Japan: The edge of cool

Robin Hicks reports on why Japan loves a novelty and why it is still the coolest place on earth.

A suit that can be washed in the shower is the latest flash of genius to hit Japanese high streets. Sales for Konaka's Shower Clean suits are healthy as Japan's salarymen jump at the idea of never having to go to the dry cleaners again.

Japan has entered what is shaping up to be the harshest recession since World War II, and yet has lost none of the thirst for novelty that makes it the world's undisputed leader in all things new and trendy.

While Londoners shuffle about in fake fur gilets and skinny jeans, Tokyo's hipsters strut through the highbrow district of Harajuku on a Saturday afternoon as if they got dressed in the dark at a fancy dress shop. Tartan samurai, Geisha Sex Pistols, Gothic Lolita, techno Shirley Temple. Bizarre sartorial mash-ups abound.

Which is all the more odd when you think how conservative Japan is. Rubbing shoulders with the fashionistas of Harajuku are bowing salarymen in dark suits and ladies in elaborate kimono. Two thousand-year-old customs and a desire to avoid being "the nail that sticks out" are what make Japan what it is too.

So how, then, did Japan become so "cool"? One thing to understand, Kazuhiro Shimada, the vice-president of strategy for MTV Networks Japan, says is that Japan is not as homogeneous as one might think. Yes, people tend to conform. But there is a strong subculture that informs contemporary culture.

"The difference is, subcultures in Japan stay underground," Shimada says. "It's not like, say, the West Coast where gays and lesbians are a visible part of society. That's not to say that Japanese people don't express themselves. We do. And in a unique way. But not one that is overtly counter-cultural or rebellious."

Confusing contradictions underpin modern Japan, and what it is to be Japanese. Dave McCaughan, the Tokyo-based Asia-Pacific director of strategy for McCann Worldgroup, points to a survey that asked Japanese of all ages to say what they were most proud of about Japan. "Two things emerged. Traditional culture and hi-tech. Is that a contradiction? No. The traditional culture of Japan is hi-tech."

As early as the 16th century, Japan embraced what McCaughan calls "the culture of perfectionism". People were always looking to improve things, a mentality that went into overdrive in the 70s and 80s and Japan's economic miracle meant the sudden emergence of a middle class. People could afford to trial new stuff and their expectations were raised. Companies responded by making new products of increasingly high quality.

This ethos has persisted, particularly in the FMCG market. It's not unusual to walk into a convenience store and find 300 different soft drinks for sale, not in the name of novelty, but because it is expected, McCaughan says. "In the West, brands are about comfortable, changeless consistency. In Japan, it's the opposite. People have grown up in a country where the quality of everything is excellent, so trying something new is not a risk. A brand's job is to give you newness."

Asahi, Suntory, Sapporo and Kirin gave the world dry, super dry, low malt and seasonal beer. Toyota and Honda have been first to adopt fuel-saving hybrid technologies. Whereas in the West, a new product usually has its own profit centre, the opposite is true in Japan. Fifty different flavours of ice-cream will launch and if only two sell and the rest don't, fine. As long as the company profits as a whole. "Japanese companies take the longer-term view," Phil Rubel, the managing director of Fallon Tokyo, says.

Given Japan's thirst for novelty, it's surprising that a lot of Japan's mainstream consumer culture is not particularly original. H&M became the biggest hit on Japanese high streets when it launched last winter, positioning itself upmarket with its first store opening in Ginza, Tokyo's equivalent of Knightsbridge.

But nothing has eclipsed the impact of Nintendo's Wii console. Three years after launch, and the ubiquity of the Wii has begun to reshape Japan's construction industry. "Houses are being rebuilt to make room for Wii gamers," McCaughan says. "Whereas the iPod was basically a new advance on a Walkman, the Wii has introduced a completely different lifestyle for Japanese of all ages."

The hottest acts in music are Japanese pop sensation Exile and R&B singer Thelma Aoyama (whose white fur hats are the latest must-haves for teen girls). Japanese music has grown in popularity, Shimada says, partly because of a perception that there hasn't been much good new stuff from the West.

Two of the most popular Western stars in Japan are Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. "We're much more kind to Paris than you are in the UK," Shimada says. "We're aware of the sleazy associations, but she has marketed herself very well here. She is seen as kawaii (cute)."

Cuteness is big business in Japan, Rubel says. But it isn't so much a trend as part of Japan's cultural fabric. Cartoon characters with wide eyes sell everything from MP3 players to condoms. Young women wear ankle socks and toys as accessories. Some men, too, dress to look like children.

But, these days, brand owners are paying less attention to Japanese youth. The mobile phone operators NTT DoCoMo and KDDI Corp are offering phones with larger screens and buttons to cater for the one in five of the population that is over 60. Carmakers are producing vehicles that are easier to climb in to. Guitar companies are re-releasing classic models to appeal to Japan's first generation of rock 'n' rollers.

So could having fewer young people mean "cool" Japan withers in the future? Not a bit, McCaughan says. "One of my best planners wants to start up an advisory council for targeting older Japanese. He is 55 years old, and will have a team of 12 over-60 retirees who are inventors. These guys aren't dead wood. They are 19-year-olds in their hearts, with big ideas in their heads."

- Samantha Thavasa handbags
- Nintendo Wii
- Korean soap operas, particularly Winter Sonata
- Exile (Japanese pop band)
- Beyonce
- Thelma Aoyama (Japanese pop and R&B singer)
- Shochu (potato liquor grown on soil fertilised by the manure of pigs
fed with the leftovers from making shochu)
- Kobukuro (J-pop band)
- iPhone
- Books on blood type (similar to horoscopes)
- Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea, film from the animation production
house Studio Ghibli
- Paris Hilton
- Fergie (from Black Eyed Peas)
- H&M stores (the upmarket Japanese version)
- Britney Spears
- Shower Clean suits