Author Archives: Planet Japan

About Planet Japan

Journalist, Consumer Research Analyst, Lawyer.

Consumer Subcultures: Gyaru

Gyaru — the term comes from the English word “gal” – it is a fashion style, a consumer subculture, but also an attitude.

Hair dyed any variety of blond, clothing flashy and sexy – the gyaru has a long history in post-war Japan, but is now a kind of working class female subculture. Adherents of this style idolize the look of African-American stars like Beyonce and tend to spend big on clothes, nails, makeup and cigarettes.

As an aside, the cigarette market in Japan remains unfettered by many of the health regulations commonplace elsewhere in the developed world.  Japan has several brands targeted at young women including innovations such as a flavour capsule inside the filter that can be cracked open by the smoker at the desired moment to receive a shot of mint or other flavour.

Unique dominance of night-time employment

It is worth noting here the stunning figure reported by one social researcher that a fifth of women aged 15 to 22 aspire to work in the night-time entertainment industry.

What does this mean?

These establishments come in a variety of grades: The majority are kyabakura, (derived from the English ‘cabaret club’) which are hostess bars where the girls sit with male customers both pouring drinks and engaging in flirtatious chit-chat.

In addition to the physical toll of late nights, heavy alcohol consumption and smoky rooms, the psychological demands of this type of service work are taxing – girls are pretending to enjoy the company of older men when the reality is they probably don’t.

It is essentially an acting role that lasts for hours night after night. This hiding of the authentic self is exactly the same skill which enables incredibly high standards of customer service across Japan in restaurants, hotels and the like.

The recent rise in the popularity of this type of work is often taken as an indicator of poor employment opportunities for women and the attraction of the high pay on offer.

Consumer Subcultures of Japan

It is a truism that women rule the roost when it comes to consumer spending in Japan. Japan’s highly patriarchal society means exclusion of a large percentage of women from the full-time labour market. That means lots of time for women to pursue leisure activities, hobbies and personal development — think learning languages and travel.

Consumer insights will always involve some generalizations. But there are limits. Western companies who lack on-the-ground familiarity with Japan can be misled by overly sweeping simplifications that exoticize Japan instead of drilling down into the messy reality of what is after all a modern industrialized society.

I’ll start with a defensible generalization of my own that applies across the subcultures:

Japan’s highly sexist norms also mean social pressure to be beautiful and dress stylishly, however that is individually defined. It is unthinkable for most women to go out in public without make-up. This pressure starts on graduation from high school and doesn’t let up until a woman gets well into later middle age.

There is even a word for the source of the pressure: sekentei — appearance in the eyes of society. It is these kinds of social attitudes that lead to Japan being the second biggest market for cosmetics in the world. Stay tuned for more.

Why are there so many retail stores in Japan?

Despite the steady shrinkage of the small retail sector in Japan, it’s coming off a high base. So why has there historically been so many small retail stores in Japan anyway? Why have they survived until now?

This is a question that many newcomers to Japan ask — and this classic article answers it.

It’s by economist David Flath from way back in 1990. If equations scare you, just skip over that part. The descriptive and analytical parts are clear and provide the historical-political and lifestyle reasons why Japan has such an abundance of small shops compared with other developed economies. It has something to do with geography, density, the fact people live in such cramped homes — and of course, government support.

EFNA: English for no apparent reason

The multi-billion yen business of the English conversation school – the ‘eikaiwa’ – is there for those who want to actually speak English but can’t because of the tedium that was dished up to them in their high school years.

From the vantage point of Australia where second language learning is depressingly uncommon, the idea that a major sub-sector of the service economy is foreign language conversation schools is, frankly, rather inspiring.

Survey research reveals that foreign language as a “hobby” is by far the most popular reason given by adults for learning a foreign language, coming way ahead of work, travel and getting qualifications.

One English teaching web site amusingly dubbed this phenomenon EFNA, or English For No Apparent Reason.

My own interpretation of the EFNA phenomenon is that English study is seen as a form of self-improvement that offers a possibility of transcending the ‘system’ in which Japanese find themselves. There is the tantalising promise of an escape from the pressure of Japanese working life through work for a foreign company, perhaps even travel abroad.

Also, especially for young women, there is the promise of escape from the expectations of families and traditional gender roles via expanding one’s personal horizons and one’s relationship options with foreigners.

The desire of at least four million Japanese to learn English and pay big money for conversation classes saw the rise and fall of several giant eikaiwa firms. They had a substantial marketing presence on the subways and billboards of Japanese cities. The larger ones became household names and publicly traded companies on the Tokyo stock exchange. They were also famous for their shonky practices and poor treatment of staff and students alike

The eikaiwa business has been particularly hard hit by the stagnant economic conditions and decline in real wages in Japan in recent years.  Since 2007 the big ones suffered from bankruptcies, scandals and corporate collapses to rival the American financial sector.

October 2007 saw the collapse of the biggest eikaiwa, the McDonald’s of English conversation schools, a company called Nova. The fact that Nova employed some 4,500 young Australian, Canadian, American and British teachers who were suddenly left destitute, without their Nova-supplied accommodation and with unpaid wages, meant the ripple effect was felt globally.

In April 2010 Nova’s chief competitor, GEOS, filed for bankruptcy in a similarly messy way, with staff wages left unpaid and student contracts unmet.

Comparing the continuing poor TOEIC scores of Japanese students with the impressive improvements of neighbouring South Korea, it would seem that reform of English teaching in the Japanese school system is an urgent national challenge.

The politics of credit guarantees

For those wanting to really understand what makes Japan’s domestic political economy tick, this article by Kay Shimizu of Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute reveals the significant and largely hidden role of credit guarantees to small and medium business.

SMEs employ over 70% of the workforce, so the way prefectures funnel low-cost credit into what are by outside standards “inefficient” businesses, is key to understanding both the politics and the unique economic set-up of Japan.