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A discussion with artist and filmmaker Matthias Fritsch on why and how he is planning to produce a film about the story of my favourite internet meme: the Technoviking, a story that involves millions of users and that lately got him into court continue

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「乗り物」と「ロボット」のホンダが、一輪車のように座って乗る一人用移動マシン「UNI-CUB」 を発表しました。小さな車輪が輪になってひとつの大きな車輪を構成する「Honda Omni Traction Drive System」と旋回用の後輪により、まるで人が歩くように前後左右や斜めへ、さらにその場旋回や旋回せずに真横移動など自由自在に移動できます。前身は2009年に公開されたパーソナルモビリティ「U3-X」と、その操作性・走破性を向上させた2011年モデル「UNI-CUB(ユニカブ)」プロトタイプ。

Continue reading ホンダから座り乗りパーソナルモビリティ UNI-CUB

ホンダから座り乗りパーソナルモビリティ UNI-CUB originally appeared on Engadget Japanese on Mon, 21 May 2012 06:10:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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In five parts, how marginal subcultures took over a Japanese pop culture with no central core nor leading-edge.

Whether or not the country truly suffered something as dire as “lost decades” for the last twenty years, Japan has certainly seen a dramatic change in its social fabric since the bursting of the bubble economy in the early 1990s. Japanese incomes have plummeted since their peak in 1997. Meanwhile companies are shifting more and more job openings to “non-regular” and temporary positions, meaning fewer young workers can even get their foot in the door to future middle-class earnings. Few are confident about their future economic security.

Back when the Japanese economy was strong in the 1980s and even the mid-1990s, Japan arguably had the world’s most vibrant consumer culture. Now in the face of unemployment uncertainty and declining wages, consumers are cutting back, and in response, the marketplace has rapidly shifted from premium goods and services to supplying cheaper substitutes.

So what has this meant for Japanese pop culture? Consumer spending on culture has declined almost parallel to wage decreases, and most markets — music, publishing, fashion — started to slowly implode even before the Internet decelerated demand for analog goods.

The shrinking of cultural markets does not just mean less culture in Japan, however. The hollowing out process has had a distorting effect on the content of the actual culture being produced and distributed. As regular consumers exit the market and leading-edge consumers are forced back underground, “marginal segments” with highly concentrated buying power — particularly, the otaku, yankii, and gyaru — have taken a leadership position in setting tastes and trends. Over the course of this five-part series, we explain this process and also demonstrate the degree to which Japanese pop culture now caters to specific niche audiences rather than reflecting a “mainstream” set of values. Japan may have become the world’s first consumer market without a mass core — and this has significant implications for the future of its cultural exports.

Part One: Incomes and Consumer Expenditures in Decline

Lower incomes, lower allowances

Average Japanese incomes have taken a huge hit over the last 13 years. This chart shows the degree to which salaried employees’ incomes dropped since their peak in 1997. The most significant declines came after 2008’s so-called “Lehman shock,” and even with the slight uptick in 2010 and expected for 2011, wages are still not back to 2008 levels. As Shukan Bunshun calculated, the end result is a loss of ¥220 trillion in lost or declining salaries in the last 12 years (Japan Times). Not all Japanese employees are salaried, of course, but these measures best demonstrate the state of Japan’s middle and upper-middle classes.

Meanwhile the size of the middle class is likely shrinking due to a shift of corporate positions from “regular workers” to “non-regular workers.” Non-regular workers are not guaranteed steady income increases, and therefore, often make 40% of a regular worker salary doing essentially the same job. In 1990, the share of non-regular workers was 20%; in 2007, it was 34% (ref). This has especially affected younger Japanese moving into the workforce for the first time.

Furthermore things have been difficult in the last decade for lower and working class families in Japan, especially the elderly. The number of families receiving government welfare benefits has skyrocketed in the last decade, returning to levels last seen in the early 1960s, before Japan’s “economic miracle.”

Lower incomes mean less discretionary spending. Japanese wives traditionally control the family budget, and in these tenuous times, they are giving less to their husbands as “allowances.” A survey recently found that these allowances are at their lowest point in three decades — ¥76,000 in 1989, now at ¥36,500. Accordingly, men are going out after work less and spending less when they go out. We could assume that parents and grandparents are subsequently giving less to their children in allowances and gift money, although the data suggests that these allowances have not fallen particularly hard. This may be balanced out by the fact that grandparents and parents are able to concentrate smaller payments on fewer children in light of steeply declining birthrate.

Lower expenditures and more inferior goods

With lower incomes and low confidence about future earnings, Japanese consumers have been demanding less expensive products. Many enterprising companies such as clothing brand Uniqlo, beef bowl purveyor Sukiya, and fast food chain McDonalds have reorganized their businesses to provide consumers with the cheapest possible goods. These companies have either taken dominant positions in the market — Uniqlo’s so-called hitorigachi “winner takes all” — or seen record profits like McDonalds.

The proliferation of discount retail and restaurants does not necessarily mean that Japanese people are living worse lives. Deflation has finally brought once sky-high Japanese prices for everyday items in line with Europe and the United States. For example, Uniqlo — which is “extremely cheap” in the eyes of most Japanese — sells relatively high-quality garments at the price American customers expect to pay at a mid-range brand like The Gap. In many ways, deflation has empowered Japanese consumers to get more for their dwindling yen.

What is troubling, however, is the market’s move towards meeting consumer demand with inferior goods. Inferior goods, economically-speaking, are goods that see demand increase as incomes fall. In these instances, consumers choose poor-quality, substitutes for a preferred item. Instead of buying a normal good like fresh deli ham, consumers go for a cheaper, less satisfying product like Potted Meat Food Product. If given limitless choice, the consumer would obviously choose the normal good over the inferior one.

In the case of Japan over the last decade, we have seen a significant rise in popularity of inferior goods and a decrease in demand for premium goods. Japan’s most notable inferior good of the moment is “third-category beer” — a beer-like beverage with nearly zero malt content that sells for slightly less than real beer. Japanese consumers facing no economic constraint would choose Japan’s most iconic (and not particularly expensive) mass market beers such as Asahi Super Dry or Kirin Ichiban Shibori over third-category beer. So what does it say about the consumer market when Japan will soon have a majority “fake beer” market for malt-flavored beverages? Even with falling demand for beer-like drinks, third category beer is seeing growth. This is a sign that the consumer living standard considered normal just a decade ago has fallen dramatically into a new “basket of goods” that would once have be seen as only appropriate for the relatively destitute.

This income-driven demand for cheaper goods is thus changing how companies prioritize production and marketing. Suntory — with a product line that ranges from cheap hooch Tory’s to global award-winning Yamazaki single-malts — has ceased to promote its mid-range whiskeys such as Suntory Old and focuses its mass media campaigns almost exclusively on the cheapest products that can be mixed in low-price highballs. Until recently, Tory’s was a post-war relic that had generally disappeared as the country grew rich, but now Suntory buys extensive train advertisements for this whiskey, which costs only ¥1080 for a 700ml bottle. The company has also invested heavily into entire TV campaigns around the slightly higher-grade but still cheap Suntory Kakubin with stars Koyuki and Kanno Miho.

On the other end of the spectrum, luxury sales in Japan have essentially collapsed. Middle-class Japanese shoppers — buying in Japan and abroad — once made up the single largest global market for European luxury goods. Now China is set to overtake Japan in terms of luxury demand. Although the market for import apparel and accessories peaked in the mid-1990s and department stores — one of the main sites for luxury consumption — have suffered a structural and steady decline since that time as well, the top global brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada managed to achieve strong prolonged growth within a nominally shrinking market.

Since 2008, however, most of the luxury brands have seen serious drops in sales. And even with luxury’s bounce-back around the rest of the world, Japan experienced a continued decline in sales until a slight uptick very recently. Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags were once the mainstream standard for middle-class (and even lower middle-class) women, but judging from the streets of Tokyo, young women now prefer furoku canvas bags that come for free inside of a magazine. There have been signs of slight luxury business recovery in recent months, but this can mostly be explained as Japan’s upper class going out to shop again and Chinese consumers visiting Tokyo. Luxury goods will likely never again be a part of the middle-class “standard.”

Japan, of course, was always an exception here: Young clerical workers with low incomes generally do not put themselves in debt to buy handbags intended for the very rich. Still, this is another example of how Japanese consumers have completely changed their lifestyle expectations regarding consumption over the last decade. In the next part of the series, we will see how lower incomes and reduced expenditures have directly impacted markets for cultural goods.

Next time: How markets for cultural goods have imploded in the last decade.

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Spanish “rejoneador” or mounted bullfighter Sergio Galan performs during his bullfight at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Saturday May 28, 2011.

Amanda Carper holds her son Silas, 5 months, as she searches through the rubble of her deceased grandfather Charles Oster’s home after a massive tornado passed through the town killing at least 132 people on May 27, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri. Oster was 77 years old and perished during the tornado. The town continues the process of recovering from the storm which damaged or destroyed an estimated 8,000 structures.

Nicolas B. Rushlow, 13, left, from Lancaster, Ohio is embraced by his mother Michelle after being eliminated during the semifinals of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Thursday, June 2, 2011. Rushlow spelled ‘drusy’ incorrectly.

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Spanish "rejoneador" or mounted bullfighter Sergio Galan performs during his bullfight at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Saturday May 28, 2011.(AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza) #

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Enthusiast Tommy Hall, dances with singer Miss Katie Spitfire on the platform during the 1940's re-enactment weekend on May 28, 2011 in Bury, England. Re-enactors dressed in 1940s fashion will attend the wartime weekend for nostalgic celebrations including tea dances, make-do-and-mend demonstrations and battle re-enactments. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images) #

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"Brother Hermes" (L) performs an exorcism on Claudia Gaviria, 28, who claims to be possessed by spirits, on June 1, 2011, in La Cumbre, Valle del Cauca department, Colombia. "Brother Hermes", as calls himself Hermes Cifuentes, 50, has performed exorcism rituals during the last 20 years. AFP PHOTO/Luis ROBAYO #

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Singer Cody Simpson performs as his female fans do their best to push closer to him at a promotion for Footlocker and Pastry Footwear at Westfield Miranda on May 28, 2011 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images) #

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Amanda Carper holds her son Silas, 5 months, as she searches through the rubble of her deceased grandfather Charles Oster's home after a massive tornado passed through the town killing at least 132 people on May 27, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri. Oster was 77 years old and perished during the tornado. The town continues the process of recovering from the storm which damaged or destroyed an estimated 8,000 structures. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) #

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Bob Thornburg, left, and his brother Matt Thornburg, both from Las Vegas, Nev., salvage items Sunday, May 29, 2011 as they sort through the remains of a house occupied by their brother Gene Thronburg and mother Peggy Thornburg in Joplin, Mo. An EF-5 tornado tore through much of the city a week ago damaging a hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses and killing at least 139 people. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) #

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A museum worker stands near the entrance to an installation art work entitled "My Universe - The Beginning" by contemporary Chinese artiste Zhan Wang held in conjunction with luxury brand Louis Vuitton's Voyages exhibition held at the National Museum of China in Beijing, China, Tuesday, May 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) #

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A pedestrian smokes a cigar as he passes in front of the New York Stock Exchange in New York, Thursday, June 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) #

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An Amish farmer plows his field behind six draft horses June 2, 2011 in New Wilmington, southwestern Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images) #

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A Pakistani boy walks toward a water point to collect water for his family, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, June 2, 2011. The U.S. should hold back much of its $7.5 billion aid package to Pakistan until it reforms dysfunctional policies related to energy, taxes and other areas, according to a new report that criticizes the American aid program's focus in a country beset by corruption, poverty and militancy. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen) #

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Indian tourists ride traditional boats on the Dal Lake, on the outskirts of Srinagar, India, Wednesday, June 1, 2011. Set in the Himalayas at 5,600 feet (1707 meters) above sea level, Kashmir is a green, saucer-shaped valley full of fruit orchards and surrounded by snowy mountain ranges. About 100 lakes dot its highlands and plains. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin) #

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Barcelona's Brazilian defender Adriano Correia celebrates during a gathering with supporters at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on May 29, 2011 a day after the team won the UEFA Champions League final football match against Manchester United. AFP PHOTO/ JOSEP LAGO #

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The arm of a mannequin sticks out from the rubble in a devastated neighborhood in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, in northeastern Japan, Monday, May 30, 2011 which was destroyed in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The twin disasters, which damaged crucial cooling systems at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, left more than 24,000 people dead or missing in northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #

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New cadets for the Libyan rebel army dance and chant anti Moammar Gadhafi slogans before the ceremony graduation in Benghazi, Libya, Sunday, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd) #

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A paraglider flies over the athletic stadium on May 31, 2011 during the Zlata Tretra (Golden Spike) athletics meeting in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava. AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR #

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Hans Van Alphen of Belgium throws a discus during the men's discus throw event on the second day of the men's decathlon meeting held in Goetzis, Austria on May 29, 2011. AFP PHOTO/SAMUEL KUBANI #

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A group of women dressed as brides hold sheets of paper that read in Spanish: "No to Keiko Fujimori, Because I teach my children the truth, Marry the truth," at a church in Lima, Peru, Saturday, May 28, 2011. Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned ex-President Alberto Fujimori, will face former army officer Ollanta Humala in a presidential runoff on June 5. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia) #

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An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Richard C. Emmons III Thursday, June 2, 2011 at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Emmons, 22, of North Granby, Conn., died May 31, 2011 in Logar province, Afghanistan of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with a rocket propelled grenade. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark) #

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Spanish bullfighter Ivan Fandino performs during a bullfight in Madrid, Thursday, June 2, 2011. Bullfighting is an ancient tradition in Spain and the season runs from March to October. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza) #

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Nicolas B. Rushlow, 13, left, from Lancaster, Ohio is embraced by his mother Michelle after being eliminated during the semifinals of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Thursday, June 2, 2011. Rushlow spelled 'drusy' incorrectly. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) #

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An Indian laborer carries a basket of mangoes at the wholesale mango market in Bangalore, India, Friday, June 3, 2011. India recognizes mango as its national fruit and is the world's largest mango producer with about 13 million tons each year, far exceeding all other countries. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi) #

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A Buddhist monk carries a container of incense around a monastery during early morning religious rituals near the Boudhanath Stupa, a world heritage site and an important pilgrimage site, in Katmandu, Nepal, Friday, June 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha ) #

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