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.