The Great Shift in Japanese Pop Culture - Part Five
In the final installment of the series (Parts One, Two, Three, Four), we look at the export possibilities for Japanese culture when the “most popular” goods and works are increasingly being made by and for marginal subcultures without obvious analogs overseas.
Part Five: The Difficulty of Exporting Marginal Subcultures
Marketing guru Kawaguchi Morinosuke’s recent book Geeky Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturist’s Guide to Technology and Design posits that corporate Japan needs to take more guidance from otaku and gyaru. There is an important point to this — these are now the most influential and powerful groups in Japanese pop culture and should not be ignored out of snobbery. And maybe their obsessive spirit has applicable lessons for industry management. Yet we should not be naive about this either in a wider context: the products actually made within these subcultures are increasingly losing their resonance overseas.
Until now, you could divide Japan’s successful consumer exports into three groups:
(1) technological/industrial goods like cars and electronics
(2) kids’ products like video games, toys, comic books, and pens/stationary
(3) sophisticated cultural goods like fashion brands, indie music, and literature.
Other than automobiles, Japan has lost its edge on high-tech goods. Korean rival Samsung has almost singlehandedly taken over the space once monopolized by Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, and Sharp. And with the decreasing number of children, greater competition from the U.S. on video games, and a general move away from gadget culture, Japan is also struggling to export kids’ products. Meanwhile most of Japan’s successful cutting-edge culture exports — Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Shonen Knife, The Boredoms A Bathing Ape, Comme des Garçons, Hiromix, Murakami Takashi — came from a scene that has ceased to be high-profile in Japan.
This last category, while minor in terms of actual sales, did a lot of the legwork for boosting the Japan “brand” in the 1990s, especially among the cultural elite in the U.S. and Europe. The reason is simple: the artistic works spoke the language of upper middle-class aesthetes overseas. Furthermore these artists made an easy match with the West because they played with iterations of ideas originally created in The West: avant-garde art and fashion, street culture as defined by US/UK, punk rock, lounge music, etc. In general, the successful products and artistic works had something “universal” (i.e., “Western”) at their core, which made them more easily exportable. Overall Japanese culture found warm reception where the consuming groups in the West were similar to the Japanese creators in class position and values. We take for granted that Miyamoto Shigeru’s art-school tastes appealed subconsciously to the richer American youth who bought up the NES in droves during the mid-1980s.
What we have not seen, however, are good consumer comparisons overseas to the psychologically tortured Japanese subcultures like contemporary otaku or the yankii/gyaru. Mass market anime like Naruto and Gundam are relatively easy to export as they were built for “normal” youth. That cannot be said about moe titles that are meant to satisfy older men obsessed with two-dimensional elementary school girls. Similarly, no gyaru clothing brand has more retail stores overseas than the avant-garde Comme des Garçons, despite gyaru clothing’s huge business in Japan and CDG’s highly-limited audience. At least from what we have seen from the big subcultural moments in the last decade, the culture of Japan’s marginal pluralities is almost unexportable.
Let’s look again at AKB48 on YouTube — a global site where anyone can watch videos from anywhere else around the world. Based on the public viewership data for “Heavy Rotation” and other AKB48 videos, the vast majority of views for AKB48 come from the group’s domestic fan base. In other words, no other country than Japan contributes to AKB48’s multi-million view count despite the fact that the videos are available worldwide and AKB48 is the overwhelmingly dominant group in Japanese pop at the moment. AKB48’s seemingly-massive popularity in Japan make them the number one favorite for J-Pop exportation. Yet no one non-Japanese is watching their videos — even in light of a “Japan Cool” wave and the popularity of YouTube all around the world. Compare AKB48’s videos to the insight map for “The Boys” by Girls Generation (SNSD) in Korea, who have had massive success in Japan and whose YouTube stats show a very wide global audience.
In most countries with growing economies, educated upper-middle class consumers still spearhead the consumer market. They have the most disposable income and the most interest in cultural exchange. And those consumers, whether it’s Taiwan or the U.K., are the ones most likely to be willing to follow and purchase foreign cultural items.
Currently, however, the most conspicuous Japanese culture of otaku and yankii represents value sets with little connection to affluent consumers elsewhere. Most men around the world are not wracked by such deep status insecurity that they want to live in a world where chesty two-dimensional 12 year-old girls grovel at their feet and call them big brother. The average university student in Paris is likely to read Murakami Haruki and may listen to a Japanese DJ but not wear silky long cocktail dresses or fake eyelashes from a brand created by a 23 year-old former divorcee hostess with two kids. Overseas consumers remain affluent, educated, and open to Japanese culture, but Japan’s pop culture complex — by increasingly catering to marginal groups (or ignoring global tastes, which is another problem altogether) — is less likely to create products relevant for them.
This is not to say that the emergence of otaku and yankii culture is insignificant for Japan. This wave has finally given material and cultural expression to pockets of society that had a hard time voicing their experience in the past. The rich Tokyo elite enjoyed a disproportionately high influence over national culture for decades, and now the two marginal groups have taken the elite’s place in dominating the direction of pop. When it comes to “fairness” and democracy, this is the least elitist that Japanese culture has ever been. But we have replaced one kind of distortion with another, and we still should not confuse these subcultures’ tastes with being truly “mainstream.”
One of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter’s teachings is that companies that are competitive overseas come from domestic markets where they have local competition and must learn to please demanding local consumers. The more advanced the consumers, the more advantage a company has in eventually exporting its products when other consumers catch up. Apple’s success with the iPod came from the product’s direct targeting of tech-savvy American college students and former college students who had massive libraries of mp3s stuck on computers and wanted to take them out on the streets. Girls Generation worked to best other idol groups in Korea through highly skilled dancing, singing, and a song library purchased from European producers.
Japan’s consumer market meanwhile is becoming increasingly dominated by technological and cultural laggards. The peak “Japan Cool” came at a time in the 1990s when the average Japanese was intentionally or inadvertently consuming highly sophisticated culture, and the pressures to please them gave Japanese companies the training to be globally competitive. Cultural producers tried to one-up each other in coolness.
Japanese companies now face a true crisis: Appealing to the most powerful consumers in Japan will lead them away from tastes and values that can be easily exported overseas. AKB48 may be opening vanity branches in Taiwan and Jakarta, but will the world inherently be interested in an idol group meant to please a small group of men’s reactionary attitudes towards women and desire for songs that ignore the last twenty years of musical change? And as we’ve seen with the success of K-Pop in Japan, companies cannot automatically protect the domestic market against invasion. When the mainstream consumers do see something they like, that reflects their values in a way that otaku and gyaru content does not, they pounce. But until they reawaken as a consistent consumer force or rebuild cultural online to be less centered around product purchase, we are likely to stay within the current situation — where marginal subcultures rule the school.
December 2, 2011 at 9:36 am
David, thank you very much for sharing this series. It’s been very engaging and very accessible, even to laymen of the subject like I am. I learned a lot. Also, thanks everybody for the comments.
December 2, 2011 at 10:17 am
A little wrinkle – Naurto, Bleach, and especially One Piece are all very much rooted in the Yanki aesthetic. On various levels, they appeal to “normal” youth who nonetheless want to be (or look) a bit bad. While you can’t export the clothes, the aesthetic itself isn’t such a barrier. The biggest shift in shonen manga of the last 30 years has been from cherubic leads to Yankis and Slam Dunk is most to blame.
It is ironic that perhaps you can’t export Yanki culture and you can’t export otaku culture but you can export otaku culture with Yankis.
People overseas dig this stuff because of superficial similarities to the US street aesthetic which is big everywhere.
December 2, 2011 at 10:26 am
Let it be known that Naruto, Bleach and One Piece are all almost a decade old. One Piece is close to 15 years.
What happens after they end? Particularly overseas…. Maybe Fairy Tail will come to prominence but I doubt it. Without a significant youth base to test the products, the pandering to the fringes will continue.
December 2, 2011 at 10:26 am
The biggest shift in shonen manga of the last 30 years has been from cherubic leads to Yankis and Slam Dunk is most to blame.
To a certain degree, yes, but they aren’t Be-Bop High School.
Also saying “you can’t export otaku culture” is a bit controversial on my side when clearly Hatsune Miku etc. does have overseas fans. I still think the cloying girl-fantasy side of it is a bit toxic, but this is certainly open for debate.
December 2, 2011 at 11:04 am
There are some similarities with Be-Bop High School – especially the way of speaking of Naruto and Ichigo. Let’s put it this way – would an innocent and diligent shonen hero play as well overseas as a Yanki-fied one?
As for the export of Otaku culture, I think that we would be horrified to see how the number of views of streaming vids and illegal downloads of moe shows stack up. People overseas might be viewing Girl’s Generation, but they certainly aren’t buying them in large numbers in North America or other major markets. Ditto for moe anime, but it doesn’t mean that the fans aren’t there. On a marginal download site that I use I see that Denno Coil, an anime from a few years back that I admire, got 50,000 downloads and Strike Witches 275,000 – and that wouldn’t even be scratching the surface of the number who have downloaded episodes from somewhere, torrents, etc. I take it that people watch Girl’s Generation vids as part of larger music consumption, but some build their lives around moe… and certainly not just in Japan.
Japan also has several high culture advantages that you haven’t mentioned. Cuisine has gotten major cred during the celeb chef / Food TV revolution of the last decade and sushi has trickled down to the masses. Japan’s traditional culture has been co-opted overseas – the Geisha boom and whatnot – and thus exists as a nexus of cultural cred among upper middle classers with more cash than clues independently of anything that Japan actually does. People overseas really did go ape over how “polite and orderly” the Japanese are after the quake and this was a massive national advertisement. We tend to focus on the negative, but Japan is still massively well liked – the second most positively viewed country on the BBC World Service poll. I think that a lot of this tends to do with Japanese food, stereotypical images of traditional culture, anime generally and so on – not anything that Japan actually does. Was there a really significant trickle down from YMO, Bathing Ape, Shonen Knife, and so on? Aren’t the middle class housewives who have “meet a geisha” on their bucket lists way more important?
December 2, 2011 at 11:07 am
Those are long running series, yes. They have a successor in “Blue Exorcist”, which is surging (and also Yankii). In addition, they might be “old”, but their creators aren’t. I expect that each will be able to turn out a high profile follow-up.
Most importantly, you can’t ask why manga like these don’t have clear successors until after they conclude. They all run in Jump. The Jump editors forge and market big shonen fighting titles. That’s what they do. They only run these and perhaps one other shonen fighting series at a time, however, so as to not glut their market. Even now, they probably have located potential successors through their various contests and have them working for the big four as assistants.
If Jump isn’t able to export at least 3 big shonen fighting properties on a reasonably big scale, that will be an epoch making sign of Japan’s pop culture decline.
December 2, 2011 at 11:21 am
I really enjoyed this entire series.
I’d second M-Bone’s comment about Japanese cuisine not getting enough attention in this series.
I just picked up David Chang’s (NYC restauranteur famous for Momofuku and other Asian fusion restaurants) new food magazine ‘Lucky Peach’ published by McSweeney’s. Issue 1 is all about ramen and has extensive coverage of ramen with Ivan Orkin (he of Ivan Ramen) and commentary from Anthony Bourdain, Wylie Dufresne and lots of other chefs on the topic of ramen. It’s pretty amazing that a whole magazine (with no ads!) can be made on ramen alone.
December 2, 2011 at 11:27 am
Hm… I agree there was a boom, perhaps that yankii or delinquent edge to mainstream pop products is not that much of a new thing? Think of Yuyu Hakusho, Sailor Jupiter, Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, Akira.
There’s also the precedent of yakuza movies, which certainly weren’t marketed for yakuza only. I’m going on a tangent, but I think a case could be made that even in classic culture it’s not uncommon to see positive portrayals of heroes with transgressive values, even if those very same values would be rejected and ostracized in real life. I’m thinking of such figures as Musashi, Susanowo, Ikkyū, tengu etc. A particularly interesting case is Ryōgen, a monk that to this day is worshipped as a demon-banishing saint, and as a Demon-King (maou) simultaneously.
On the other hand, the purebreed otaku crowd violently rejected the gyaru fairy in Dragon Quest IX (2009), with the 2ch people organizing mass negative reviews on Amazon and such. The classism got pretty ugly. I’d think it’s easier to sell to otaku male yankii (and other violent images of power, such as female yakuza) than gyaru-fashion girls.
December 2, 2011 at 11:34 am
I just realized my examples basically fit your 30-year timescale. My scale of time for manga is totally broken.
December 2, 2011 at 11:34 am
> The average university student in Paris is likely to read Murakami Haruki and may listen to a Japanese DJ
The average “khâgneux” maybe. The average university student (of either gender) in Paris, though, is probably more likely to be watching K-On!, or perhaps even to cosplay as Naruto, than to be reading 1Q84.
(And you do find French girls in full gyaru costume if you walk around Japan Expo for a bit…)
December 2, 2011 at 11:47 am
Otaku hate yankii/gyaru. They describe yankii culture as “dokkyun” — for the sound of something terrible piercing your heart. But it’s clearly one disenfranchised group hating on another to show their superiority.
December 2, 2011 at 11:57 am
I was thinking about putting in Yu Yu Hakusho as an early example but favored Slam Dunk because it was more popular and has had a stronger lasting legacy.
The other titles that you mention have significant Yankii elements, and it is possible to find those going back to the 1970s. What I find striking is not how bikers are used to represent a dystopic future as in Akira or not Nekketsu (I grew up on “River City Ransom”) which has delinquents beating on other delinquents, but how the new generation of shonen heroes just happen to look, talk, and act like Yankii – even if they are in non-Japanese fantasy words.
Pure gyaru-fashion girls don’t sell, but you do see some elements of gyaru-fashion circulating in, say, One Piece that will make the rounds and sell overseas. I don’t think these would be out of place on Patrick Macias’ Yankii picture blog:
Even Luffy has been rocking a tiger skin printed cape lately.
December 2, 2011 at 11:57 am
‘Yet no one non- Japanese is watching their videos’
I am a non-japanese and I watch (shock, horror) AKB48 videos. Just saying.
I seriously hope they get their mojo back. We do not need another country which panders to the American hegenomy.
December 2, 2011 at 12:02 pm
I think otaku culture is perfectly exportable, but the problem is that its audience will be (a) somewhat similar to the domestic audience, i.e. limited in demographic scope, but (b) utterly unwilling to pay the sort of cash that the domestic cohort does to consume this cultural content (which is getting downloaded for free in the first place, to a significant extent). You end up with cultural producers making little money from their products and a Japan whose image abroad is increasingly defined by the fringe. Not a great situation all around.
December 2, 2011 at 12:30 pm
That is a big problem.
Everyone seems to express shock and horror that they will have to pay the same price Japanese people pay for their loli.
It is interesting to think that just 20 years ago Legend of the Galactic heroes was selling like hotcakes. That was also when people still had money.
December 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm
>It is interesting to think that just 20 years ago Legend of the Galactic heroes was selling like hotcakes. That was also when people still had money.
This reminds me of the situation with Koei. They started out making historical strategy games, sold at a very high price to an older and richer audience, not unlike LoGH. But now their tentpole product is the Musou series, which actually is one of the few comparatively mainstream video game franchises in Japan.
December 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm
I still have a probably unrelated question: which factors contribute to the decline of video games’ influence over Japanese society?
It seems to me that video games’ public image peaked at 1980s to early 1990s. I remember being astonished by the huge sales numbers of Famicom games – even the first Final Fantasy sold a few millions.
December 2, 2011 at 3:47 pm
I got the impression that this is kind of what Kyary Pamyupamyu’s people were trying to do, by connecting with the disparate fashion geeks around the world and seeing if that could combine into a level of sales that could compete with mainstream artists even though she was a pretty firmly entrenched niche product in Japan.
Not sure how successful they were though. She got a lot of hits on YouTube and a lot was made of her topping the iTunes electronic charts in Finland and Belgium (no idea how hard that is to do), but other aspects of the way her management etc. behave seem like even if they get the basic idea of what they should be doing, they’re still locked into a very traditional idea of how they should be doing it.
A small step in the right direction possibly, but I got the impression that there are institutional obstacles in the way the industry works that will make it very difficult for Japanese pop culture to reconnect with the outside world.
December 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm
I’ve seen an anecdotal example:
In one early 1990s variety show, the Capcom artist Yasuda “Akiman” Akira was introduced with fanfare as “creator of Street Fighter”. 10 years later, when he appeared in another variety show, he had to humbly say “I also worked on some games”.
December 2, 2011 at 3:50 pm
Fantastic writeup David. At lot of this stuff is new to me, so unfortunately I’ve nothing to add or critique, but it has certainly piqued my interest in many areas of Japanese consumerism and market changes over the past decades.
December 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm
As for a bit of anecdotal evidence, the “early adopters” here in Berlin (and London as I hear) now think of Japanese culture as being “played out”, i.e. something that has been overdone and picked up by the wrong people. And their answer to this is to now look to China for inspiration. While until a few years ago, any self-respecting hipster had to visit Tokyo in order to appear well-traveled, this has completely shifted to Shanghai. This also explains the sudden availability of Chinese sneaker brand “Feiyue” in several hip UK / Swedish clothing stores. And most importantly, the sudden disinterest of the “elite” in Japanese restaurants, in favor of (non-authentic) Dim-Sum restaurants, at least in Berlin. As with anything “hip”, going China of course is just another case of differentation angst, as described here: http://www.ichwerdeeinberliner.com/23-china
December 2, 2011 at 4:02 pm
now think of Japanese culture as being “played out”
It doesn’t help when there’s not enough new stuff to sustain their appetite.
I will say though that the U.S. menswear scene has been gaga over Japanese fashion from the last two years because of the high-quality American-inspired product.
December 2, 2011 at 4:41 pm
I was just typing something about fashion…
It certainly seems like an area of ‘sophisticated culture’ where Japan has only kept becoming more popular overseas. The Americana boom that engulfed the entire fashion world for a few years was essentially Japanese in origin. You even have American goods (Red Wing boots, New Balance sneakers) being legitimized for American consumers by their popularity in Japan. And that craze has propelled a large number of other, non-Americana labels into foreign stores. Look at the number of Japanese brands carried by LN-CC.com, for example. And it’s hard to wave all this off as just the residual popularity of 90s street fashion. The things that are highly regarded now have little to do with that scene. Not that any of this changes the situation inside Japan, where, as you’ve written, high(er)brow fashion is in decline.
All this is to say that I wonder how much the reception of Japanese culture abroad really depends on what mainstream Japan is doing. Those two things came together briefly in the late 90s, but maybe it’s a mistake to take this as a ‘normal’ state of affairs for Japan’s culture industries, or to expect it to happen again any time soon.
December 2, 2011 at 4:51 pm
And it’s hard to wave all this off as just the residual popularity of 90s street fashion.
In this case absolutely. And it’s really about respecting Japan’s nearly 50 year tradition of archiving Americana. What I would say though is that when Americans were into A Bathing Ape, this was a legitimately Americans being into “the most popular thing in Japan.” It really was around 1998-2000 (Americans got to it a bit late, but still.) Americana stuff is mainstream in Japan, but increasingly moving back into a niche. My favorite store for this stuff was Beams+ in Shibuya and it closed this year, moving into a nearby other Beams with about 1/4 the floor space for that particular merchandise. Every single Japanese select store now sells ¥100,000 cordovan Aldens, but not sure how long this can last.
December 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm
W. David Marx, I think you are talking about brands like Engineered Garments, Post Overalls, and of course Beams+ as you mentioned. I follow some “fashion blogs” such as Inventory Magazine for the comedic value (I know it’s mean), and it seems to me like the Americana-inspired, re-imported “Japan rugged casual” trend is still in full effect in both the US and UK, and also picking up steam in central Europe (Berlin / Sweden).
Do you see a huge decline in interest in Japan in brands like Engineered Garments? Were they actually ever that big? Then I wonder, what will the “rugged casual / Alden” shopping crowd move to next, as the whole Americana thing was always touted to be an “anti-fashion” thing that exists beyond trends.
December 3, 2011 at 2:26 am
W. David Marx,
Thanks very much, this is an interesting article and I’ll be sure to go back and read the series.
I do wonder if you could respond to the rest of M Bone’s assertion that there are huge segments of Japanese culture that still resonate with the same intensity worldwide as anime and manga did in the late 90s and early 2000s, specifically high cuisine, and traditional Japanese aesthetics.
December 3, 2011 at 7:11 am
> Most men around the world are not wracked by such deep status insecurity that they want to live in a world where chesty two-dimensional 12 year-old girls grovel at their feet and call them big brother
Spend some time on /a/ or /b/ if you have the stomach … surely not representative of “most men around the world” but the numbers aren’t tiny.
Maybe the Japanese really are just ahead of everyone else — status insecurity only set to increase worldwide; if they can convince loser males in the US or Europe to actually pay for their moe rather than pirate it, they will probably make a killing.
December 3, 2011 at 7:23 am
Also, see any My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic trend piece re: the viability of American moe culture
December 3, 2011 at 7:30 am
My little Pony share very little similarities to otaku targeted moe shows like K-On and the like.
The pony shows are closer to Pretty Cure in Japan. Shows that are targeted and marketed to little girls but somehow manage to acquire an male audience. Moe shows are purely targeted at otaku (late night time slot).
there are more differencea but it take too long to compare but i think the Pretty Cure is a good analogy.
December 3, 2011 at 9:23 am
We don’t need to get all My Little Pony on this – Twilight, Twilight, Twilight. Everything, right down to the love triangle involving ordinary girl vs. ethereal and distant boy vs. rowdy and athletic boy, the ridiculously long and convoluted path to consummation, the bizarre occult contrivance that means they can never be happy… It operates like a dark shojo manga on ever level. It stole thunder from manga because it is just like manga.
Nothing for boys quite so effete as Moe, but when you look at the most popular mainstream US boy (and manchild) culture – Nolan’s Batman (rich white man violates civil liberties and takes the law into his own hands amid social and moral decay – Batman is now the Tea Party superhero), 300 (Eugenics and killing brown people is cool! Our slaves let us enjoy FREEDOM!), and the shoot an Afghani, Iraqi, Russian, North Korean in the head and fist pump first person shooter genre (while calling people “fag” over a headset), or GTA (where the water cooler conversation becomes about how far you got the hooker’s broken body to catapult off the windshield of your car), and a dose of Moe actually seems quite needed.
December 3, 2011 at 9:28 am
1) My Little Pony definitely not made intentionally for creepy older guys.
2) Twilight is manga, maybe, but in no way moe or hardcore otaku-esque. The girl looks like she’s an actual adult.
3) God I hope that we don’t live in a world where moe — a completely reactionary aesthetic that wishes for a dream world where women never grow up, become actual adults with free will, and become vaguely intimidating to men — is the only hope for battling America’s worst fascist, violent instincts.
December 3, 2011 at 9:43 am
You’re forgetting the legions of female otaku / fujoshi in Japan (who go virtually unmentioned in the five parter as well). Girls can Moe too! Twilight is like their cultural products. Many characters in shojo manga look older than their set age and it is the male characters who are gazed at dreamingly and shirtless… which I gather has been the entire point of Twilight.
“become actual adults with free will, and become vaguely intimidating to men”
While I’m sure not going to argue that any of it is “good”, I think this description is a bit 2004-2005 (and you were entirely sensible to look at no Moe stuff after that). An important part of Moe now (including some of the most popular titles like Toradora and Ore Imou) is devoted to scenarios where domestic young men are abused, berated, and beaten by tsundere hellions while they cook and clean for them. It is no longer easy to argue that a monolithic otaku group are devoted to regressive gender relations (although I don’t think this is progressive either – I doubt they are imagining their fantasy kyara as real women existing in contextualized relationships anyway).
“is the only hope for battling America’s worst fascist, violent instincts.”
Either that or legalize pot.
December 3, 2011 at 11:09 am
Twilight has strong Christian sensibilities. Stephanie Meyer is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Twilight is built around that. Sure, there are similarities with Shoujo but the obvious inspiration is Christianity.
If it pleases you, the manga version of Twilight sold well.
I can’t find the article, but Crunchyroll have recently said (last month) that most anime in Japan are unmarketable.
Actually after the American anime and manga crash circa 2008, there are lot people (foreigners) who were in the industry who are deeply worried about the scene in Japan and they have come to same conclusion with Marxy (independently too). Google around and I’m pretty sure there are a few interviews out there.
I was listening to the Anime News Network podcast, and Funimation basically stated they would love to have Tiger and Bunny (an actual anime that tries to service everybody including otakus) every 6 months. Moe never really sold well outside of Japan. Even in South East Asia, where I’m from, its not a big seller. Vocal following though.
December 3, 2011 at 11:53 am
“Sure, there are similarities with Shoujo but the obvious inspiration is Christianity.”
You can only take that so far, however. Christianity has few werewolves and few six packs (after the Renaissance). Whatever the original intent of Twilight, I don’t think that the fan reactions are quite so chaste.
In any case, anime never sold particularly well period. In 2007, the last year for which I have statistics, the breakdown was $300 million or so for anime DVDs compared to $2.5 billion for merchandise – including all of the Dragonball and Pokemon toys. The media itself was always pretty chump change compared to that.
Can you really back the idea that Moe never sold well? Compare the NYT manga bestseller list for the last week with the Japanese weekly list and see what we get:
Top 3 are Sailor Moon, Warriors (American manga adaptation), and Sailor V (an exceptional week as those are big re-releases). The top 10 is rounded out with Negima (gag harem – not quite conventional “Moe”, but doesn’t exist without 14 year olds in bathing suits), Haruhi-chan Vol. 4 (Moe), Ninja Girls Vol. 8 (Moe), Pokemon (not Moe), Omamori Himari (Moe), Haruhi Vol. 10 (Moe), (Shojo manga comedy, so not “pure” Moe). That’s still half the top 10.
I don’t count “Yotsuba to” as Moe, more of a gag series, but even if you count it, it is only that and Sora no Otoshimono in the top 10. In fact, there aren’t five in the entire Japanese top 30 which has 14 seinen, or josei.
The grim truth about the US manga industry isn’t that Japan is failing to provide enough content, it is that “adult” titles don’t sell. What sells is a mainstream core of shonen fighting, a solid shojo niche, and lots of Moe to diehards. The lusty Moe otaku make up a larger part of the US market for manga than do Japanese Moe otaku in their home market.
While US companies have struggled to get “Blackjack” and “Hi no Tori” into print (and forget about current issues manga like “Blackjack ni yoroshiku” and “Real” being successful), Moe finds a home. This contrasts greatly with the much more diverse French market.
We don’t have similar stats for anime (companies rarely release sales data) so we can’t compare easily.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily go against Marxy’s argument – it could very well be that manga has been so tainted by its loyal unwashed that something like “Historie” – fourth in the Japanese top list this week – gets overlooked in the US. However, if we are talking about a pure “sell stuff to people” market and not “Cool Japan”, Moe really isn’t itself a big failure. It is what the fans will pay money for in many cases. I’d also posit that these guys are more likely to travel to Japan with an armful of cash, (most likely doomed) dreams of getting laid, and a guide to Akiba, than, say, New York hipsters.
If you want to identify a single major difference between the Japanese and US markets, it would be the complete and utter failure to sell sports titles in America. This is pretty easy to explain – people who read manga generally don’t play sports and the reverse is also the case. Japan still has “mainstream” manga about sports and all sorts of things while these have never appealed in the US as much as Moe despite subject matter that seems like it should (Mixed martial arts, Alexander the Great, Vikings kicking ass, a moving wheelchair basketball story, the ins and outs of Japanese loan sharking and everyday urban violence, and so on). It stands that something totally awesome and exportable like “Vinland Saga” has French, Korean, Italian, Chinese, and German releases but no English… while literally 3000 Moe volumes have made it to market.
December 3, 2011 at 11:54 am
Girls can Moe too!
Yet I don’t think there are any major pop cultural moments that can be attributed to fujoshi culture at the moment, whereas AKB448 are clearly of male otaku libido origin.
December 3, 2011 at 12:02 pm
I write about Fujoshi only in relation to “Twilight” and a significant shared aesthetic.
On a minor note, I’ve been told that some Japanese boy bands like Kat-Tun now play up supposed sexual tension between the boys in their stage acts (holding a gaze, almost kissing, etc.). While this isn’t on the level of AKB48, it is an intrusion of the Fujoshi challenge to hetero-normativity into what’s left of the mainstream.
December 3, 2011 at 12:39 pm
W. David Marx,
“Yet I don’t think there are any major pop cultural moments that can be attributed to fujoshi culture at the moment, whereas AKB448 are clearly of male otaku libido origin.”
I think there is – look at the run on Korean Boybands like Tohushinki (sorry if I spelled it wrong). When they play in Tokyo, there will be a queue of average and below average looking women of all ages going a few times around the block. It seems to me that these women are like their male counterparts, in that they gave up on trying to find love in the real world because they can’t accept reality that they will not be able to “get” such a good looking, wealthy partner given the competition, and rather live single in a dream world of Korean boys with tacky hair.
I think the culture for the “losers” (in a Houellebecq-ian sense) in society has changed in a way that those losers rather choose that dream world then settle for a realistic assessment of their chances.
December 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm
Fujoshi may like Korean boy bands but in no way are they an exclusive product of fujoshi culture the way that AKB48 came out of Akihabara. In fact, they were made in Korea for totally mainstream consumers.
December 3, 2011 at 3:30 pm
Thanks for putting together this series.
One of your themes is that consumers are no longer buying pop culture products in the same way, partly down to demographic and economic factors.
From a macro perspective, however, household consumption overall in Japan hasn’t fallen. It’s higher than it was when the bubble burst. You mentioned in part two that economic uncertainty for young workers lifts the savings rate but the overall savings rate in Japan has been in steady decline.
It’s certainly true that CD sales have collapsed, and revenues in print publishing have declined consistently over the years, but there are industry-specific factors behind both phenomenon which you can also see in other countries.
I suppose I’m wondering whether the market for pop culture in Japan has actually shrunk or whether it is being redefined. For instance, what portion of a monthly keitai bill would count as pop culture spending?
If the market has indeed shrunk, then it raises the question of where spending has been redirected, given that total consumption hasn’t followed the pattern of decline you describe for specific sectors.
You understandably focus on the role of young people but, from an expenditure perspective, older generations are an important driver of consumption of popular culture products in the West. According to one estimate, over 50s made up more than 10% of this year’s Glastonbury audience. We know that older Japanese women in Japan were the target for the first Korean boom. I wonder to what extent the different pop culture consumption patterns of older generations affects your narrative.
(One starting point – which I’ve so far been too lazy to look into in any detail – is the National Survey of Family Income and Expenditure. It has been conducted every five years since 1984, and a lot of the data, including the most recent 2009 results, is up on the website of the Statistics Bureau.)
I know it’s helpful to offer some tentative answers when raising questions, so I can only apologize for failing to do so.
December 3, 2011 at 4:06 pm
household consumption overall in Japan hasn’t fallen. It’s higher than it was when the bubble burst.
But it must have shifted. And this is where it becomes crucial to link the quantitative and qualitative analysis. Absolutely the Japanese “living standard” has changed in a qualitative way, which I’ve given examples for. In terms of beer, it’s clearly a worse experience, but in general, a lot of the nation’s favorite places to spend money for the last thirty years — cars, luxury goods — have taken a big hit. The zeitgeist has changed, and that may represent a sensitive overexaggeration of slight decline from dominant marketers and companies, but part of my reason for writing this essay was to address this new theory that Japan never had lost decades and still has an equally healthy economy as it did 20 years ago. I just don’t buy that when viewed through the lens of how the Japan nation understands its own consumption. The narrative is much darker.
For instance, what portion of a monthly keitai bill would count as pop culture spending?
This is an interesting point, and illustrates part of what I am saying: people are spending their time on new forms of media and culture that are not being properly reported and catalogged within the wider media. Angry Birds may have been more popular than the latest brand-name Nintendo DS title but there’s no media infrastructure for us celebrating it as an era-defining product. (I was in Manila earlier this year and I saw tons of Angry Birds T-shirts and other products, so in that case, I’d say that it has taken over the zeitgeist there at least.)
Japan is not really a country of quick change, where upstarts quickly take the reigns of culture from old players. So yes, cultural spending is shifting but the traditional industry is very good at keeping control of the mindshare, even if no one is buying those products. I don’t think this is necessarily true in other places.
given that total consumption hasn’t followed the pattern of decline you describe for specific sectors.
This would be an interesting follow-up. My first guess would be DoCoMo, au, and Softbank revenues.
I also suspect that consumption is held steady among older consumers, but that young consumers have seen real drops. And that’s where most pop culture spending happens. That being said, we go back to the third-category beer problem which is likely older retirees and working class drinkers.
We know that older Japanese women in Japan were the target for the first Korean boom.
This was an anomaly when it happened, because it wasn’t normal for older consumers to be buying posters, CDs, and photobooks of bands. The U.S. has tons of pop culture — Mad Men, NPR shows, the website Slate etc. — that is targeted towards older educated consumers. Japan, at least now, is relatively weak in this arena, mostly because these consumers spend so much time at work. TV Tokyo tried to do “upscale” dramas with real actors, good scripts, able photography at their 10pm Monday slot but they couldn’t really pull the ratings.
In terms of savings rates, I don’t know whether young people have the same savings rate as their parents, but in surveys, young people at least claim to be saving a lot of money.
December 3, 2011 at 9:38 pm
Another successful consumer export would be Japanese spirituality under which I would include Japanese martial arts. This doesn’t count as technology, kids products, or a “sophisticated cultural good”. I don’t count it as art in the artsy sense – though its does have artistic ramifications.
And per my 2nd response to Marxy in the first part – a major significance of the rise of YOG as the dominant forces of Japanese consumption is that these forces are precisely responses to snobbery – a snobbery that Marxy now cautions to avoid.
December 3, 2011 at 10:12 pm
There’s probably a separate discussion about whether foods and martial arts form part of “Japan Cool.” There is some overlap but I definitely don’t think cuisine alone makes a country “cool.”
I love Turkish food or Vietnamese food but I’m not sure that the number of Turkish restaurants in Tokyo has any bearing on whether Turkish music, fashion, literature has some kind of meaningful cachet.
“Cool” in the Japan sense is very much tied to consumer culture — buying cultural goods. Japan cool helped add cachet to things like noodles and sushi, but not sure it could have done it without a consumer layer as well.
December 3, 2011 at 10:50 pm
But French food in Tokyo provides France with cachet, no? Turkish and Vietnamese are branded as downmarket comfort food (at least here) and thus contribute to a “third world vitality” narrative, but not to cool.
In my experience, fashion and music are the realm of a very, very small slice of elite consumers whose narrative has little crossover into the North American mainstream. The world of celebrity chefs and trickle down sushi as well as “Japanese Women don’t get Fat and Old (or whatever, they should check out Sugamo)” and old staples like zen, American MMA fighters with Bushido tats, and so on seem more important to me as widespread phenomena. I mean, aren’t well to do people in North America more or less like The Real Housewives of New Jersey? It certainly seems that way to me. I know my fair share of execs, business owners, and their housewives, and their kids, and they aren’t “classy” by any means. So how exactly is something like YMO or Comme des Garcons or Murakami Takashi supposed to hit an elite core and permeate the rest of the culture with a sense of Japan’s vital awesomeness? It seems to me that these groups are not only small to begin with but largely cordoned off from the rest of the population (I read Salon, Slate, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and two national papers and can’t recall having ever seen something substantial about say, the Chinese art world that wasn’t essentially political reporting about repression).
You’re very much a part of the consumer culture cool that you describe. I find that when I talk with North American young people who want to go to Japan about why they like Japan, however, it’s always “sushi”, “Metal Gear”, “Battle Royale and stuff”, “samurai are cool”, “Akira”, “Geisha are so beautiful”, “the temples are amazing”. I think that each of these general trends actually predate Japan fashion and music cool and have considerable strength (and apparently longevity) independently of it. I would be surprised if 1 in 20 had even heard of Murakami Takashi or Comme des Garcons. When I teach Japan I ask students about their reasons for being interested – it is very rare to see one that listens to Japanese music or is interested in Japanese fashion but familiarity with Japanese narrative culture and interest in someday going to Japan because it is “different” is almost universal. (Self selecting group, but important that that self selecting group has no connection to art, music, or fashion).
You seem to be assuming a trickle down mechanism in North America like the one that you describe for Euro-American cultural adoption in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. Does it really work this way?
December 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm
One of the problems in Japan is that the Japanese media industries keep their content locked shut.
Here in the USA, while I can get about a dozen of channels with Chinese programming, we can only get one channel of Japanese programming (TV Japan/NHK). Some Japanese commercial programming is available in major cities like LA, SF and Hawaii. In fact, there is a significant business in America of black market DVDs with recent TV episodes available for sale or rental at Japanese shops and markets.
As far as Japanese pop music goes, again, a closed system. At one time, many major labels such as Sony Music would only make J-POP music downloads available within certain areas (with the USA excluded).
J1 Radio operates a 24-hour stream of Japanese pop music with English language news, weather and other information with a Tokyo focus. While J1 has significantly large audiences in Japan and the USA, our largest non-Japan/USA audience is in Singapore. There is a significant fandom for J-POP, K-POP, visual kei, anison and other genres there. J1 recognizes our Singapore listeners with a dedicated website just for them and we are continuing to expand our services to our Singaporean listeners.
Asian POP will have a difficult time being successful in the United States as evidenced by unimpressive showings for (Hikaru) Utada and BoA. Korean pop has a better chance than Japanese due to the higher Korean populations and due to more media sources available from Korea to the USA (KBS World is available as a part of a basic package by one of the US broadcast satellite providers). Korean dramas are available on Netflix. Where are the Japanese dramas?
So where it comes to media, Japan is losing its edge because they are not keeping up with their neighbors around them.
director, J1 Radio
December 4, 2011 at 1:40 pm
As a Westerner who has been in to J-Pop for some time, it has to be said that the Japanese music industry makes it very difficult for foreign fans – they really seem to make no effort at all to export.
The K-Pop industry seems to view it’s market as the wider Asian continent; a continent where the common language is English. Bands like T-ara and SNSD both include large amounts of English content in their lyrics, and this clearly adds to their wide popularity. To an extent they ape Western genres fairly closely, and they also put the effort in to produce Japanese re-works of their hit tracks when playing there.
Here in the UK I can buy the whole T-ara and SNSD catalogues on UK iTunes.
Contrast this with J-Pop acts such as Ayu, Utada, Ami Suzuki, Jasmine etc. Apart from a handful of albums (Utada’s English albums mainly), none of these acts are available on UK iTunes. Indeed a friend based in the US tells me that Avex have just dropped most of their catalogue from the US iTunes store.
An artist like Jasmine would be a great crossover artist with potential international appeal (since she too uses a fair amount of English), yet her music isn’t legally available for download anywhere. Personally, I ended up paying $US40+ to have a CD shipped from Hong Kong… not exactly encouraging legal purchase.
David is right that the likes of AKB48 will thankfully always have limited appeal in the West (I actually find the young girl Otaku obsession disturbing), but there’s a big tranche of mainstream J-Pop that I believe would sell over here if only Avex didn’t ignore it’s non-Asian markets so completely.
Having been to one of Utada’s two sell-out London shows last year, there’s clearly a hardcore fan base ready to be tapped in to.
December 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm
Great article! Japan’s problem is that it has become so focused and closed that they are becoming culturally irrelevant. They do everything for themselves forgetting the rest of the world.
Good examples of this are cell phones. For many years Japan had the most advanced phones in the world. However they only worked on their proprietary networks thus they remained a Japan only product. Then in 2007 came the iPhone and suddenly Japan’s lost the edge not only in the rest of the world but in Japan as well as the iPhone became the benchmark by which every other phone is measured.
In animation Japan has been stuck with repetitive stories and drawings (all characters now look the same) that is making their market a smaller niche that is only a phase and people get over it in a short time.
And back to the music, the problem with Asian pop in general is that for the most part they are not very good, they are made up groups with people that cannot sing or play music. Like AKB48 apart from the girls being pretty there is nothing else to see. Another thing that makes things complicated is that Japanese standard of beauty is very different from the west. Whereas in Japan and Asian, girls and boys have to be cute, in the west a more sensual and adult presence is desired.
December 4, 2011 at 7:18 pm
the main issue with Japan, as I see it, is the overall unwillingness and passiveness when it comes to exports. many shops, designers and content producers usually don’t bother with international shipping. the anime exports are now merchandize and doujinshi exports. and many producers outright refuse to admit that, but if you look at the main profit channels for a title you will see that the anime works as a commercial of sorts, making the most of the money from soundtrack sales, figurines and other merchandize. there’s a lot of market for authentic japanese stuff, but the limited availability combined with steep prices makes the number of sales for non-japanese public very limited.
December 5, 2011 at 12:47 am
The K-Pop industry seems to view it’s market as the wider Asian continent; a continent where the common language is English.
Not just Asia. :) SM Entertainment take their SMTown concert to Los Angeles every year (catering to the Korean-American community) and this year they went to Paris as well, thanks to persistent lobbying by the K-Pop fandom in France.
Meanwhile, it just happens that Cube Entertainment (BEAST, 4minute) are taking the plunge and bringing their idols to London tomorrow.
December 5, 2011 at 9:40 am
“but the limited availability combined with steep prices makes the number of sales for non-japanese public very limited.”
And maybe that’s precisely what Japanophiles abroad love about them…! ;)
December 6, 2011 at 3:07 am
I will try to represent my PoV as a part of generation which started to be an otaku in the past 3-4 years.
While I understand the whole bad opinions towards the “Moe” culture, or generally the present anime, I can’t really agree with the generalization of Moe = child porn industry.
Although many of the “late night shows” and shows in general consist of moe, (I hope) most of us still have pretty good taste in general. Despite of the ammount of shows, many of them are low-quality products and have not very good sales at all.
This is the top 15 2000-almost present anime which scores the most total average sales :
01) *78,671 ¥3,558m 15 ep 2009 Shaft__________ Aniplex______ Bakemonogatari
02) *69,697 ¥3,009m 12 ep 2011 Shaft__________ Aniplex______ Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
03) *68,734 ¥5,629m 50 ep 2004 Sunrise________ Bandai_______ Kidou Senshi Gundam SEED Destiny
04) *58,589 ¥4,798m 50 ep 2002 Sunrise________ Bandai_______ Kidou Senshi Gundam SEED
05) *50,551 ¥2,673m 25 ep 2006 Sunrise________ Bandai_______ Code Geass: Hangyaku no Lelouch
06) *46,146 ¥2,705m 25 ep 2008 Satelight______ Bandai_______ Macross Frontier
07) *43,883 ¥2,309m 14 ep 2009 Kyoto Animation Pony Canyon__ K-ON!
08) *42,690 ¥2,370m 25 ep 2008 Sunrise________ Bandai_______ Code Geass: Hangyaku no Lelouch R2
09) *41,037 ¥2,091m 14 ep 2006 Kyoto Animation Kadokawa_____ Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu
10) *39,385 ¥2,888m 27 ep 2010 Kyoto Animation Pony Canyon__ K-ON!!
11) *39,352 ¥1,658m 25 ep 2007 Sunrise________ Bandai_______ Kidou Senshi Gundam 00
12) *36,511 ¥2,754m 51 ep 2003 Bones__________ Aniplex______ Hagane no Renkinjutsushi: Fullmetal Alchemist (first series, 2003)
13) *34,601 ¥1,281m 25 ep 2008 Sunrise________ Bandai_______ Kidou Senshi Gundam 00 S2
14) *34,116 ¥1,415m 14 ep 2010 PA Works_______ Aniplex______ Angel Beats!
15) *33,706 ¥1,493m 12 ep 2011 8-bit__________ Media Factory IS -Infinite Stratos-
full link : http://www.mania.com/aodvb/showthread.php?p=1922100#post1922100
As you can see, the actual anime which is, in my opinion, can be called “fanservice galore” is the 15th rank, Infinite Stratos (Which actually sales a lot due to Madoka psychology in that season). K-ON, which is described in a negative light from general audience, actually promotes almost no children porn/sexuality at all. It’s just a show of “Cute girls doing cute things, plus songs”. Despite of many creepy fans that it had, it’s actually watchable and watched by small rate (but still pretty big for normal late-night anime) of normal+girls audiences.
As for the rest, actually they tried to sell general good qualities with minimal “bad” fanservices.
Most of the -borderline porn- or -children/loli sexualization- suffers below 5000 sales and struggling to just meeting Break Even Point.
That’s why I don’t see why people just keep creating those trashes. They just keep making anime industry seems worse, while the general otaku are actually still pretty “healthy”. They just didn’t buy everything and buy something that’s actually good.
December 6, 2011 at 6:56 am
Take away Gundam and FMA, almost every show there is meant for an otaku. The shows in that list are meant for insider (otaku/fujoshi). Casual buyers are not gonna pick those up except for GUndam of coz.
And your list is flawed and missing some info.
K-ON is by far the best selling anime post 2000.
Take note of the numbers that non-dvd merchandising earns. A cool 192 Million USD.
Thats why anime companies make otaku-fanservice shows. It earns them money via merchandising (if any gets back to the studio)
And in the case of K-ON, fanservice can take the form of emotional attachment instead of sexuality.
And this is for Marx,
It has begun…… good timing on the article, Mr Marx.
December 6, 2011 at 7:56 am
@ Gag Halfrunt said: Meanwhile, it just happens that Cube Entertainment (BEAST, 4minute) are taking the plunge and bringing their idols to London tomorrow.
Gag – thank you so much for the heads up on this. I hadn’t heard about it, but I managed to get a ticket (for less than half price!) and have just come back from the concert. 4minute were excellent – the others not so much to my taste. The crowd was very enthusiastic.
To get back on topic, visiting this concert exposed one more difficulty why some Asian acts will find it unattractive to travel longhaul.
With three bands and dancers, there must easily have been thirty people onstage – and I guess at least a dozen behind the scenes. Just transporting 40+ people to London for a 1 night gig must be fantastically expensive – and the tickets to the Cube gig were £75 (well over twice the price of a ticket to see a Western band in the same venue).
As a result of the high price and a reasonably limited following over here, the gig wasn’t more than 2/3rds full, and the guy I bought my tickets off (he’s bought over 20 at full price, hoping to sell them on) had lost a fortune re-selling for £30.
Sadly this doesn’t bode well for future Asian bands visits to London. It’s difficult to see how the larger multi-member outfits would break even.
December 7, 2011 at 10:38 pm
1. The list that I posted before is an “average sales per episode” best sales. K-ON has 2 season (with 3x more total episodes than Bakemonogatari) and ton of merchandises sales, that’s why it ranks the best overall sales. From what I know before, the source of this list is valid, we just saw it from different PoV :)
2. Gundam? For myself Gundam is more otaku-ish than some of the list before. Well, it once again returns to “what’s the definition of Otaku”…But what I want to convey is that the anime Industry right now is not too bad (for casual viewers), at least still the same like before.
1/3 (Gundam and FMA,according to your ‘casual’ term) from that top 15 is acceptable for general audiences. Madoka is unexpectedly popular everywhere (so they decide to promote the last episode airings with one page ads in Japan’s biggest newspaper). Angel Beats is just a drama anime, Macross is…Macross?, and Code Geass is a phenomenon in both female and male audiences, including casual I guess. Even K-ON is actually very popular with casual audience. I still don’t know why western people seems like regarding K-ON as the biggest destruction for Japanese Animation :( (CMIIW)
That leave only Haruhi and IS that actually only targeted for otaku (while Haruhi is actually watchable for casual)
And of course that list didn’t include movie and OVA. Ghibli will always be the sacred place for those who like animation and any film in general.
December 7, 2011 at 11:09 pm
Related: “Why Japanese Games are Breaking Up With the West”
December 8, 2011 at 10:34 am
Very intersting articles! You are mostly right of course.
I think the only thing I would add is how the ways of ranking what is popular (oricon ect) are really in need of upadating. Until Oricon includes mp3’s and maybe even radio play in it’s rankings they lose alot of it’s legitimacy in my opinion.
But if one thing good has come of all this is that because of the internet what is popular in Japan right now doesn’t matter as much since the big agencys can’t control who gets on the internet. That is why the Morning Musume fanbase hasn’t died interntionally dispite them being culturally irrelivent in Japan.
Also I guess things that do get exsported are very niche and so can’t be mistaken as not japanese like Pokemon was in the 90’s. Because what is the point of exsporting your culture if people don’t even know it is yours?
December 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm
I just wanted to say something about the fujoshi thing….. I don’t know how popular it is within Japanese communities and the online communities…. but it has gotten very very popular in overseas English and Chinese fandoms of boy groups. No matter Japanese or Korean boy bands, if you are a fan of them, you HAVE heard of pairings. Especially for Korean boy bands where they have obvious gestures (kissing, saying things etc) I suppose they weren’t made initially for the fujoshi group but fujoshi fans are a big portion of the population and they have started to accomodate that.
On another note (since I only have access to English-speaking and chinese online communities) I have noticed that akb has quite a large following in China….. although still the same otaku- types as in Japan. Fujoshi seems quite mainstream in the younger generation (to the point where well known older ppl have commented on this social phenom) And that Japanese beauty and fashion magazines are actually the big sellers (even though ppl generally like Korean-dramas, pop culture more) And a lot of those magazine carries the gyaru aesthetic and fake lashes and all that. So maybe some of those Japanese niche cultures may not be exportable to the western masses but can still enjoy relevance in other markets in Asia.
December 9, 2011 at 12:17 pm
While the series is very interesting, you really have outdone yourself in terms of classist contempt this time. How can you specialize in Japanese pop culture while having such obvious loathing for most of the popular groups that consume and/or generate said culture? It does sound a bit masochistic.
Reading those articles, you make it sound like it all comes down to a big taste fight between, I quote, the “urban, educated, sophisticated, upper middle-class affluent consumers aesthetes” and the “non urban (the horror!), downwardly mobile (by gosh!), professionally unsuccessful (can you imagine how these people live?), psychologically tortured (no wonder… how can one *not* be with so little disposable income?)”.
To sum up your vision about class and culture: The lower class animals from the inaka are now running the Zoo and we can only hope for a new wave of sophisticated cultural elite (bravely spearheading consumption) to rescue us from the current tragedy.
December 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm
I think you are the one inserting the pejorative nuance to most of this analysis. “you make it sound like it all comes down to a big taste fight between” — it is a big taste fight! But I am not saying that it’s a “good vs. evil” type situation based on the statement that “It’s a big taste fight.”
Also good to clarify that gyaru and yankii arent’ downwardly-mobile — they are just working class. The otaku seem to be a lot like red-state republicans: they are downwardly-mobile (dropping in class rather than stable), aren’t guaranteed a middle class existence anymore and feel victimized, which at least on 2ch, they seem to easily take out on other Asians, feminists, liberal/socialist demonstrators, etc.
I also stand firm saying that someone like Cornelius is more “sophisticated” — developed to a high degree of complexity — than anything in yankii or gyaru culture. He is just making a set of aesthetic choices that require a much higher degree of knowledge about the field in which he works than someone like Hamasaki Ayumi is. Sophistication does not always guarantee higher quality, but it means that it’s being created for a specific audience, which I tried to qualify by class.
I will say, however, that this particular website does cater towards an audience that fits the above description and I in no way feel guilty about the editorial tastes suggesting Shugo Tokumaru and not flumpool.
December 9, 2011 at 5:42 pm
Sorry not to have followed up sooner.
I suppose I’m wondering how we rank all these factors you have introduced.
If we argue the primary driver for the changing pattern of demand for pop culture products is economic, then, as I mentioned earlier, we have to explain how that trend tallies with the overall rise in household consumption over the period you are looking at. You would also have to take into account the impact of persistent deflation which has had a disproportionate effect across markets.
Perhaps, instead, the main emphasis is technological. You’ve argued before that, as traditional authorities have been dethroned, new voices which can validate consumer choices have yet to appear. This presents a picture of pop culture consumers who have lost their way, rather than run out of money. It suggests that pop culture demand could kick in when new authorities emerge. Or perhaps pop culture demand is a habit consumers can lose if not sufficiently cultivated.
Then you have the demographic argument. This simply states that Japan is getting older, and Japanese lose their appetite for pop culture consumption as they age.
I don’t know if you have a preference but I think some separation is called for. For instance, we shouldn’t put falling recorded music sales in the same category as the declining value of the clothing market. In many developed countries, recorded music sales are sharply down but the music industry appears to have a greater ubiquity than ever. The same does not seem to be true in Japan.
I’m interested you describe the demand from older Japanese women for Korean dramas as an anomaly, saying “it wasn’t normal for older consumers to be buying posters, CDs, and photobooks”. I’m not so sure. Older women are well-represented in the audiences for Takarazuka, kabuki, dance and musical theatre in general. The same products are available for performers in those fields and the main buyers are older women.
You write about how niche pop culture demand in Japan has risen in influence as the centre has fallen away. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how the relevant industries are handling the mature pop culture consumer. This demographic has significant spending power, and is certainly a key market in the West. If niche demand is so influential then I wonder where this niche is making its influence felt in Japan. If it isn’t showing up, then it raises the question of why it is being ignored by businesses you believe are being forced to target niches.
You could make the case that any failure in Japan is more on the supply side, not the demand side of the equation. Take the example of the niche in Japan for US TV shows. Japanese TV networks haven’t responded by developing their own programming for this market. The production values of something like “Lost” require a big upfront investment, which wouldn’t be recouped if only fans of US TV shows tuned in. Consequently, the opportunity goes begging.
Similarly, a girl group like Kara is hardly a new experience for Japan. After all, the members of Max were all about the same age when “Give me a Shake” was number one. The question is why no such act was filling that niche when K-Pop did so. (Not that there’s anything wrong with overseas artists making an impact in a market. The UK music industry still largely owes its current form to the success of the British Invasion).
We know that other sectors have misread the domestic market. Perhaps the focus on gyaru and otaku genres, if that is really what is happening, is a similar error on the part of local media producers.
December 12, 2011 at 5:19 am
You mentioned Hatsune Miku in an earlier comment as a way of highlighting an instance of exportable otaku culture, but I have to think that the reason it has gain popularity in the States, for instance, is very different than the reason it originally became popular in Japan.
I would say that Hatsune Miku has popularity in the US simply because of the “weirdness” factor and the novelty of the technology involved; it’s something entirely divergent from what people in the US are familiar with. Then take Japan and Hatsune Miku’s popularity in otaku culture, revolving around maid/idol fetishism.
If they tried to market Hatsune Miku in the US as they might in Japan, it wouldn’t work and might even ruffle a few feathers.
December 14, 2011 at 5:03 pm
we have to explain how that trend tallies with the overall rise in household consumption over the period you are looking at.
I’d love to see this data because it doesn’t capture the fact that Japanese consumers feel poorer than ever. They may be spending as much as usual, but their choice of products bespeaks pessimism about future earnings. The “zeitgeist” in Japan shows people jumping towards cheaper products at the cost of quality — something that for decades was said to be “culturally impossible” for Japanese consumers. I don’t think technological change explains that. I don’t want to over-emphasize the economic factors, but that seems to be income-perception related.
Or perhaps pop culture demand is a habit consumers can lose if not sufficiently cultivated.
So much of it was basically an abstract social pressure to keep up with these consumer trends in order to be properly “middle class.” Once incomes started dropping, consumers just got fed up with this, forced the media to reduce their expectations, and now these pressures have all but dissipated. Now you’re just expected to get drunk on cheap highballs and eat B-grade foods with your free tote bag. In this sense, it’s a victory of the people over artificial consumer standards.
Japanese TV networks haven’t responded by developing their own programming for this market.
TV Tokyo tried that this year with quality programming on Mondays at 10pm. I don’t think they saw much rise in views.
I’m not convinced that Japan has a stable, structural consumer group that is (1) well-educated (2) high incomed (3) in demand of sophisticated culture that plays upon their liberal arts education. Obviously this is a huge market in the U.S. but doesn’t really exist in any capacity in Japan, because (1) incomes are suppressed for younger white collar workers who are at peak cultural spending (2) super long labor hours reduce the amount of time college-educated workers can spend on culture (3) no one actual studies/learns anything at Japanese colleges. You can put a Wittgenstein joke in The Simpsons and expect 1/4 of the audience to chuckle. Not sure you’d see that kind of reward in a Japanese audience. (This isn’t really calling them “dumb” — it’s just that so much well-crafted American culture relies on its audiences knowledge and narrative analytical skills that were clearly acquired in university classes.)
Japan has seen some very, very arty things sell well, but it’s (1) not structural (proved by the fact that this sector just totally evaporated in the last decade) (2) there was a lot of “media pressure” to buy into these elitist things in many cases, which I talked about in my essay earlier about Asada Akira’s book. Now that the pressure is gone, you see a collapse of that part of the market.
So I agree that cultural producers are often making things for their own interests rather than consumers (practically speaking, AKB48 is exactly what otaku want, no?) but I don’t think “smart content” like American TV is necessarily the answer.
December 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm
If I understand this right, in this discussion we’re equating sales with success in cultural exporting, is that right? When I lived in New York in the late 90s, there were a few opportunities to see Japanese musicians. Maybe once in awhile I’d hear that Kahimi Karie was playing somewhere in the Village to 20 (ultimately disappointed) people.
During the course of 2011, my friends in Brooklyn could choose from more than 100 Japanese indies bands in their neighborhood alone. Dozens of Japanese indies bands play 20-city tours now in the USA simultaneously, and play in front of thousands at SXSW and get reviewed in the New York Times. None of them are aiming to be David Marx’s sophisticated fey culture hero. But don’t they count? I would argue that some of their music is far more engaging than the Shibuya Kei music you still don’t seem able to move on from.
December 15, 2011 at 8:56 pm
After massive googling, I manage to finally found that karaoke also has went through stagnation.
Actual attendees peak around 1996 and the numbers have declined by 20% since then and stagnated.
Same with Karaoke parlours.
December 26, 2011 at 2:33 am
Ah.. read all 5 parts, (and now can do a bit better than name-drop a new-found indie group that reminds me of Throbbing Gristle.) Very tasty sociology! Brings up a few points and begs a few questions..
1) One of the neat things about pop culture is that it is easier to destroy, reject or change than “society”.
1.1) What are the links between buying into vs refusing/ subverting pop culture as a marker +/or analog to buying into vs
refusing / subverting (or being shut out of) larger societal models?
1.2) How much consensus does a society need, and about what? Can a diffuse concensus (and about what?) serve in place of the certainties offered by older “hysteric” models? When right wing politics is reduced to anon 2-chan rants, the messiah
is already 1 day too late. Conversely, can behavior modeled/ tested in the odd corners of fringe/ refusenik pop culture
translate to/ make the jump to larger societal behavior shifts? Will it be “political” or “the personal is political”?
1.3)It is not all loli pr0n, it just looks like that most of the time. And why the ^&$%&$^& would anyone reject 3D fun for
2D fantasy?? Why indeed!
1.4) It is not that Otaku loli pr0n doesnt travel all over the world, it is just that it is damn difficult to monetize. (Ha Ha Ha! ) I am not arguing for the content themes, just that there is an wilful abjection, an accursed share quality to the stuff. It goes out of its way to be squick!
2) That jp commercial pop culture is tied to old, closed technologies is a great theme – but technology in the hands of
fans usually means “grey” proliferation, followed by repurposing/mashup and then non-commercial self-production. Something tells me that any mention of “sharing” in Jp society is an even greater taboo than deviant otaku lust – and that it is
even more pervasive. The fantasy of Oricon is the same fantasy of Steve Jobs-space: nothing plays that does not come from
/ through us. The reality is VLC and torrent. I suspect that jp pirate consumption is massive, yet very very quiet about
its habits. I mean, in larger “grey” communities some idiot would have devised a keymaker to generate vote-your-fave AKB48 singer vote access codes by now – just for the lulz. Ketai culture is the last castle of closed system consumption. smart tablet- phones will destroy it.
2.1 If they did, would anyone in the mainstream jp media dare mention it? Once it is out in the open, the Jp media will do their predictable “x going to destroy Jp society” routine, but in the meantime, no anime will ever show an otaku seeding
torrents and trading their wares(z) Oh no, it is all obsessive purchaing, purchasing, purchasing… The great wank in
Otakudom is the fantasy of consumption.
2.3 Sales figures are ALWAYS inflated.
2.4 If I was a japanese Otaku, I would be practicing my university level english by fansubbing/ scanlating.
2.5) where would comiket be without fujoshi desire?
Heh! heh! (or should that be Ufu Fu Fu ! ??) Moar fun things to think on..
Thanks for all the good work!
December 26, 2011 at 5:23 am
Creation and open consumption are still clearly important things in Japan. They are less important for the American fandom, although that may partially be an artifact of a lack of fans.
Part of the problem is that one of the main defenses for the consumption of lolicon material in American fandom is that it is from a different culture and it therefore cannot be judged. That is a barrier to content creation. There is no similar barrier in Japan. This may also be evidence that American fans are simply not “totally hardcore” enough.
December 27, 2011 at 4:48 am
Hi Anymous… I wasnt trying to posit that lolicon “should” be an export commodity. Rather I was looking at it as a symptom of a breakdown in greater societal models of (brain lock on proper soc. term) “growing up, mating, employment, family reraring etc.
On one side of the auditorium at the school dance – lolicons, on the other side fujoshi, over in that corner Yankees, over there Gyaru. Everyone else at cram school. No jobs anywhere, comfortably screwed up political system – mostly harmless until it cant respond to emergencies, irrelevant mainstream pop culture, Whither Japan, etc.. So… is it despair time or are the kids working it out?
I used to sneer at “the personal is political” activism, but now I am wondering if it is a very important thing.. But, yup.. not much export $$$$ / cool Japan content in it.
December 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm
“Rather I was looking at it as a symptom of a breakdown in greater societal models of (brain lock on proper soc. term) “growing up, mating, employment, family reraring etc.”
It is to a large extent, but one has to remember that it’s earliest origins were in the mid 1970’s, when the big issue was the expansion of middle class Japanese society. That was the hayday of life time employment. Even today people do not experience the privations of an industrial worker or a peasant, whether this security is the product of wage labor or the welfare state is debatable. This subculture is getting stringer, but it originated in the context of great material wealth. In many respects being urban middle class and being dysfunctional might really be two sides of the same coin.
December 29, 2011 at 6:55 pm
Thank you for the very stimulating and interesting series, David! I was in Japan earlier this year, and heard fragments of the same story, but never in quite as lucid and well-argued narrative.
The fragmentation and greater weight of niche interests, that you describe as taking over manga, pop music and youth fashion in Japan, seems very similar to what happens in most media once they lose their dominant function in mass culture (literature and radio, for example, not to get too obscure). But this happens because mass culture moves into another space: cinema, television, internet…
From your analysis, the situation seems analogue: it is not that mainstream culture has diversified, it is mainstream media that have been abandoned by all but the niche yen (as your comparison of absolute figures shows).
But, for me (perhaps coming from another discipline), this begs the question: if the mainstream consumer has withdrawn from mass culture (if the mass is no longer where the mass is), then what is the majority of people doing? Where are they, in terms of lifestyle, culture, society? Especially since you emphasise the importance of consumption in popular culture. What are they consuming now? Has some sort of new austerity emerged as a trend? Or do people engage in non-commercial forms of exchange? Do people make stuff more (has there been a crafty trend, like in the Anglo countries)? I doubt that, by withdrawing from the mass cultural market, the majority of Japanese have withdrawn from all participation in cultural and social life of their society.
Would you hazard an answer?