Attempting to explain just what it is about Louis Vuitton and Japan

One of my favorite blogs at the moment is Marginal Revolution, which is run by a couple of academic economists who basically try to squeeze their science into every facet of life (á la Freakonomics).

A recent post is totally on point with what we talk about here at MFT: namely, Japan’s statistically insane obsession with luxury goods. What’s great about this post is not the post itself, but the wide variety of comments it generated from armchair analysts who all think they know why Japan loves expensive stuff so much.

Some of my favorite theories:

  • “Being in a warring society since 12th centuries until before their Meiji restoration, the craftsmanship and other manufacturing skills were cultivated by warlords in order to empower their army.”
  • “It might be a substitute for not being able to purchase land.”
  • “The Japanese fascination with brand names is an East Asian cultural thing. Having cool things gives one more “face” in society so they like to have things they can show off.”

I figure it might be that since people are living and moving around so closely together, they have more incentive to accessorize themselves since they’ll be coming into contact with so many people during the day. Of course, it could also be a happy mixture of all these theories with some sort of plus alpha on top. Any ideas?

33 thoughts on “Attempting to explain just what it is about Louis Vuitton and Japan”

  1. I think that it is a type of code, an easy way to identify yourself as a person who has X amount of money and Y taste to people with a similar amount of money and similar taste (because let’s face it, people with big money and developed individual taste are not getting LV). It is general knowledge among the LV zoku (did I just make that up?) how much these things are and when they came out so it is a way to identify yourself as a part of a strata. This also invites wannabes who have the bags but not the knowledge and spreads the phenomenon. At the highest levels, this code gets pretty intense. For example, there are some items that are only sold at one of the big Paris shops. If you have one of those, you are sending a “rank” message to others consuming in the same subculture. I’ve had Japanese friends look at another person’s LV whatever and tell me “oh, you can’t get that one in Japan” while walking around in public.

    Plus, the bags are pretty good quality….

    As for crazy consumption of luxury items in historical context, people should be looking more to the bubble and the mass middle class fantasy than to the Sengoku period (chuckle). That reminds me of “this anime is popular because of the Shinto belief that….” types of explanations. We also should not underestimate the romantic images connected with France in Japanese public discourse.

  2. I know. Great, isn’t it?

    I think LV and other designer stuff goes beyond being a “zoku” thing. At least in Tokyo, it’s more like a tertiary religion that just about everyone follows.

  3. I’m using zoku in kinda a broad way. For example, I’ve heard “hotaru-zoku” for employees who sneak off to have a smoke every 20 minutes. That must be 85% of Japanese men. Its not just for small-scale movements like takenoko zoku.

  4. For all the theories, no one ever looks at the individual history of LV in Japan. I think we tend to overlook what a big deal it was that brands like LV and Hermes were sold at “local” department stores. Normal shoppers came in touch with luxury brand names that are generally off limits to most middle-class shoppers in other countries. These were set as status symbols, and then the growing economy allowed more people in the Upper Middle Class to actually buy them. The UMC controled tasted standards until the Bubble, so this trend soaked into the media-approved “middle-class standard,” causing further expansion.

    For all the talk about 40% of LV is Japan sales now, LV was 90% Japanese sales in the late 80s. The brand has taken its success in Japan and used those lessons to sell to middle-class markets in the rest of the world.

    At this point, Louis Vuitton is sustained by the message of “inevitability” in magazines. CanCam is now dedicated to cheap domestic brands EXCEPT for the Louis Vuitton bag, and since no one can afford to get whole wardrobes of luxury brands, this puts more pressure on the bag to be luxury. Thus, as economic conditions went down, this actually helped Louis Vuitton and Gucci etc. because it was seen as a very rational purchase to demonstrate status. Think about it, if you buy one LV bag for 200,000 yen, you can use it with every single wardrobe, every day, forever.

  5. Can someone educate me on how to embed links into text?

    According to Robert Dujarric in this piece, Japanese LV spending habits are also an indication of Japanese pacifism. I get what he’s saying – chonin kokka equals heiwa kokka and all that – but the way he framed his argument was more than a bit sloppy. It made him an easy target for the rather aggressive interviewer who was intent on exposing “rising” Japanese militarism.

    The relevant quote is halfway through the section.

    Does anyone know where I can get my hands on SDF recruitment figures, by the way?

  6. “Does anyone know where I can get my hands on SDF recruitment figures, by the way?”

    I mean over time. I have the figures for the last two years, and I want to check the accuracy of what is being said in the clip I posted above.

  7. Japanese people usually demand high quality when they buy goods. If you work in Japan their standards tend to rub off on you so that when you return home you can see all kinds of imperfections in products that you never noticed before.

    This comment (at least the first half posted here) is how I feel….

  8. Just emailed this the Bryce and I thought that I’d share it with the crew…. as well as big ups to Marxy for his historical context on the fashion debate.

    These are the “teiin” numbers grabbed from different hakusho (you’d have to find them to get the citations yourself anyway, they are all here There is a difference between teiin and genin (I guess teiin are ideal numbers)

    riku 155,696
    kai 45, 812
    koku 47, 342

    riku 156,122
    kai 45,806
    koku 47,332

    riku 157,828
    kai 45,842
    koku 47, 361

    riku 163, 784
    kai 45,812
    koku 47, 266

    riku 171, 262
    kaijo 45, 752
    koku 47, 236

    If you reverse the years, you get a rising trend.

  9. I agree with Curzon as well. I’ve been given a few LV products by Japanese relatives and I (no fashion sense whatsoever, Marxy mentioned LV items matching anything but my LV planner does not go well with my 7 year old beat up Adidas warm up jersey for some reason….) just use them because they are very high quality. I also find that I get annoyed by bad service more when I return to North America after having been in Japan for a while….

  10. I think it’s also important to address the issue of LV’s local partners in Japan. It’s not like Japanese people became obsessed with the brand without domestic promotion and distribution campaign, nor would I assume that LV figured out how to perfectly market to Japanese consumers without Japanese help.

  11. Have you seen Marxy’s blog? He’s already written thousands and thousands of words about this stuff. In fact, do you have any particular essay of yours to refer people to from this post, Marxy?

  12. What Maxy has been writing about LV is so good that I think that he should try to put something in Social Science Japan Journal or another outlet where university profs will start assigning it in courses. The blog posts are great but I think that something with evidence citation would go over big in other forums.

  13. LV is also so ubiquitous that I would suggest that it has lost its genuinely elite image and has become the ‘attainable luxury’ – entry-level elitism, perhaps. It’s popular as it’s common, in other words. People instantly know you have a LV bag, even the hoi-polloi who might not recognise Hermes. And there are loads of places you can get it second-hand for slightly less than nose-bleed prices.

    I know more about LV (and Prada, and Fendi, and Gucci, and so on) than I care to, thanks to a (Japanese) SO who, when we went to Waikiki, spent most of the time checking out each of the four LV shops in the area comparing selections, and who still drags me into just about LV shop she spots. However my role there is generally to hang around being bored and wondering who on earth needs to pay so much for this sort of thing. Some larger things, like the suitcases, seem rather impractical frankly: they should only be carried on your own private jet, and never permitted into the hands of baggage handlers…. Anyway, if my SO is any indication, the LV trend is cooling (or perhaps she just has enough – probably the latter. Hopefully the latter…).

    (I’m one of the aggressively anti-LV brigade myself – don’t and won’t use them [though unlike M-Bone I don’t have wealthy (enough) in-laws giving them to me, so that’s one problem avoided].)

  14. “chonin kokka equals heiwa kokka” – like that nation of shopkeepers, the British?

  15. Marxy’s comments are quite valid but still don’t explain things all that well. The how of LV’s success isn’t hard to figure out. The why is the question here.

    Why was it Japan where these strategies were employed to such great success? How did the shoji kaisha people running LV’s Japanese operations know what to do? Was it just dumb luck or were they running on some correct notions regarding Japanese society and psychology?

  16. There are two ways of looking at popular culture. 1. It being forced on the masses for some reason (like the culture industry idea) – control, encourage consumption, etc. 2. The masses taking it and using it to create their own networks and ideas. To get to the bottom of the LV question, you have to look both at the corporate participation in the phenomenon and the way that it has been used, in a creative way, to (at the very least) create a number of levels of LV consumption in Japan on the popular level (from real LV otaku to the copycats). The toy companies couldn’t see the advent of anime otaku in the 1970s, and now they are arguably a bigger market than children. I think that juggling both the producer efforts and the consumer mindset is the best way to look at this issue.

    The approach that American academics have taken to jeans (from mass market to rebel symbol and back to mass market depending on how individuals and subcultures used them to express “identity”) would work here, I think.

  17. This is slighty off topic, but I think it’s my favorite comment form that “Marginal Revolution” post:

    “I never had an issue of people not sitting next to me in Tokyo (where I lived). Now if you go outside of Tokyo that is a little different. I notice that older women are the least likely to sit next to foreigners, younger men are the most likely. My wife told me they think foreigners smell bad. I sat next to some continental European once on the train and yeah he smelled bad as they don’t wash or use deodorant as much as American. I wouldn’t be surprised if that stereotype came from Europeans in Japan.”

  18. “The why is the question here.”

    This would be an absolutely fascinating, but very time-consuming project to try and discover the exact moment where the brand went from another foreign import like YSL or Chanel to the brand.

    Some of this is historical. Everyone abandoned domestic Japanese brands, especially in the late 80s, once they could afford foreign brands. So LV gets huge as a part of this, but then when the market dips, the population can’t go back to domestic brands so quickly. In this environment, LV’s price point was perfect. Hermes is way too expensive for most people, where everyone can afford a 120,000 bag if they try very hard.

    The very obvious logo helped. The fact that the bags are leather and not synthetic helped. (This explains why Prada was big for 2-3 years but then dipped. Or even Hermes’ ridiculous expensive canvas bags a few years back.)

    I hate the term, but it was just a “perfect storm.” They had the most authoritative position and all the right features to fit the new conditions. (I wonder if we would be so impressed with LV back in the late 80s. I bet it wasn’t as ubiquitous.)

    I definitely think LV is the brand of the hoi polloi and the nouveau riche. In Tokyo at least, you see more classier young women moving away from LV and using Bottega Veneta, Chloe, and Goyard now. These are 25%-30% more expensive than LV. Gucci is more popular in Osaka than LV. Hermes always does well on surveys, but again, no one can buy it.

    LV Japan’s main guy has a book out, but I have not read it.

  19. Can you tell all those brands apart by site? The only one I can recognize is LV itself, and that’s about 90% due to their tacky logo pattern plastered over the entire surface- the shear conspicuousness of which is I’m sure one factor in the brand’s popularity.

  20. The answer to that last question is yes. The firm where I work does a lot of IP work for luxury brands, and in order to protect someone’s trademark in, say, the shape of a bag, we often have to commission a survey of consumers so we can prove its distinctiveness. In the surveys I’ve seen, urban women between the ages of 20 and 40 (the usual target demographic) can tell who made a designer handbag based entirely on its shape something like 85% of the time. If it has a conspicuous logo like Vuitton or Chanel, the success rate is more like 99%.

  21. Amen to Joe – My SO is an expert: “No, that’s not the Papillion, it’s the Papillion Petit, which only came out in 1998 and doesn’t have the second internal pocket….”

  22. And right after I wrote that comment, this factoid came across my desk: 80% of said demographic can identify the Hermes Birkin bag based solely on a photograph of it. (This isn’t a multiple choice test, either. This is: Show the woman the bag and she immediately says ‘Hermes!’ or ‘Birkin!’ or ‘Yes, I’ll marry you!’)

  23. Although the obsession with foreign brands is a unique and notorious phenomenon, I think quality is a necessary condition for this to happen, as someone mentioned earlier. Even for daily use, Japanese people tend to use better-quality products for a long time use. Someone might have heard of the saying “Yasukarou, warukarou” (Things are just as good – or durable – as their price, implying that you cannot expect much with cheap goods. ) What I see in the Japanese obsession is a mixture of appreciation for quality, ‘mottainai’ spirit, and curiosity about foreign goods and cultures.

    Differences in attitude toward quality can bee seen in the marketing of electronics products across the Pacific Ocean. Some of Japanese electronics goods – as far as I know, DVD recorders and speakers – sold in the US are export models that stripped off differentiators e.g. advanced functions and part of hardware that enables better performance, at the expense of lower prices. (I miss Japanese washing machines.) And look at such outdoor gear makers as Mont-Bell and Snow Peak- they are quite popular in the domestic market as well as the world market.

    I think LV is still in this line. And they did extra things to catch the heart of Japanese.

  24. Joe, I wasn’t asking if the target demographics can identify them by sight- I was asking if the readers here can.

  25. I certainly can tell the difference between most of the major brands, and recognise the various styles of, say LV (which is more than just the monogram line. Their ‘epi’ style is quite understated and nice, especially the dark green ‘for men’ range). I can tell a paisley Etro bag from a striped parachute-cloth Prada, a Hermes by its handle and a Chanel by the quilting. This is what comes of following a girlfriend into brand shops and DF stores in a dozen countries over about as many years….

  26. Most of us fly on international flight at least once a year,right?
    You would catch some brand logos even if you are no fashonista….

  27. “The how of LV’s success isn’t hard to figure out. The why is the question here.”

    My hypothesis.(If not marxy had written this already)
    “The 80’s had made LV the champion of the interenational brand in Japan.”

    1981.LV Japan established

    LV established local branch much earlier than other brands thus they could multiply the retailers unlike others who were binded by the contract with trading house and department store(i.g Mitsukoshi).More LV products to J-consumers.

    1985.Gender equal opportunity employment law

    More women got employed by the big firm,more income,more late marriage.Become powerful consumer of the brands.

    1986.Yen rise due to the Plaza Accord/50 million Japanese tourists aboroad

    Stronger yen allows Japanese to go aboroad more frequently with more cash to consume.LV become relatively cheaper.Women go directly to Paris to buy LV.
    More LV in Japan,rest is history.,,,,,

  28. This phenomenon also exists in HK. I remember witnessing a HUGE line just to get into the Louis Vuitton store. I looked inside, and it was packed with people! Maybe this exists in other Asian countries?

  29. It exists all over I think – my GF and I were once turned away from LV in Rome as the store was literally so full they couldn’t fit any more people in.

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