Explorations in Japanese Culture
It has been some time since I posted anything on the blog, because almost all my time has been spent earning my MBA and working on my thesis! My thesis is all about Japanese consumerism and luxury goods. I will get into more specifics in another post, but I wanted to share an overview of Japanese consumption patterns over the last half century. Japanese consumption over the last 50 years has been shaped through a growing involvement in a global economy along with years of continued economic growth. However, growth has not been without recession as well and the Japanese economy has seen drops in growth and consumption after being hit hard by the bursting of the bubble economy of the 1980s and the global recession of 2008. The following sections will outline the development of the Japanese consumer habits as they are today through looking at their changing development since WWII to today.
The post war years of Japan are the first time that Japan had a growing interest in consumption. Fueled by economic growth rates as high as 10% annually, the development of the consumer during this time laid the foundation for what would become the modern Japanese consumer culture (Haghirian 2011). Starting in the 1950’s we see a growing presence of American consumer culture being adapted by the Japanese. As the American lifestyle was portrayed increasingly more often through the popularity of American television and movies, advertising also began to reflect this lifestyle (Garon & Maclachlan 2006). This was the first time we also see the emergence of the “Three Treasures” a trend that would continue with each decade, but would see modifications as far as what composed these three items. During the 1950’s these treasures consisted of the television, the electric washing machine and the refrigerator. Consumerism of these and other items were fueled by high rates of economic growth along with a strong desire to share in the economic wealth of the time (Nakamura 1995).
The idea of widespread consumption continued to gain popularity during this time as ownership of a car and home became markers of economic success (Haghirian 2011). The 1960s also saw one of the longest continuous periods of economic growth with the Izanagi Boom, which lasted nearly five full years and saw economic growth in the form of 10% GDP increase annually. During this time the “Three Treasures” became known as a car, a refrigerator and a color television (Saito 2000). And with the spread of television came a greater exposure of the Japanese to advertising. Not only did the 1960s see economic growth, but also a drastic change to Japanese society and the emergence of the western family model along with the birth of a new generation of consumers.
As the western family model became more popular in Japan, it was seen as a luxury of being part of the modern age. Women who had previously held jobs began to move into the home to become full time homemakers and housewives. This was made possible by the increases in income and savings that the Izanagi Boom brought. With this move back into the home, both American and Japanese electrical makers began to market idealized images of young, pretty housewives effortlessly performing housework (Haghirian 2011). Along with the development of the western family model came the emergence of a new consumer generation who began to differentiate themselves from older the older Japanese through the consumption of more international and imported goods. New trends quickly developed and went against traditional marketing knowledge, and forced many firms to create new ways of market research to keep up with the new generations changing habits of consumption (De Mente 2004).
The 1970s in Japan were a time marked by shifting consumer desires and a movement towards more freely traveling abroad. During this time the Japanese had an increasing desire to travel abroad and at the same time were becoming worldlier in their consumption habits. While before American images had been incorporated into the Japanese consumption and seen as Japanese, now western images were being consumed as distinctly foreign (Haghirian 2011). During the same time Japanese consumer preferences began to take a major shift as consumers began spending money in ways that would improve satisfaction in their life and quality of goods became more important than the price (Haghirian 2011). This was a big change from the trends in the 50s and 60s, but would not compare to the growth and change of the 1980s.
The 1980s was a time of tremendous growth for the Japanese economy and consumerism as the Bubble Economy lasted from 1985 to 1990. Growth and prosperity was evident in the prices of real estate in Tokyo, which reached the highest of any in world history to that point (Sand 2006). Salaries and work opportunities continued to grow and with the development of the Japanese middle class, consumption became a lifestyle for the first time ever in Japan (Haghirian 2011). Japanese consumption of the time also became much more conspicuous, as consumers moved away from conformist-oriented consumption and more into status-seeking consumption. With this came a larger market for expensive imported western goods and a movement of European brands into the Japanese market (Haghirian 2011). This was the begging of the luxury market in Japan, market by the successful entry of Louis Vuitton. This time also gave birth to the distinctly Japanese consumer, “the parasite single.” Who was characterized as being an unmarried, university educated female between the age of 25-44 who worked well paying jobs, but still lived with their parents (Thomas 2007). The bubble economy did burst however, and left the Japanese economy in a state of decline in the early 1990s.
The rapid economic growth of the previous decade came to an end in 1990 with the bursting of the bubble economy. With this came a shift towards more conservative forms of consumption as consumers began to develop more “cost oriented patterns of behavior” (Haghirian 2011). These consumer patterns were supported by restructuring of Japanese law, which allowed for the development of larger shopping centers in rural areas, outlet malls and even 100-yen (roughly equal to $1.20) stores (Haghirian 2011). All these new shopping resources gave Japanese consumers more options for price conscious consumption that was brought on after the bursting of the bubble economy. At the beginning of the new millennium, consumers would not recover from a decade of recession and instead began to face new realities that came with their changing lifestyles (Haghirian 2011).
A decade of recession left many Japanese consumers now facing new options in lifestyle consumption, but at the same time more well off consumers are beginning to look for more higher value and respected brands as a way to express their financial standing. The consumer group that characterized by this behavior became known as the “new rich.” With the aging of the baby boomers and growth of women re-entering the workplace, the creation of the “new rich” consumer group occurred. This referred to consumers with more than 10 million yen in financial assets. These new rich were especially interested in luxury brands, which led to an increase in the number of western luxury brands entering the market (Haghirian 2011). Additionally, the otaku consumer group began to emerge during this time, and while they were often considered to be obsessed with their hobbies, they presented a significant financial force and Japanese firms began to take note. The 2008 Economic Crisis led to a change in Japanese consumer habits once again, which has led to weaker consumption. In fact, Japanese consumers seem to be becoming more like western consumers by seeking out value and attempting to entertain themselves at a more reasonable cost.
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