Cultural differences, global trends: In search of bien-être in today’s Japan

by John McCreery on October 4, 2012 in

Japanese salaryman. Photo by James Justin

Japanese salaryman. Photo by James Justin

<em>It has been more than a decade since I wrote the following piece. That was shortly after the publication of my book Japanese Consumer Behaviour: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers (Curzon/U. of Hawaii Press, 2000). Have things changed since? Of course. Japan’s population is aging. The Baby Boomers have retired. The economy remains sluggish, and like their counterparts around the world, young Japanese are finding it difficult to secure jobs that lead to fulfilling, long-term careers. Terms like ‘parasite single’ or ‘psychological shut-ins’ are still heard occasionally. The terms are no longer on everyone’s lips, but the problems to which they point remain.

What is it to enjoy bien-être (in English a sense of well-being, in Japanese yutori na seikatsu)? There may be cultural differences in what these terms mean. But to overemphasise them may be a trap for the unwary marketer.

A French sense of bien-être, an English or American sense of well-being, and a Japanese sense of what a yutori na seikatsu may differ. To assume, however, that these differences are greater or more significant than those that divide the sexes, life stages or generations may be a colossal mistake.

Postmodern consumers do not remain true to type. Depending on mood or situation, the same individual may act like an upscale achiever one moment and a downscale bargain hunter the next

Just the facts ma'am!

Assumption Status
Japanese consumer behaviour is culturally unique Thumbs Down - Red
What well-being means can differ from country to country Thumbs Up - Green
Today's consumers are predictable Thumbs Down - Red

Japan seems so exotic, so different, so inscrutable. An American friend who has travelled to fifty-one countries while working for the UN says that she finds no place more opaque. The temptation to see only cultural difference seems, then, almost irresistible. In Japanese Consumer Behaviour: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers, I came, however, to a different perspective. After reading, translating and analysing the first fifteen years of research (1981-1996) by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living (HILL), I realised that, while I had started in search of Japanese differences, I couldn’t help noticing that Japan is, after all, an OECD country.

Like other advanced industrial nations, Japan has been grappling with issues familiar to anyone familiar with the social history of Europe and North America in the second half of the twentieth century.

  • The organization man (employees of large corporations, called “salarymen” in Japan)
  • Women leaving behind traditional wife and mother roles to become fashion-conscious consumers and active members of the workforce
  • Strained relationships between men and women and the growing number of both who prefer either to marry late or not to marry at all
  • Children who seem increasingly alien to members of older generations
  • Retirees who live longer than members of earlier generations and must now find what to do with themselves in what may be the third or more of their lives after retirement.

Yes, it is Japan that we are talking about. Demographic, economic and political conditions specific to Japan may affect how Japanese consumers respond to these issues. Specifically Japanese thoughts and feelings may shape their responses to the situations in which they find themselves, the products and services they use, and the lives they strive to construct. We cannot, however, ignore global trends to which Japan has not been immune.

Japan’s postmodern consumers

From the point of view of brand and marketing managers, the most troublesome of all these trends may be the emergence of “postmodern” consumers.

Modern consumers were easy to understand; they belonged to clearly identifiable types. Given a demographic profile like “housewife, aged 25-34” or “salaried worker, male, aged 40-49,” marketers could easily imagine who was being talked about. The fragmentation of the mass market blurred these images, but psychographic profiles or geographical neighbourhood types still held out the hope of identifying clearly defined market segments. Since the nineties, however, researchers have observed that, while modern consumers bought goods as part of more or less consistent and recognisable lifestyles, postmodern consumers do not remain true to type. Depending on mood or situation, the same individual may act like an upscale achiever one moment and a downscale bargain hunter the next.

HILL research reveals a similar trend. Studies conducted in the early 1980s reported their results in confident typologies: ‘seven types of salarymen’ or ‘four categories of housewives.’ They were illustrated with images in which faces are clearly visible and feelings vividly expressed. A decade later, typologies had largely given way to radar charts, suggesting trends pressing or pulling on selves that remain question marks. Images were faceless or not used at all, in publications whose covers are illustrated only with abstract graphic designs.

I also recall hearing a presentation in which researchers from Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency, labelled the children of the Baby Boomers the ‘Dolphin Generation.’ Asked why, they explained that these young people moved around in packs, were highly sensitive to information, and were very, very slippery, thus hard for marketers to get a handle on. A few years later, in 1997, HILL published a study of children its researchers labelled ‘Amenbo Kids.’ The amenbo is a water strider, an insect that skitters over the surface of ponds, held up by surface tension. In these two images we see a shift from sociable, warm-blooded mammals immersed in seas of information to asocial, cold-blooded insects who stay on the surface of the small ponds to which their lives are confined. These images return to haunt my thoughts as I turn to Nihon no ronten 2001 (The issues for Japan 2001) from Bungeishunju.

Parasite singles and psychological shut-ins

‘Parasite single,’ a currently popular term coined by sociologist Yamada Masahiro, takes descriptions of young Japanese to an even more non-human level than ‘Amenbo Kids,’ suggesting that those to whom it refers are not even insects but parasitic germs. The term refers to unmarried people in their twenties and thirties, who continue to live with their parents instead of setting up their own independent households.

In his contribution to Nihon no ronten 2001, Yamada says that he does not criticise those who embrace this lifestyle. He is, however, concerned about the state of Japanese society, when living with one’s parents, depending on mother for meals and laundry, and treating the bulk of one’s earnings as disposable income to be spent on luxury brands is so obviously a better deal than going off on one’s own to marry and raise children. In the same volume, economist Genta Yuji explains why this should be so.v So long, he suggests, as Japanese corporations resist real restructuring, retaining their ageing Baby Boomer employees and restricting the hiring of young people, it will naturally be a rational choice to live with high-income ageing parents than to try to go out on one’s own and face a chilly reception in a frozen job market.

Genta rejects the argument that Japan’s is a culture of dependency, with its implication that the Japanese situation is unique. After all, he notes, children marrying late or not at all and staying home with their parents is now a global phenomenon, found in North America and Europe as well as in Japan. Still, the ‘Japanese dependency’ argument has some force, drawing as it does on concepts familiar to those who study Japanese psychology. Here is one of those cases in which Japanese local colour and global trend intersect.

Since the publication of Doi Takeo’s Anatomy of Dependence in 1971, the idea that Japanese are peculiarly inclined to amaeru, i.e., to play poor little me and depend on their parents and other superiors to take care of them, has become a commonplace in descriptions of the Japanese self. In Permitted & Prohibited Desires, published in 1996, American anthropologist Anne Allison explains how Japanese mothers instil this attitude in their children. Their goal is children who are hard-working and obedient and thus able to succeed in the highly structured worlds of Japanese schools and businesses. Their methods, however, are far from Spartan. Their task is to surround labour with love and make obligation desirable.

Conversely, however, the child who understands the game may learn to act cute and loveable and thus avoid the labour that the love was supposed to encourage. This attitude, too, may last for life. One new trend observed by HILL researchers reporting on their latest, large-scale biennial survey of Japanese consumer behaviour is the appearance of what they call burikko (‘cutie’) salarymen. Some salarymen, it appears, respond to the threat of restructuring not by working harder or by striking out on their own, but instead by trying to make themselves so loveable that no one could think of firing them.

The extreme of dependence, however, goes beyond the parasite single’s continuing to live with his or her parents. It involves the refusal to leave home at all, a condition called hikikomori (translated here as ‘psychological shut-in’).

In Nihon no ronten 2001, psychiatrist Saito Tamasa observes that this condition has increased steadily in frequency since the late 1970s. An early manifestation may be children refusing to go to elementary or junior high school (130,000 in the year 2000). Saito’s focus, however, is on what he calls shakaiteki hikikomori, or refusal to enter society, when young people in their twenties may refuse to leave the house in which they are living for three years or more and, in some cases, refuse to leave their own rooms. Saito blames the condition on parents and schools who assume that all children are equally capable and impose unrealistic expectations of social and academic success. Failure to live up to these expectations is thus a bitter blow to self-esteem. Eighty percent of those afflicted are men, he notes. One positive result of the sexism of Japanese society is, he suggests, that women are far more likely to have a realistic view of the possibilities open to them.

Consumers turning inward

To marketers, talk of new social pathologies is a sign of emerging needs. Psychological shut-ins may not be good consumers (though it is, of course, interesting to speculate on the kinds of products that might be most interesting to them or the families who have to deal with them). Parasite singles are a recognised market for fashion and other luxury brands. Both may, moreover, be signs of broader trends of particular significance to marketers with products whose brand propositions focus on bien-être.

In 1987, HILL conducted a study in which consumers were given coloured pencils, crayons and paper and asked to draw a “Dream House.” One especially poignant conclusion of the study was summarised as follows.

We didn’t expect so many of our subjects to draw only a private space for themselves. Why was it, we wondered, that a 44-year old housewife put only a single chair in the room that she drew? A 37-year old housewife included only a single pair of slippers. A 21-year old man’s dream house consisted only of a room of his own. There was, we found a strong tendency to draw an enclosed world of one’s own. But the images weren’t dark. They seemed, instead to be bright but autistic.

In a 1994 study, the same technique was used but the question a slightly different one. Subjects were asked to draw a room for their own private use located outside their homes. Asked if they would like to own such a room, 80% of both men and women said, “Yes.” The most striking result resembled that of the earlier ‘Dream House’ study. The majority of drawings depicted a simple, sparsely furnished room. Explanations focused on the need for a place to escape from everyday life, allowing the self to clear away distractions, turn inward and refocus.

Reading these results one is, of course, reminded of precedents in Japanese culture; the Zen aesthetics of the tea ceremony come instantly to mind. One can’t help thinking, too, that the pressures generated by a stagnant economy combined with the information overload characteristic of one of the world’s most marketed-to societies makes finding a way to escape from the clutter enormously attractive.

In a 1995 book called Gokan no Jidai (The Age of the Senses), HILL researchers develop a three-stage historical model of Japanese consumer behaviour. The first stage is rationality (gorisei). In the sixties and seventies, consumers emerging from poverty now had money to spend. Their focus was consumer durables. With few products to choose from, they could carefully calculate the ratio of benefit to budget that each purchase offered. The eighties were the age of aesthetic preference (kansei). Japan’s economy boomed. New products flooded into the market. Like rich kids in a toy store, Japanese consumers could have anything they wanted and were free to make statements with what they chose to buy. Then came the nineties, the bubble collapsed. But while spending became more careful, the bubble’s effects could not be undone. Japanese consumers were—as they still are—inundated with products and overwhelmed with information intended to guide their choices. The nineties were the age of immediate reaction (kankakusei) and the critical question was now, “Does it fit, does it snap into focus for me?” (pin to kuru ka dou ka). Consumers had become what they still seem today, wary shoppers looking for items that seem just right immediately, at the moment they are found. When the moment is gone, so is the sale.

As a social anthropologist, I can’t help noticing something else. The age of rationality was also the age of keeping up, of wanting to be like everyone else. The age of aesthetic preference was wanting to be like someone else, to have a distinctive lifestyle shared with others who have similar tastes. The age of immediate reaction is the age of me, the way I feel right now. Whether or not my tastes resemble someone else’s simply doesn’t matter.

One result is that marketers who strike the right note can enjoy enormous success because there is no downside to trend-conscious young consumers in looking like others, playing with the same toys, or consuming the same products. Another, however, is the difficulty of finding the right market niche when these postmodern consumers refuse to stay boxed in by the categories we use to describe them, when they snack or graze on our products and refuse to be tied down by the bonds of brand loyalty.

Trendy singles

A 1993 study by HILL focused on what researchers called “High-Singles” attitudes, characteristic, the report says not only of the unmarried but also of those who marry and continue to behave as if single.

  • The self is a fenced-in paradise. There is pleasure in turning inward
  • Everyone has his own world; don’t interfere with others
  • Keep a certain distance in relationships, not too close, not to far
  • Keep a distance, too, from family and company, the groups to which you’re attached. No stains, no smells; be self-deodorising
  • Don’t be caught up in old systems and customs. Break out of the standard models. Go your own way
  • Just drift along like the tumbleweed. Don’t get tied down

Subsequent studies of traced the implications of these attitudes in various areas of consumption. A 1995 study notes how the bath has become a ‘Private Heaven,’ a place where singles, in particular, may use a variety of products to, in effect, create for themselves their own private resorts. A 1996 study points to the growing number of products for those who wish to cleanse and heal themselves, both physically and spiritually, inside and out. The ideal is more than just a resort, a spa or sanatorium. The air is fresh, the surroundings are quiet. There is no need to struggle. The environment is germ and stress-free. The diet is healthy, there is time to relax.

This year HILL researcher Yamamoto Takayo returns to these themes in Nonpara, a study of ‘non-parasites,’ women in their thirties who have moved out and live on their own. These, she says, are strong, independent women whose loneliness is energising. They may be more likely to cry themselves to sleep at night. They are also more sociable and more likely than parasites to have friends of the opposite sex. Marketers take note: these women are frugal (having themselves to pay for rent, food and utilities, they have to be careful with money) and the live in small places (on average 33 square meters). They are, however, willing to spend lavishly on themselves and on things that appeal strongly to them. The goods with which they surround themselves reflect distinct and cultivated tastes.

Yet in some ways, they remain mysterious. As I look at the illustrations of two ‘typical’ examples, I wonder why non-parasites prefer to wear their hair up, dress in basic, one-piece dresses worn over black underwear, and carry Gucci bags, while parasites, in contrast, wear their hair down, dress in elegant slacks worn over white underwear, and carry Vuitton bags? Why is it that one prefers small diamonds and “natural” lipstick shades while the other prefers pearls and more clearly “made-up” colours?

These, too, are stereotypes, abstractions from interviews conducted with two hundred women, one hundred from each of the categories they represent. But what, I wonder, do they tell us about the questions with which we began. Are they ‘typically Japanese’ or representative postmodern consumers? To me they seem a blend of both, the result of lifestyle choices by Japanese single women in their thirties, a growing but very distinctive demographic segment whose members need to be understood in their own largely individual terms.

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John McCreery

John McCreery

Owner at Owner-Partner, The Word Works, Ltd.

John is an anthropologist who has lived and worked in Japan since 1980. For thirteen of those years, he was a copywriter and creative director for Hakuhodo Incorporated, Japan's second largest advertising agency. In 1984, he and his wife and business partner Ruth McCreery founded The Word Works, a supplier of fine translation, copywriting, research and consulting services to firms doing business in Japan.

John McCreery
John McCreery

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