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Arif Iqball

Glimpses of the Floating World

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Outside Japan there is often a misunderstanding about the role of the Geisha and that misunderstanding comes from different literary and movie interpretations/fictionalization by non-Japanese at different points in history. The difficulty also comes from the inability to recognize/accept that female entertainers can exist in cultures without engaging in any form of sexual entertainment.

The historical city of Kyoto, Japan is the true center of this floating world and home to five Kagai (literally flower towns, but specifically, performance districts) where you can see Geishas today. The oldest Kagai dates back to the fifteenth century and the tradition of the Geisha continues in Kyoto in the true manner and spirit as it has historically, where the women take pride in being “women of the mind” versus “women of the body”. By all local/Japanese definitions, these women are living art as well as the pinnacle of Japanese eloquence, good manners, style and elegance and are highly respected in Japanese society as artists. Some of their teachers have been labeled as “Living National Treasures” by the Japanese Government. The “Gei” of the Geisha itself means Art and “sha” means a person. Historically both men and women have been labeled Geisha although that word is seldom used and Geiko and Maiko (Apprentice Geiko) are the more appropriate forms of address.

There has been very little work done to photograph the artistic side of the Geiko and Maiko and my work is an effort to see them as living art and to be able to portray them in both formal and informal settings. Behind the painted face is really a teenager/young woman working very hard through song, dance, music, and witty conversation to make the customers of the tea houses escape from their world of stress to a world of art/humour/relaxation and laughter.

Most of this work was done in Medium Format to enable the viewer to eventually see and feel the larger photograph itself as art and I hope that this broader work can shed a new light to the understanding of the Maiko and Geiko and bring respect to them as artists from the non-Japanese viewer.

 

Bio

Arif Iqball was born in Pakistan in 1964 and has spent a third of his life each in Pakistan, US, and Japan respectively.  His curiosity about the balance between modernity and tradition originally attracted him to Japan and in the process, he completed a Masters Degree in Japanese Studies with an interest in Japanese Literature and the visual aesthetic of old Japanese movies.

An avid travel photographer, he uses a nostalgic lens to find beauty in ordinary life and people and is attracted to traditions and artists who are fading away in this modern world.  When completed, this interim work on the Geiko and Maiko in Kyoto will be presented both as a book, and as an exhibit.

His Japan related photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Lonely Planet, and in Children books.

He currently lives and works in Tokyo.

 

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Arif Iqball

 

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Sometimes I like the idea of being in business, I’d definitely dress a lot smarter in their no-nonsense, no-denim environment and I’d probably feel a lot more efficient and proactive. But alas the pressures would get to me, the competition, the glass ceiling and the restriction on music playing in the office would get too much.

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Click here to read Japan's Newest RPG Hero Is Unemployed

A strong innocent youth with a thirst for adventure, a soldier with a sense of duty and honor, an outcast warrior… The heroes of the fantasy RPGs of yesteryear have always been people of strong moral fiber and a will to stand up and fight. Now, game developer e-smile in their new game Ore-ni Hatarakette Iwaretemo (How Can You Ask Me to Work) brings us the hero of modern Japan: a NEET. More »

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In the final installment of the series (Parts One, Two, Three, Four), we look at the export possibilities for Japanese culture when the “most popular” goods and works are increasingly being made by and for marginal subcultures without obvious analogs overseas.

Part Five: The Difficulty of Exporting Marginal Subcultures

Marketing guru Kawaguchi Morinosuke’s recent book Geeky Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturist’s Guide to Technology and Design posits that corporate Japan needs to take more guidance from otaku and gyaru. There is an important point to this — these are now the most influential and powerful groups in Japanese pop culture and should not be ignored out of snobbery. And maybe their obsessive spirit has applicable lessons for industry management. Yet we should not be naive about this either in a wider context: the products actually made within these subcultures are increasingly losing their resonance overseas.

Until now, you could divide Japan’s successful consumer exports into three groups:

(1) technological/industrial goods like cars and electronics
(2) kids’ products like video games, toys, comic books, and pens/stationary
(3) sophisticated cultural goods like fashion brands, indie music, and literature.

Other than automobiles, Japan has lost its edge on high-tech goods. Korean rival Samsung has almost singlehandedly taken over the space once monopolized by Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, and Sharp. And with the decreasing number of children, greater competition from the U.S. on video games, and a general move away from gadget culture, Japan is also struggling to export kids’ products. Meanwhile most of Japan’s successful cutting-edge culture exports — Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Shonen Knife, The Boredoms A Bathing Ape, Comme des Garçons, Hiromix, Murakami Takashi — came from a scene that has ceased to be high-profile in Japan.

This last category, while minor in terms of actual sales, did a lot of the legwork for boosting the Japan “brand” in the 1990s, especially among the cultural elite in the U.S. and Europe. The reason is simple: the artistic works spoke the language of upper middle-class aesthetes overseas. Furthermore these artists made an easy match with the West because they played with iterations of ideas originally created in The West: avant-garde art and fashion, street culture as defined by US/UK, punk rock, lounge music, etc. In general, the successful products and artistic works had something “universal” (i.e., “Western”) at their core, which made them more easily exportable. Overall Japanese culture found warm reception where the consuming groups in the West were similar to the Japanese creators in class position and values. We take for granted that Miyamoto Shigeru’s art-school tastes appealed subconsciously to the richer American youth who bought up the NES in droves during the mid-1980s.

What we have not seen, however, are good consumer comparisons overseas to the psychologically tortured Japanese subcultures like contemporary otaku or the yankii/gyaru. Mass market anime like Naruto and Gundam are relatively easy to export as they were built for “normal” youth. That cannot be said about moe titles that are meant to satisfy older men obsessed with two-dimensional elementary school girls. Similarly, no gyaru clothing brand has more retail stores overseas than the avant-garde Comme des Garçons, despite gyaru clothing’s huge business in Japan and CDG’s highly-limited audience. At least from what we have seen from the big subcultural moments in the last decade, the culture of Japan’s marginal pluralities is almost unexportable.

Let’s look again at AKB48 on YouTube — a global site where anyone can watch videos from anywhere else around the world. Based on the public viewership data for “Heavy Rotation” and other AKB48 videos, the vast majority of views for AKB48 come from the group’s domestic fan base. In other words, no other country than Japan contributes to AKB48’s multi-million view count despite the fact that the videos are available worldwide and AKB48 is the overwhelmingly dominant group in Japanese pop at the moment. AKB48’s seemingly-massive popularity in Japan make them the number one favorite for J-Pop exportation. Yet no one non-Japanese is watching their videos — even in light of a “Japan Cool” wave and the popularity of YouTube all around the world. Compare AKB48’s videos to the insight map for “The Boys” by Girls Generation (SNSD) in Korea, who have had massive success in Japan and whose YouTube stats show a very wide global audience.

In most countries with growing economies, educated upper-middle class consumers still spearhead the consumer market. They have the most disposable income and the most interest in cultural exchange. And those consumers, whether it’s Taiwan or the U.K., are the ones most likely to be willing to follow and purchase foreign cultural items.

Currently, however, the most conspicuous Japanese culture of otaku and yankii represents value sets with little connection to affluent consumers elsewhere. Most men around the world are not wracked by such deep status insecurity that they want to live in a world where chesty two-dimensional 12 year-old girls grovel at their feet and call them big brother. The average university student in Paris is likely to read Murakami Haruki and may listen to a Japanese DJ but not wear silky long cocktail dresses or fake eyelashes from a brand created by a 23 year-old former divorcee hostess with two kids. Overseas consumers remain affluent, educated, and open to Japanese culture, but Japan’s pop culture complex — by increasingly catering to marginal groups (or ignoring global tastes, which is another problem altogether) — is less likely to create products relevant for them.

This is not to say that the emergence of otaku and yankii culture is insignificant for Japan. This wave has finally given material and cultural expression to pockets of society that had a hard time voicing their experience in the past. The rich Tokyo elite enjoyed a disproportionately high influence over national culture for decades, and now the two marginal groups have taken the elite’s place in dominating the direction of pop. When it comes to “fairness” and democracy, this is the least elitist that Japanese culture has ever been. But we have replaced one kind of distortion with another, and we still should not confuse these subcultures’ tastes with being truly “mainstream.”

One of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter’s teachings is that companies that are competitive overseas come from domestic markets where they have local competition and must learn to please demanding local consumers. The more advanced the consumers, the more advantage a company has in eventually exporting its products when other consumers catch up. Apple’s success with the iPod came from the product’s direct targeting of tech-savvy American college students and former college students who had massive libraries of mp3s stuck on computers and wanted to take them out on the streets. Girls Generation worked to best other idol groups in Korea through highly skilled dancing, singing, and a song library purchased from European producers.

Japan’s consumer market meanwhile is becoming increasingly dominated by technological and cultural laggards. The peak “Japan Cool” came at a time in the 1990s when the average Japanese was intentionally or inadvertently consuming highly sophisticated culture, and the pressures to please them gave Japanese companies the training to be globally competitive. Cultural producers tried to one-up each other in coolness.

Japanese companies now face a true crisis: Appealing to the most powerful consumers in Japan will lead them away from tastes and values that can be easily exported overseas. AKB48 may be opening vanity branches in Taiwan and Jakarta, but will the world inherently be interested in an idol group meant to please a small group of men’s reactionary attitudes towards women and desire for songs that ignore the last twenty years of musical change? And as we’ve seen with the success of K-Pop in Japan, companies cannot automatically protect the domestic market against invasion. When the mainstream consumers do see something they like, that reflects their values in a way that otaku and gyaru content does not, they pounce. But until they reawaken as a consistent consumer force or rebuild cultural online to be less centered around product purchase, we are likely to stay within the current situation — where marginal subcultures rule the school.

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Last time we saw that the tastes of upper and middle-class “mainstream” consumers dominated Japanese pop culture from the post-war to the end of the 1990s. This time we will explore the most important cultural change of the last decade: the greater proportional power for marginal subcultures. Mainstream consumers, for the economic and demographic reasons given in Part One and Part Two, have ceased to consume with the same force as before and thus have lost their “voting power” within pop culture.

Part Four: The Rise of Marginal Subcultures

The drop in cultural markets has been almost perfectly pegged to the decline in incomes. Middle class consumers are buying less, and when they buy, now go for cheaper or risk-free products. Within this environment, we could expect marginal subcultures to also have curbed consumption. Yet they did not! And their steady buying into their own cultural niches has made huge changes in the tenor of Japanese pop culture.

Yankii and otaku: Consumption as pathology

The yankii and otaku have never traditionally been blessed with high incomes nor high future earning potential, and in pure homo economicus terms, should be cutting back even more than middle-class consumers. We must understand, however, that for the otaku, yankii, and gyaru, shopping is not merely a form of leisure nor has it even been an attempt to buy into a larger society-wide consumerist message. These groups use consumerism as a therapeutic solution to their psychological and social problems.

The otaku spend their time as avaricious collectors of goods and trading information with other otaku. In shunning away from mainstream standards of sociability, sexuality, and career success, the act of maniacal consumption becomes their raison d’être. They cannot relate with other people if not commenting upon these cultural goods. Culture — most of which must be purchased and enjoyed as object (even when it is just physical media holding content) — is the great satisfier of their deepest desires.

The gyaru, in comparison, put a high premium on social networks and romance. Yet there is a certain pain at the heart of gyaru culture. In his book Keitai Shosetsu-teki (“Cell Phone Novel-esque”), author Hayamizu Kenrou calls the basic aesthetic mode of gyaru literature — cell phone novels, Hamasaki Ayumi lyrics — “trauma-kei” due to its emphasis on overcoming personal tragedy. When I interviewed Nakajo Hisako, the editor-in-chief of Koakuma Ageha, in 2009 I asked, “Why do gyaru spend so much time on their clothing, hair, and makeup?” She answered, “Because we are not cute. If we were cute, we would just wear a white T-shirt. We have to work hard to look good.” There is an obvious logic to this: The gyaru’s transformation into golden curly hair and heavily painted faces is an escape from their normal selves.

Like Nakajo suggests, gyaru culture looks as it does precisely because they are not “blessed” girls (Nakajo’s words). And this means gyaru must spend on clothing, hair treatments, and makeup in order to achieve the desired self-image. Beyond this desire to look like someone else (and basically like everyone else in their peer group), there is also the social demand to show allegiance to a wider gyaru subculture by donning its uniform. To be a gyaru means dressing like a gyaru — no exceptions.

Marginal groups’ up their voting power in the consumer vacuum

The end result is that the otaku and yankii have an almost inelastic demand for their favorite goods. They must consume, no matter the economic or personal financial situation. They may move to cheaper goods, but they will always be buying something. Otherwise they lose their identity. While normal consumers curb consumption in the light of falling wages, the marginal otaku and yankii keep buying. And that means the markets built around these subcultures are relatively stable in size.

So as the total market shrinks, the marginal groups — in their stability — are no longer minor segments but now form a respectable plurality in the market. In other words, if otaku or yankii all throw their support through a specific cultural item, that item will end up being the most supported within the wider market.

The clearest example of this is AKB48. With the letters AKB in their name, this group of girls was unequivocally marketed towards older males based in the Akihabara otaku culture. Compared to past mass market groups such as Speed, the girls are intentionally chosen and styled to look like elementary schoolgirls and lyrically address older men with direct sexual references. (See the “cat-eared brothel” video for “Heavy Rotation” and the unambiguous “love knows no age” lyrics for “Seifuku ga jama wo suru.”)

The mass idol group regularly has an “election” (sousenkyo) where fans try to vote their favorite girl to Number One. Buying certain AKB48 CD singles gives the fan a vote in the AKB48 election, which thus incentivizes otaku to buy multiple copies of the CD to increase their “political” power. The CD is thus no longer a means of listening to music but a way to influence the future of AKB48. This has created a legion of fans who buy dozens and hundreds of the same AKB48 CD or even 5500 copies. There are now doubts about that story’s authenticity but it basically was an exaggeration of an existing principle. Regardless, the marketing strategy of AKB48 does encourage the purchase of multiple goods, thus amplifying the buying power of nerds beyond their small numbers. This means as a consumer bloc, the AKB48 otaku fans can rival the non-otaku consumer base.

This otaku bloc strength, as well as other niche’s dedicated buying, can be seen through the music charts. In 2010 only three artists made the Oricon best-selling singles market — AKB48 and a Johnny’s Jimusho group Arashi. (At this stage, you can almost argue that music fans of Johnny’s groups are themselves a conspicuous cult rather than a mass market phenomenon.) Only two artists taking the entire singles market is unprecedented in Japanese musical history. In the previous decade, the average number of artists in the top ten was 8.2. The best explanation is that mainstream consumers stopped buying music, even single song downloads, so the favorite acts of marginal subcultures now appear to be the most popular.

Otaku and gyaru: winners by default

This principle demonstrates how AKB48 became an unlikely “mainstream” phenomenon. Despite AKB48 being so clearly marketed towards a niche audience, their success in a declining market has made them perceived to be the most popular in the entire market. Therefore 2010 and 2011 saw AKB48, with backing from advertising monolith Dentsu, doing advertisements for mainstream brands and chains such as 7/11. (Lawson’s has now countered with a nerd-drooling K-On! campaign.) With no major competition from more mainstream-oriented idols and groups, they became the obvious spokespeople and magazine cover girls — thus amplifying their fame more.

In the case of gyaru, there are larger numbers of gyaru than otaku, meaning that the gyaru can just consume their standard number of items and still dominate the market. Before I mentioned that the extremely “normal girl” fashion magazine non•no once sold close to a million copies per issue in 1996 at the peak of the publishing market, which was once far above the 310,000 copies for hardcore yankii/gyaru magazine Popteen at the same time. Around 2009, however, non•no dropped to a mere 180,000 copies a month while Popteen was still hovering around 310,000. Gyaru are still consuming fashion, and therefore need fashion guides to tell them how to do so. “Normal” girls have generally lost interest in clothing and do not need fashion guides as much. So in this collapse of the mass market, a magazine representing a marginal taste has become one of the best-selling.

With the yankii and otaku culture being so proportionally conspicuous in the market and mainstream and avant-garde styles being so minor and invisible, the once marginal looks have a greater legitimacy for less engaged consumers who mostly just desire socially-acceptable styles. As a result, gyaru and yankii fashion have had a strong moment over the last five years, leading to large-scale booms in things once unfathomable such as “hostess fashion.” University students at elite schools like Keio are likely to have hairstyles reminiscent of yankii hosts. Films and books with obvious yankii narratives, such as Rookies and cell phone novel Koizora, became huge national hits in 2009. Gyaru singer Nishino Kana is one of the few well-selling artists on Sony (formerly known for alternative musicians Supercar, Puffy, and Denki Groove). And even former “arty” magazines like CUTiE have moved towards the gyaru style, and the fiercely indie girl mag Zipper put gyaru icon Tsubasa Masuwaka on the cover. There is no popular female style that does not see a little influence from the yankii side of gyaru culture.

Not truly “the most popular”

While otaku and yankii cultures are enjoying a new cultural influence in their deep commitment to consumption, we should not forget that these groups do not make up any kind of actual societal consensus. The masses may be consuming parts of their culture, but these groups are at best pluralities rather than majorities — dominant in the market but nowhere near 50% of tastes.

For example, if you look at the sales numbers for the #1 single of 2010 — “Beginner” by AKB48 at 954,283 copies — this would not have been enough copies to make the top ten from the years 1991 to 2000, when the wider public bought CDs in droves. In 2001, it would have ranked in at #10 — a successful hit for a niche, but not the symbol of J-Pop for the era. The population of Japan in the last ten years has not dropped enough to make this smaller number of sales proportionally relevant — just less people are purchasing music.

AKB48’s narrow popularity becomes very clear when the group appears on television — a medium that continues to have a mass audience (although disproportionally elderly viewers.) Maeda Atsuko had been repeatedly voted the #1 member of AKB48, and yet her recent drama Hanazakari no Kimitachi e (Ikemen Paradise)saw extremely low ratings (episodes around 6%). AKB48 variety show “Naruhodo High School” has drawna dismal 4.5%.

AKB48 have also been extremely popular on YouTube, which skews towards a tech-savvy male audience in Japan. And yet a song like “Heavy Rotation”— at over 50 million views — has nearly one-third “thumbs down” votes. This is an extremely high amount level of dislikes compared to other music videos on the site.

So AKB48 are the most conspicuous music group in Japan at the moment with the highest record sales and highest number of appearances, but they should necessarily be considered a “mass” phenomenon with widespread fans across multiple segments. The group has captured the strongest plurality in the market, and companies have mobilized around them in desperation. If Dentsu could sponsor a different hit idol group with an even broader fan base, they would. But ironically, no one other than AKB48 or Johnny’s Jimusho groups have the sales or market legitimacy to work in the context of mass market advertising. Marginal groups are now feeding and over-influencing the remnants of the mass market just as counter-consumer once did.

Next time, we look at whether marginal subcultures can produce goods that are easily exportable.

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