Monday, March 2, 2009

"Sayonara, Prada:" Interesting Article on the Changing Times Here in Japan...

I can't take credit for finding this. My friend Renuka posted it on Facebook. It's an article from The Atlantic online about how the tastes of Japanese consumers are supposedly turning away from big ticket name brand stuff like Louis Vuitton.

EHHHHH?!!? Louis Vuitton? Abandoned by Japanese consumers? Now is the time to declare this worldwide economic crisis a depression, and to look for signs of the Apocalypse! Louis Vuitton and Japanese consumers go together like chocolate and strawberries in spring.

I love reading articles about Japan from Western publications, especially if I feel I can vet some of it from personal experience. For example, the article's writer states:

What sells today is value. When the Swedish discount fashion retailer H&M opened its first Japanese outlet in September, more than 5,000 people waited on line.

I wasn't there for the opening of the flagship H&M here, but I did visit the chain's Harajuku store and you had to wait almost ten minutes in line just to try things on. That's how crowded it was.

But I want to add something to her analysis: while value might be what sells, don't discount novelty as an attraction to the Japanese consumer. In terms of consumerism (if not other aspects of living), people here tend to love the new. This is why you frequently fall in love with a product such as a certain type of ice cream bar or laundry soap, only to find it replaced seemingly overnight by completely different varieties.

H&M has that novelty buzz right now, and it's trendy to go there while it's new and hot. That makes it a destination even for out-of-towners like my Hamamatsu friends and students who clued me into its existence last fall. It'd be educative to correlate its sales with a loss in sales by other clothing chains, especially the Louis Vuittons and Pradas. Then we'd know for sure if it's novelty or value that drives this phenomenon. Or, more likely, heapin' helpin's of both.

The article is illustrated by a gorgeous photo of a trio of "Japanese consumers." They appear to be members of the decora fashion subculture, walking down Takeshita-dori in Harajuku. If so, the photographer was pretty lucky. I've been there many times looking for decora and mostly I run into hip hoppers, gosurori and cosplayers... and a lot of foreign tourists looking for decora.

However, images like this give one a skewed perspective of Japan. Those three girls are a rarity unless you're in a youth-oriented area on a particularly popular day.

What you sometimes may not realize is the way Western coverage of all the "freaky" aspects of Japanese pop culture emphasize small subcultures versus the vast numbers of normal, workaday people you're more apt to meet. For a more accurate view of the "Japanese consumer" this article is really about, look to the people behind the trio, the people in normal, boring outfits that are pretty much the same as you'd see back home, wherever home may be. The girls in the photo make for a dramatic image, but for the most part, they're not representative of the people actually quoted in the article. This is another example of how we tend to visually reinforce the stereotype of the wild-n-wacky world o' Japan.

Actually, from my perspective, I don't find these girls even all that strange. I think they're cool. But for every photo you see like that (even the ones in this blog from time to time), for every jokey article on the Onion about "weirdo" Japanese porn or cutesy, amusing stories about ridiculous Japanese inventions, there are about a million or more people who just go to work and come home and watch TV. Most of the people I've met aren't so very different from people back home, with some cultural allowances. And I've met thousands.

I love the unusual stuff because I'm not exactly a normal person, but I have to look actively for it to find it; then again, I live in a relatively small, ordinary city, not Tokyo or Osaka. I specifically spend so much time in Tokyo because I want to see these things myself. I'm into this stuff, Pop Japan. You could probably wrap yourself in the subcultures-- the cosplayers, the neo-punks, the visual-kei fanatics, the otaku-- if you're in the right place and make some connections. That would be your Japan, a small, personalized version of the greater mass of the truly banal.

If you come here expecting immediately to be overwhelmed in a William Gibson-style sensory overload by cutting edge strangeness that's right in your face, prepare to go on safari or be disappointed at the simple realities of day-to-day life here in Japan. I mean, I've even been in Harajuku on the wrong day and nothing was shaking!

Ask various people about their weekends, and you're apt to get the answer, "I was working," not "I piloted my giant gynoid sailor-style robot battlesuit in desperate combat against Mothra, then shopped 'til I dropped in Ichi-maru-kyu."

You know what? I often wonder why we Westerners tend to focus on "Strange Japan." What is it about Japan, specifically, that allows us to cultivate this funhouse mirror image of it? What we generally see on pop culture websites, in magazines and on TV shows is a caricature of Japan. A grotesque exaggeration at times.

Still, when you do find girls like these loose in the wild, or some similar fashion tribe member, it's a mind-blowing experience. Like that photo.


Lili said...

I enjoy your blog very much, thanks!

Joel Bryan said...

Thank you! That really makes me happy!

We The Sapiens said...

Your blog is awesome!

Joel Bryan said...

Thanks! That comment is awesome! It made me blush!