Fun economic indicator: Women’s hair styles

Following up my post on the stock market’s effects on Sazae-san viewership, I wanted to show you something fun I saw in the Nikkei:

Friday, February 15, 2008
Women’s Locks Hold Key To Forecasting Economic Outlook

TOKYO (Nikkei)–Women tend to wear their hair long when the nation’s economy is up and short when it is down, a survey conducted over the past two decades by consumer goods manufacturer Kao Corp. shows. As concern grows about a possible economic downturn, will this hairstyle trend repeat itself, or will something new happen?

Kao has been regularly surveying the hairstyles of 1,000 women on the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza and Osaka’s Umeda districts since 1987. In 1991, the firm defined “short” hair as above the chin, “medium” as above the collarbone, “semi-long” as above the armpit and “long” as below the armpit.

Taking the “short” and “medium” categories together as “short” and the “semi-long” and “long” categories as “long,” the long-short ratio for women in their 20s turned in favor of “short” in Ginza for the first time in 1997. The diffusion index of coincident economic indicators, published by the Economic Planning Agency (now the Cabinet Office), reached zero in November and December of that year, the first two-month streak of that kind in five and a half years. The economy is thought to be deteriorating when the index drops below 50%. That year also saw a boost in the consumption tax and a series of major bankruptcies, including that of Yamaichi Securities Co., and in 1998 the economy contracted.

Until 1990, over 60% of women in their 20s kept their hair long. But since 1997, the percentage of women wearing long hair has remained under 10%. That figure has been rising again lately, but without the briskness that would signal a return to past levels.

How has the length of women’s hair, assuming a linkage with the health of the economy, influenced related businesses? The market for hairstyling products, such as hairsprays and gels, are estimated to have peaked in 1994 at 102.5 billion yen in terms of shipments. Then it showed year-on-year decreases for a while, along with falling per capita spending on styling products. Although about 80% of women continued to use those products, they used them less frequently, switching sometimes to products like waxes for the tips of the hair. The market hit bottom in 2004 at 59 billion yen, ending a “lost decade” for hairstyling products.

Though the longest economic expansion since the end of World War II has continued, the consumer confidence index fell for 10 months running to hit a record low for six years and one month in January, according to the Cabinet Office’s Economy Watchers survey released on Feb. 8. With many observers talking about a downturn, Kao’s data suggest that women’s hair will likely get shorter again.

“Women’s hair may get shorter, but shorter hairstyles will not dominate,” said Kotaro Nuriya, brand manager at Kao’s Premium Hair Care/Hair Make Group. He bases his view on the fact that a growing number of women are pulling their hair together in the back or up, as in the chignon style. Kao began including the chignon in its survey in November 2002, and its use has risen 10% to about 30% among women in their 20s recently.


While it might not be surprising to see that women are forced to make choices on which cosmetics to use when they are low on disposable income, it’s funny how predictable this survey makes it seem. Also, this so-called boom time has still been one of low economic growth and has occurred at a time when wages remained stagnant for Japanese overall and growing economic disparity has been an overarching theme, especially in the past two years. With prices rising now during a period of economic slowdown, I’ll have to be on the watch for more faux-expensive hairstyles. They will go great with the cheap clothes/expensive bag look that’s so popular these days.

PS: I wonder if the beehive was the product of a booming economy?

Video: ZEEBRA in the Snickers dimension

I just saw ZEEBRA’s new single “Shining Like a Diamond” on MTV and had to share it. In part of what seems to be a trend of blatant advertising in music videos (which are themselves supposed to be advertisements for a single … my head is spinning).

The narrative: May J fellates a Snickers bar to lure Japanese rapper Zeebra into what I call the “Snickers dimension”, which consists of a multi-racial harem and mountains of Snickers bars. I don’t know how the women keep so trim with nothing but Snickers to eat. Just watch:

Obviously, the other product pushed in the song is diamonds (though Bacardi gets a token mention), which I have seen quite often in Japanese music videos lately. Quite unlikely to be coincidence (just as the sudden Japanese “acceptance” of depression is less a sign of social progress as it is of pharm. companies looking to turn a profit).

One distinction I want to draw – the flashy consumerism that US rappers tout in their songs is more fixated on high-end items like expensive jewelry, Bentleys, and other rewards for making it big against all odds. While there are examples of very crude product placement (Nelly’s “Air Force Ones” comes to mind) in general there’s a process to either (a) select products that are a natural part of the lifestyle (pouring Cristal on strippers fits right in, for example); or (b) at least make the argument that they belong there when there’s some discrepancy (“gangsters don’t dance they… lean back” in promoting the “two-step” dance or 50 Cent bragging about his investment prowess in a line about how Coca Cola purchased his energy drink startup).

This video is totally gratuitous in its pushing of Snickers – the song has nothing to do with it and there’s nothing really indicating how Snickers gained the magic power to transport people to magic multi-racial orgyland. Of course, it’s kind of missing the point to expect US-style product sensibilities from 36-year-old Zeebra. The single father of two is a salaried member of SOLOMON I&I PRODUCTION and as a result could never dream of US-style sky-high record deals, and I’m willing to bet 120 yen (the going rate for a candy bar in Tokyo) that he doesn’t see much in the way of extra cash from the Snickers deal. It sure wasn’t his idea in the first place.

Anyway the sheer artlessness of it all made me laugh my ass off as I finished up the dishes tonight.

A Bathing Shoko

A few days ago I spotted the following sticker just outside Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills:

It’s an ironic tribute to former Aum Supreme Truth Cult leader* Shoko Asahara that combines his ugly mug with the iconic BAPE clothing logo (see below). I absolutely loved the image for my own reasons (I am a BAPE fan and an avid consumer of Aum-related developments), but it has taken on new relevance now that the BBC informs me that this year marks the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. The article discusses the enduring popularity of that one image of him glancing out somewhere with the utmost intensity:

Combined with the mystique and allure of Che and the spirit of revolution, another key to the spread of the image was the complete and intentional lack of intellectual property management on the part of the original photographer and designer, and it has certainly been effective for better or worse. Anyone with a pair of eyes who has visited US college campuses will know how pervasive this image is. And more importantly, the BBC article notes that in Latin America he remains an inspiration for his life and what he stood for, rather than just being a part of the trustafarian poster collection.

However, in Japan the story is a little different. A far more recognizable but similar image is the logo for hip clothing brand A Bathing Ape (aka BAPE) which derives its flagship logo from a combination of the Che image with the Planet of the Apes movies (stunning in their own right). While Che’s logo may stand for the combination of “capitalism and commerce, religion and revolution,” notwithstanding some recent dilution of the brand BAPE’s message is more along the lines of “wear this if you are young and listen to Cornelius”:

I should point out, however, that BAPE has none of the revolutionary hype nor is it even close to the level of pervasiveness of the Che image. It is just a hip clothing brand with a slightly creepy but somehow irresistible logo.

(*Asahara is apparently still revered in one sect of former Aum followers according to recent reports. He will be headed for the gallows for orchestrating the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways whenever the Justice Minister gets around to it.)

Japanese cultural influence in Taiwan- cosplay

Just after I wrote my post the other day on Japan’s influence on place names in Taiwan, I saw this article at Yahoo News on the popularity of Japanese style “cosplay” in Taiwan.

As the fashion catches on across the island, experts have said that it could help Taiwan‘s young people break out of the strictures forced on them by the traditional Chinese pressure to conform.

Since “cosplay” first hit Taiwan little over a decade ago, its enthusiasts have been dressing up like their favourite manga characters and gathering at cafes, parks and manga expos across the island.


In Taiwan, role-playing dates back to around 1995 but has been gaining in popularity in recent years largely thanks to the Internet, said Mio Chang, supervising editor of bi-monthly cosplay magazine “Cosmore”.

“Cosers admire the ‘manga’ or ‘anime’ characters and want to imitate them. It is a passion for them to recreate the looks, the costumes and props,” said Chang, herself a coser for many years.

I don’t normally post about this sort of thing, except that while I was living in Taipei I just happened to stumble across one of the very events described in the article.

At a recent expo at National Taiwan University’s stadium, cosers were seen portraying a wide variety of roles from princesses to maids, space warriors, martial arts masters and even Death.

When I was studying at NTNU and considering switching to the program at National Taiwan University, I was riding my bike around, checking out the area one day, and just happened to ride through the campus right into the middle of a massive cosplay convention, which was taking place in and around the main gymnasium/hall building. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera, but it was a highly amusing thing to run across at random.

And of course, the topic of Taiwanese cosplay is always a good opportunity to post this amazing photograph of former Taiwan president Lee Teng Hui, dressed as high school principal from a Japanese manga. As his wikipedia entry says on the topic:

The cosplay was centered on Heihachi Edajima (江田島平八 Edajima Heihachi), a hawkish principal of a boarding school in the Japanese manga Sakigake!! Otokojuku (魁!!男塾) (Shonen Jump). The ; this was used as an advertisement on his personal website and “school” (輝!李塾) beginning in late 2004. This manga comic was a comedy centered on a fictitious reform school for contemporary boys, modelled under the Imperial Japanese Army.

Macias vs Kerr

The recent opening of Neojaponisme and its ambitious manifesto has my mind swimming with conflict over the role of Western expats in Japan.

So I feel this was the perfect timing for me to have come across Patrick Macias’ 2nd most recent podcast entitled “Akihabara Wars.” (MP3)

Initially I thought the general theme was “Patrick takes a walk around Akihabara and meets with some of the Westerners who consider it a second home.” There’s an interesting (if really unnerving) talk with an Italian bishojo magazine publisher at an event promoting a minor idol and a brief chat with an American college student whose side job is giving tours of Akihabara while wearing a Dragonball Z costume (I remember him from his interview in Cyzo!). Finally Macias talks with someone who insists with complete self-satisfaction that the entertainment in Akihabara is a direct equivalent to Japan’s culture of “ritualized entertainment” as found in the tea ceremony and sees absolutely “nothing to worry about” regarding the mass commercialization of otaku culture and overdevelopment of the Akihabara area because “it will go somewhere else.”

The arguments and attitude sounded somewhat familiar, but it was not until I actually checked Macias’ “Mind of Godzilla” blog for more info (I subscribe to the podcast via a fairly low-tech podcast aggregator) that I found the nerdy voice belonged to none other than longtime Japan commentator Alex Kerr.

As is usual for Macias, he mixes light material with a more serious look at his subject matter. He has turned off comments for this post, which I understand as comments like the one I want to offer would be a major buzzkill to his main audience. But I will offer it anyway because the meeting has insights not just on Kerr’s or Macias’ views or even Akihabara but on the differences among expat commentators on Japan.

I’d love to transcribe what I heard, but it is difficult for me to really get any free time these days. Please please go listen for yourself.


  • He sounds like a completely different person in English – Despite having met Kerr before and listening to him speak in Japanese for more than an hour, I did not even recognize it was Kerr being interviewed until I checked Macias’ site As I wrote before, in Japanese he has the mannerisms of Pvt. Charles Jenkins. But in English he sounds a lot like a nerdy college student (which is who I thought Macias was talking to until I checked).
  • When speaking on the fly and not from his prepared Dogs and Demons speech, Kerr’s views on Japan seem amazingly half-formed, almost as if he can barely be bothered except for the areas of Japan that he is he says he is actually worried about “saving.” When Macias offers up the arguments that otaku culture a) was originally a niche market for Japan’s true outcasts but has now been adopted by the cool people (media aimed at the mainstream and even the Japanese government) for their own ends; and b) The intense passion otaku have for their hobbies can partly be explained as an outlet for dissatisfaction with the status quo, Kerr seems unwilling to really consider them and basically repeats his interpretation of maid cafes and other otaku culture as “ritualized” entertainment. I don’t think he really understands otaku culture and hasn’t really thought about how it fits in with his view of Japan except to dismiss it as part of the unhealthy condition of the Japanese soul.
  • In Kerr’s mind, the fact that the streets of Akihabara do not look all that different from a typical street in Japan seem to disqualify it from any meaningful recognition. If it doesn’t look like a row of machiya then why bother?
  • What is it that allows people like Macias to so easily connect with Japanese people and culture on a human level, and what makes that same feat equally difficult for people like Kerr? Ironically, Kerr is fluent in Japanese while Macias is only decent. This problem I suspect is partly generational – much like Steven Segal who railed against uncouth young yakuza in his Into the Sun – Kerr is probably just stuck in his ways and while he might be somewhat hostile to otaku culture he seemed totally at ease and genuinely concerned when I saw him condemn concrete rivers to a crowd of obasan in Bangkok. I’ll probably be like that when I get older too – I already think Pokemon is far inferior to Power Rangers.

As I mentioned, listening to them talk was fascinating not just for the issues they discussed but because of who they are – both of them are making their livings as interpreters of Japanese culture but have gone about it in wildly different ways. Kerr presents himself as someone completely immersed in Japanese culture, a “more Japanese than the Japanese” campaigner for a return to traditional aesthetics. On the other hand, Macias keeps a lot of cultural distance because he works on reaching an American audience. The discussion makes me wonder if the two extremes I see in these people – get to close to the culture and it changes you, keep too much distance and you miss the details – are really mutually exclusive.

Wartime propaganda in pop culture

Asahi has a neat article with an unfortunately small, if tantalizing, photograph of an exhibit currently being held at the Marunouchi branch of Maruzen (I’m still bitter over you guys closing the Kyoto store!) in Tokyo until Monday, on the way that kimono designs of the pre-WW2 and wartime period reflected the political consciousness of the time. For example, in this photograph you can see a design reflected the tripartite alliance between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near Tokyo so I’ve asked Adam if he could drop by and get some photos, or perhaps pick up whatever pamphlet or art book they have available because I would love to see more of these, and in some detail.

War-theme designs often mirrored current events. Inui found a kimono that depicted Adm. Heihachiro Togo, who was credited with Japan’s 1905 victory over the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan.

She also found a design that spelled out the name of Yosuke Matsuoka–in romaji alphabet–then ambassador, when he pulled the Japanese delegation out of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1933.

Heartwarming stories and tear-jerkers also made it into kimono.

The story of the heroic Nikudan Sanyushi (Three human bullets), or Bakudan Sanyushi (Three human bombs)–three engineering corps soldiers who reportedly perished in a suicide bombing during the Shanghai incident in 1932–were given sweeping coverage by the media. Headlines and parts of the articles from The Asahi Shimbun and The Mainichi Shimbun became part of kimono designs.

This article  immediately made me think of one I had seen on BBC news a couple of weeks ago, on a similarly unexpected yet unsurprising penetration of wartime propaganda into popular culture: British boardgames of the World War II era.

Take the early wartime game Battle of the River Plate, for example. Based on the first major confrontation between German and British naval forces, it is one of the earliest known games to reflect the international conflict. Players tried to score points by firing wooden sticks at the ship with a spring action. A direct hit caused the gun turrets on the ship to “explode”.

Another, Bomber Command, depicts bombing squadrons and invites players to bomb Berlin, at the centre of the playing board. Players take turns to throw dice to move toward the target. When materials were in short supply, the dice were replaced by a numbered spinning card.

“It was a game you can easily imagine people playing sitting in the air raid shelter while being bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz,” says historian and author, Robert Opie.

The article then goes on to mention the way in which WW2 comic books incorporated anti-Nazi and anti-Japan motifs, a number of examples of which I posted some time ago. And of course, one can’t forget what you must agree is the best comic book cover of the war, if not all time. That is, unless you like Hitler-and you don’t like Hitler, do you?

What would be some good examples of popular culture reflecting enemies and conflicts in the world around us today? Off the top of my head, there’s naturally “24,” which I’ve never seen but I understand is about how Arab terrorists want to kill us. And then of course there’s the video game Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, in which a disaffected North Korean general stages a military coup on the eve of reunification with the South in some near future year, or on a similar but slightly more afield topic, take the third season episode of the fairly recent Justice League Unlimited cartoon show, in which a number of DC superheroes travel to a fictitious militaristic Northeast Asian nation, clearly modeled after North Korea, to stop a rampaging nuclear powered robotic monster which they claim they had built “to protect us from the foreigners,” clearly modeled after North Korea’s metaphorically rampaging nuclear (non-robotic) monster.

All of these are in fact less examples of government sponsored propaganda than grass roots, genuinely popular culture expressing such things as a society’s popularly held fears and hatreds regarding their enemies at that time. I recall during the first Gulf War, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I saw someone at a flea-market selling “Desert Shield” branded condoms, which exclaimed on the package something along the lines of “Don’t you wish Saddam Hussein’s father had worn one of these?” Perhaps it is due to the fact that I was out of the country during the early stages of the recent Iraq invasion, but I can think of no examples of similarly popular expressions of support for the current war. Is it wrong of me to think that the initial support for the invasion was, however high the level, generally a grudging and ambivalent sort of support, lacking the level of enthusiasm needed to generate items along the lines of the pro-Axis kimono, the Hitler-face dartboard, or the “Desert Shield” condom?

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?

Japan’s obsolete songs, part 1 of ?

“My Pager Won’t Ring*” the opening theme from a 1993 TV drama series. Thanks to whoever posted it and thanks in advance to the good folks at TV Tokyo for not suing the crap out of me for using their ultra-dated content.

For a more recent technology-centric piece of pop culture, may I direct you to Atlanta rapper TI’s 2005 hit “What You Know” which prominently features “chirping” the two-way walkie talkie function currently popular in US cell phones. I get the feeling it too will seem dated 14 years from now, though the smoothly-epic synth-heavy production will live on forever (as, I suspect, will jokes about “getting a midget pregnant”).

* This literal translation doesn’t quite convey the loneliness implied by the song title. Perhaps a better interpretation would be “My Pager Won’t Ring (And I Miss You)”

Marxy’s exciting new project

Marxy of neomarxisme is writing for a new site under the auspices of his employer the Diamond Agency called Clast, reports Jean Snow. It’s a blog aimed at “breaking down consumer and media insights in Japan.” Here’s more from Clast’s about page:

clast is a bilingual blog created by Diamond Agency to analyze contemporary consumer and media trends in Japan. The word “clast” means literally “a fragment of rock,” and we see our mission as breaking down the extremely complex systems of Japanese market culture into easily-discernible parts. At the same time, however, we also hope to break down misconceptions about the market that have buried their way into the conventional wisdom and provide a new perspective based on a multi-disciplinary analytical approach. Reaching consumers requires an accurate portrait of their world, and clast aims to draw that picture in vivid detail.

I know I’m overjoyed, especially with the “vivid detail” part.

The posts so far (a look at the declining magazine industry and an introduction to influential women’s fashion magazine CanCam and the women who read it) are a must-read for anyone interested in Japan’s media industry (as some of you have asked). You might not hear much about kisha clubs or other issues removed from the promotion and marketing of products, but you will definitely find out why some magazines are doing better than others and how fashion-conscious Japanese women are spending their money. How is this different from his old blog? So far, it’s more focused on the Japanese consumer issues and media. And perhaps more importantly, it does not accept comments, which have proven something of a distraction at the neomarxisme blog.

Not much else to add right now, just check out the site!