Chris Francis
Oct 15, 2014

Changing consumption in Japan: Another postcard from the future

The country is once again providing a glimpse of things to come. But through consumer trends rather than silver-screen inspirations.

Chris Francis
Chris Francis

Japan has, at various times in its history, played the role of the avant-garde. Tarkovsky famously used early 1970s footage of Akasaka's raised, multi-level highways to represent the space-age city that Henri Berton crosses in his car before leaving for Solaris. 

The neon utopia/dystopia of Tokyo inspired the Blade Runner cityscape of a future LA of the imagination, and enshrined the bewilderment of Bill Murray as he arrives to find himself in Lost in Translation.

This is Japan as technological trailblazer, a culture that re-imagined what a metropolis could look like, what its structures might be, its rhythms, colours and images.

Beyond the arts, there have been times when Japan's economic and cultural change presaged the future in very material ways. The shinkansen, launched for the first Tokyo Olympics, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Over several remarkable decades, Japan came close to becoming the world's largest economy. If the militarism and misguided colonial mission of the first half of the 20th century ultimately ended in defeat and catastrophe, there was another way to take on the world: through innovation, hard work and the 'army in a business suit'.

Much of the narrative around Japan since the 90s asset and land bubble burst has been relatively negative. The ageing demographic, stagflation, along with the series of man-made and natural disasters the country has suffered. However a refreshing and alternative view can be found in David Pilling's Bending Adversity. Pilling is a former bureau chief for the FT and he illustrates how economic growth is comparable to the UK or US since 2000 once inflation and population size are factored in. Expressed as an average growth rate, Japan's real per capita income has risen 0.9 per cent a year since 2002—slightly higher than the US or UK, and almost double Norway.

But of particular interest is the chapter on "The Promised Road": the emergence of the 'post-growth' generation in Japan. Pilling references Jonathan Frantzen's novel Freedom, of which the central tenet—voiced largely by the character Walter Berglund—is that "there are too many goddamn people on the planet". It is his life mission to stop what he sees as the mindless pursuit of procreation and over-consumption. In one funny episode Walter and friends try to brainstorm a name for their zero population campaign. How do you make abstinence sound sexy and dynamic? "I say we go with Free Space," he says. "I like how it steals the word 'free' from the other side, and appropriates the rhetoric of the side-open West."

Rather than just a fairly flat economy, we're also seeing in Japan an embrace of downsizing and simplicity as a form of societal maturity. A generation which is going beyond what Nohiro Kato called the "dream of limitless growth". Or to put it in Pilling's terms, can we entertain the idea that "growth in a mature economy, like that in a mature organism, is not health but cancerous".

What does Japan have to show for this? Well, in Tokyo it has the world's 'smartest' city according to the Cities in Motion index of April this year. It has a bar, restaurant and retail culture that is the envy of the world, not least because many of those involved in these businesses are committed not only to making a good living, but to a love of what they are doing. There's very little of the things that have gone wrong in other cultures: bad design, excessive cost engineering, cultural repetition or alienated staff.

The culture of 'post-growth' simplicity is manifest in a number of consumer trends and brand behaviours. Young people in Japan have practically stopped buying cars, for example. But this isn't necessarily about dan shari or not consuming—it's also about smart consumption, meri hari shouhi. Spend more on some things and less, or nothing, on others. Avoid waste and superficiality, buying into simplicity and expertise.

Consider the success of Margaret Howell, the premium British 'utilitarian' clothing and furniture brand, which has around 100 stores in Japan and counting. You might pay US$325 or so for a classic white shirt, but it'll look great, be well-made, go with anything and last a long time.

Red Wing boots are another consumer phenomenon here, for similar reasons to the success of Margaret Howell. From the US and originally produced for industrial wear ('Work is our work'), they were taken up in Japan for their outstanding functionality. Any sizeable branch of ABC Mart will now have pretty much the entire range, and the company has responded to Japan's love for its product with some limited editions available only here. At US$300 they're not a bargain buy, but like Margaret Howell, they're modern classics built to last. And this being Japan, they've spawned their own fan-boy publication for the full backstory and product detail.

The magazine &premium, launched this year, places a focus on products that are well-made, durable and simple, with great attention to detail, if not cheap. Their mindful, calm art direction promises a guide to a better life.

In Tokyo in particular there are multiple cultural correspondences with hot spots of the craft movement and centres of simple design. Portland-trained coffee shop owners, Norwegian or Danish inspired cafes, jazz bars and furniture shops: a strong idealisation and consumption of craft. An ongoing proliferation of shops selling one thing only, and doing incredibly well: a new caramel specialist in Harajuku, Sunny Hills for Taiwanese pineapple cakes.

At a more universal level, the infrastructure around and relationship with packaging and disposal is unique. As a client from the US said recently, "I have people over from New York and they're amazed; you don't see garbage cans anywhere, but there's no garbage either." 

Smart, mindful consumption. Opting out wholesale of some categories while investing at the premium end of others. An ongoing admiration for quality products, services and relationships—and a willingness to pay for them. Less waste, more substance. Japan is still sending postcards from the future. They just don't happen to be written in neon and chrome any more.

Chris Francis is MD of Flamingo Tokyo.


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