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.
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.
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.