultures. Mainstream consumers, for the economic and demographic reasons given in Part One and Part Two, have ceased to consume with the same force as before and thus have lost their “voting power” within pop culture.
Part Four: The Rise of Marginal Subcultures
The drop in cultural markets has been almost perfectly pegged to the decline in incomes. Middle class consumers are buying less, and when they buy, now go for cheaper or risk-free products. Within this environment, we could expect marginal subcultures to also have curbed consumption. Yet they did not! And their steady buying into their own cultural niches has made huge changes in the tenor of Japanese pop culture.
Yankii and otaku: Consumption as pathology
The yankii and otaku have never traditionally been blessed with high incomes nor high future earning potential, and in pure homo economicus terms, should be cutting back even more than middle-class consumers. We must understand, however, that for the otaku, yankii, and gyaru, shopping is not merely a form of leisure nor has it even been an attempt to buy into a larger society-wide consumerist message. These groups use consumerism as a therapeutic solution to their psychological and social problems.
The otaku spend their time as avaricious collectors of goods and trading information with other otaku. In shunning away from mainstream standards of sociability, sexuality, and career success, the act of maniacal consumption becomes their raison d’être. They cannot relate with other people if not commenting upon these cultural goods. Culture — most of which must be purchased and enjoyed as object (even when it is just physical media holding content) — is the great satisfier of their deepest desires.
The gyaru, in comparison, put a high premium on social networks and romance. Yet there is a certain pain at the heart of gyaru culture. In his book Keitai Shosetsu-teki (“Cell Phone Novel-esque”), author Hayamizu Kenrou calls the basic aesthetic mode of gyaru literature — cell phone novels, Hamasaki Ayumi lyrics — “trauma-kei” due to its emphasis on overcoming personal tragedy. When I interviewed Nakajo Hisako, the editor-in-chief of Koakuma Ageha, in 2009 I asked, “Why do gyaru spend so much time on their clothing, hair, and makeup?” She answered, “Because we are not cute. If we were cute, we would just wear a white T-shirt. We have to work hard to look good.” There is an obvious logic to this: The gyaru’s transformation into golden curly hair and heavily painted faces is an escape from their normal selves.
Like Nakajo suggests, gyaru culture looks as it does precisely because they are not “blessed” girls (Nakajo’s words). And this means gyaru must spend on clothing, hair treatments, and makeup in order to achieve the desired self-image. Beyond this desire to look like someone else (and basically like everyone else in their peer group), there is also the social demand to show allegiance to a wider gyaru subculture by donning its uniform. To be a gyaru means dressing like a gyaru — no exceptions.
Marginal groups’ up their voting power in the consumer vacuum
The end result is that the otaku and yankii have an almost inelastic demand for their favorite goods. They must consume, no matter the economic or personal financial situation. They may move to cheaper goods, but they will always be buying something. Otherwise they lose their identity. While normal consumers curb consumption in the light of falling wages, the marginal otaku and yankii keep buying. And that means the markets built around these subcultures are relatively stable in size.
So as the total market shrinks, the marginal groups — in their stability — are no longer minor segments but now form a respectable plurality in the market. In other words, if otaku or yankii all throw their support through a specific cultural item, that item will end up being the most supported within the wider market.
The clearest example of this is AKB48. With the letters AKB in their name, this group of girls was unequivocally marketed towards older males based in the Akihabara otaku culture. Compared to past mass market groups such as Speed, the girls are intentionally chosen and styled to look like elementary schoolgirls and lyrically address older men with direct sexual references. (See the “cat-eared brothel” video for “Heavy Rotation” and the unambiguous “love knows no age” lyrics for “Seifuku ga jama wo suru.”)
The mass idol group regularly has an “election” (sousenkyo) where fans try to vote their favorite girl to Number One. Buying certain AKB48 CD singles gives the fan a vote in the AKB48 election, which thus incentivizes otaku to buy multiple copies of the CD to increase their “political” power. The CD is thus no longer a means of listening to music but a way to influence the future of AKB48. This has created a legion of fans who buy dozens and hundreds of the same AKB48 CD or even 5500 copies. There are now doubts about that story’s authenticity but it basically was an exaggeration of an existing principle. Regardless, the marketing strategy of AKB48 does encourage the purchase of multiple goods, thus amplifying the buying power of nerds beyond their small numbers. This means as a consumer bloc, the AKB48 otaku fans can rival the non-otaku consumer base.
This otaku bloc strength, as well as other niche’s dedicated buying, can be seen through the music charts. In 2010 only three artists made the Oricon best-selling singles market — AKB48 and a Johnny’s Jimusho group Arashi. (At this stage, you can almost argue that music fans of Johnny’s groups are themselves a conspicuous cult rather than a mass market phenomenon.) Only two artists taking the entire singles market is unprecedented in Japanese musical history. In the previous decade, the average number of artists in the top ten was 8.2. The best explanation is that mainstream consumers stopped buying music, even single song downloads, so the favorite acts of marginal subcultures now appear to be the most popular.
Otaku and gyaru: winners by default
This principle demonstrates how AKB48 became an unlikely “mainstream” phenomenon. Despite AKB48 being so clearly marketed towards a niche audience, their success in a declining market has made them perceived to be the most popular in the entire market. Therefore 2010 and 2011 saw AKB48, with backing from advertising monolith Dentsu, doing advertisements for mainstream brands and chains such as 7/11. (Lawson’s has now countered with a nerd-drooling K-On! campaign.) With no major competition from more mainstream-oriented idols and groups, they became the obvious spokespeople and magazine cover girls — thus amplifying their fame more.
In the case of gyaru, there are larger numbers of gyaru than otaku, meaning that the gyaru can just consume their standard number of items and still dominate the market. Before I mentioned that the extremely “normal girl” fashion magazine non•no once sold close to a million copies per issue in 1996 at the peak of the publishing market, which was once far above the 310,000 copies for hardcore yankii/gyaru magazine Popteen at the same time. Around 2009, however, non•no dropped to a mere 180,000 copies a month while Popteen was still hovering around 310,000. Gyaru are still consuming fashion, and therefore need fashion guides to tell them how to do so. “Normal” girls have generally lost interest in clothing and do not need fashion guides as much. So in this collapse of the mass market, a magazine representing a marginal taste has become one of the best-selling.
With the yankii and otaku culture being so proportionally conspicuous in the market and mainstream and avant-garde styles being so minor and invisible, the once marginal looks have a greater legitimacy for less engaged consumers who mostly just desire socially-acceptable styles. As a result, gyaru and yankii fashion have had a strong moment over the last five years, leading to large-scale booms in things once unfathomable such as “hostess fashion.” University students at elite schools like Keio are likely to have hairstyles reminiscent of yankii hosts. Films and books with obvious yankii narratives, such as Rookies and cell phone novel Koizora, became huge national hits in 2009. Gyaru singer Nishino Kana is one of the few well-selling artists on Sony (formerly known for alternative musicians Supercar, Puffy, and Denki Groove). And even former “arty” magazines like CUTiE have moved towards the gyaru style, and the fiercely indie girl mag Zipper put gyaru icon Tsubasa Masuwaka on the cover. There is no popular female style that does not see a little influence from the yankii side of gyaru culture.
Not truly “the most popular”
While otaku and yankii cultures are enjoying a new cultural influence in their deep commitment to consumption, we should not forget that these groups do not make up any kind of actual societal consensus. The masses may be consuming parts of their culture, but these groups are at best pluralities rather than majorities — dominant in the market but nowhere near 50% of tastes.
For example, if you look at the sales numbers for the #1 single of 2010 — “Beginner” by AKB48 at 954,283 copies — this would not have been enough copies to make the top ten from the years 1991 to 2000, when the wider public bought CDs in droves. In 2001, it would have ranked in at #10 — a successful hit for a niche, but not the symbol of J-Pop for the era. The population of Japan in the last ten years has not dropped enough to make this smaller number of sales proportionally relevant — just less people are purchasing music.
AKB48’s narrow popularity becomes very clear when the group appears on television — a medium that continues to have a mass audience (although disproportionally elderly viewers.) Maeda Atsuko had been repeatedly voted the #1 member of AKB48, and yet her recent drama Hanazakari no Kimitachi e (Ikemen Paradise)saw extremely low ratings (episodes around 6%). AKB48 variety show “Naruhodo High School” has drawna dismal 4.5%.
AKB48 have also been extremely popular on YouTube, which skews towards a tech-savvy male audience in Japan. And yet a song like “Heavy Rotation”— at over 50 million views — has nearly one-third “thumbs down” votes. This is an extremely high amount level of dislikes compared to other music videos on the site.
So AKB48 are the most conspicuous music group in Japan at the moment with the highest record sales and highest number of appearances, but they should necessarily be considered a “mass” phenomenon with widespread fans across multiple segments. The group has captured the strongest plurality in the market, and companies have mobilized around them in desperation. If Dentsu could sponsor a different hit idol group with an even broader fan base, they would. But ironically, no one other than AKB48 or Johnny’s Jimusho groups have the sales or market legitimacy to work in the context of mass market advertising. Marginal groups are now feeding and over-influencing the remnants of the mass market just as counter-consumer once did.
Next time, we look at whether marginal subcultures can produce goods that are easily exportable.