Casual readers of my essays and articles would probably assume that my doom-and-gloom pessimism about the current state of Japanese pop culture (see “Lamenting the Death of Trend in the Land of the Rising Sun” in The Fader Sept/Oct issue) stems from some deep, grumpy disappointment with Japan related to 1) The eventual disillusion with Japan that every foreigner faces once he peels back the surface and gets a glimpse of the rot underneath and 2) The lack of interest in “new” cultural products coming from the gradual accumulation of knowledge about cultural history (i.e., once you know the references, the revivals seem boring). I concede both points, but there is also the distinct possibility that Japan has objectively become “less cool.” In other words, the Japanese public buys fewer products respected by the culturally elite than in the past, and therefore, these products are less visible.
The whole “Japan is cooler than the West” idea stems solely from two facts. One, Westerner’s casual observations that the average Japanese person dresses with more attention to trend and fashion than the average American on European. (The sample may be skewed, however, because foreigners usually go to Tokyo and not Gunma-ken.). Two, the Japanese boast a higher rate of consumption for products which are considered underground, critically acclaimed, or out of the mainstream.
These two points are essentially valid, but we must remember that the underlying premise present in the “popularity” of anything cool is a mass adoption by consumers who do not belong to the culturally elite. In the case of Nirvana, a critically acclaimed band happened to also strike a chord with normal, everyday teenagers in American heartland. With Japan, teenager’s manual-style usage of the media — the wholesale belief in a magazine as a strict authority on style and subsequent consumption in the exact, dictated manner — leads to a popular adoption of interesting products for reasons unrelated to the attributes of the product itself. The media euphemistically “educates consumers on product choices,” but the Japanese teenager understands these “choices” as the only accepted canon of possibilities, and therefore, stumbles into avant-garde territory out of obedience and not curiosity. Japan does not have a larger class of cultural elite, merely more diffusion of elite products into the un-cool lumpen.
So, why have Japanese product offerings become less cool? Why has Sony Music Entertainment Japan gone from being the label of Denki Groove, Sunahara Yoshinori, and Puffy (circa 1997) to Chemistry, Orange Range, and Puffy (circa 2004)? Why is it that every time I turn on MTV or Space Shower TV the quality of the new artists continues to decrease?
This leads us to the “dasai market thesis,” which states as follows: with the continuing rise in diversity among the cutting-edge communities and the general lack of uniformly directed consumption from teenagers, freeter subcultures, and the working hipsters, there is no longer a viable market for “cool” products in Japan, and therefore, record labels and other companies that aim to profit from culture can only find success with products that target the leftover “uncool.” These days, if you’re engaged in culture, chances are, you are engaged in a subculture that has no need for the mass media, nor is large enough to provide a market for large firms. The only existing market for a megacorporation is then the great lumpen of young boys and girls who have no keen interest in anything and wish for lowest-common denominator culture that makes obvious sense to them.
The same thing is essentially happening in America. If you think of it as an Election, 60 to 40% of the population will always vote for the Soulless Pop Party and in the past, a good 30% of so could at least put up a reasonable fight by supporting all music under the umbrella of the Alternative Party. Now, that 30% coalition is split between the Dance Music Party, the IDM Party, the Vintage party, the Neo-Folk Party, the Indie-rock Party and so on and so on. Therefore, the Soulless Pop Party wins great dominance over the landscape and provides the only economically-feasible market worth entering. Dasasa is where the money is, and therefore, that’s what will define the cultural moment.