Japan - a Culture of Consumption?

Laurel Anderson, Arizona State University
Marsha Wadkins, University of Virginia
ABSTRACT - The shinjinrgi or "new breed" in Japan has many parallel characteristics to consumers in the United States when it became a culture of consumption. Two structural aspects of Japanese culture - the "synthetic ideal" and the "sacred nothing" have components that seem to both facilitate and inhibit Japan's becoming a culture of consumption. These two structural aspects are examined with regard to their impact on Japan's development into a culture of consumption.
[ to cite ]:
Laurel Anderson and Marsha Wadkins (1991) ,"Japan - a Culture of Consumption?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 129-134.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 129-134


Laurel Anderson, Arizona State University

Marsha Wadkins, University of Virginia


The shinjinrgi or "new breed" in Japan has many parallel characteristics to consumers in the United States when it became a culture of consumption. Two structural aspects of Japanese culture - the "synthetic ideal" and the "sacred nothing" have components that seem to both facilitate and inhibit Japan's becoming a culture of consumption. These two structural aspects are examined with regard to their impact on Japan's development into a culture of consumption.


A number of observers have noted a major socio-economic shift which is occurring in Japan. Most of the attention has focused on a phenomenon known as the shinjinrui (translation, "new human beings" or "new breed"). This generation of young Japanese appears to constitute a major break with the past. The shinjinrui are characterized by personal ambition, an appreciation for the "good life", and an emphasis on individuality and self-actualization (see Nakano 1988a, 1988b; Fuchino 1988, Iwao 1988). They represent the first class of modern consumers in Japan. This description of the shinjinrui has many interesting parallels to consumers in the United States at the turn of the century. Many factors contributed to the transformation of the United States into a consumer culture at the turn of the century. Technological innovations precipitated vastly increased production capabilities. A rising level of affluence expanded buying power. But perhaps most significant was the development of limitless demand. Insatiability became a vital component of economic expansion. A major factor in the proliferation of wants was the linkage of consumer goods with self-hood. A characteristic of a culture of consumption is that one's sense of personal identity and one's relationship to others become increasingly mediated by commodities. An individual's identity is tied to what one consumes rather than in a production culture where an individual's identity is more tied to what one produces. Advertising both reflected and enabled this phenomenon, by associating goods with love, happiness, social status, and independence (see Leiss, Kline and Jhally 1986; Fox and Lears 1983; Marchand 1985; Ewen 1976; Belk and Pollay 1985; McCracken 1986; and Anderson and Wadkins 1989a on the development of a consumer culture in the United States and the role of advertising.

Japan is undergoing a similar expansion in buying power and a shift toward more emphasis on consumption by individuals. As mentioned, there are striking parallels between the shinjinrui and the first modern consumers in the United States (Anderson and Wadkins 1989b). However, what is questionable is the way and degree to which Japan will complete the transformation to a consumer culture. Despite economic pressures which favor the shift, there are mitigating factors. As will be discussed, in some ways, Japan is uniquely adapted to the linking of commodities and self definition. But other aspects exert a countervailing force. Both tendencies are functions of two structural principles which characterize Japanese culture: "the synthetic ideal" (Buruma 1984) and "the sacred nothing" (Barthes 1982). These principles deal with the traditional constitution of "self' and society.

We will first explore the socio-economic changes which point to a shift toward a consumer culture, including the trend toward a service economy and the rise of the shinjinrui. We will then explicate the two structural principles and explore their manifestations in traditional and modern cultural elements; we will argue that the absence of moral absolutes and the construction of multiple selves which characterize Japanese culture predispose it to the adoption of a consumer mentality. However, the dichotomy between real and ideal and the relationship between visual representation and fantasy oppose the development, because they limit the effectiveness of advertising in promoting demand. Through their contradictory influences "the synthetic ideal" and "the sacred nothing" make the shift to a consumer culture uniquely Japanese. They also serve as the means by which indigenous cultural values may persist despite a surface "Westernization".


Japan's economic growth in the post-WWII years has been an astonishing success story. Through hard work, sacrifice, and a strong emphasis on cooperative effort, the Japanese have transformed themselves into a modern industrial power. But observers agree that a certain phase has ended and another has begun. The present period is referred to as the "post-recovery" era, and appears to mark the end of rapid economic growth. The slowing began in the mid-1970s, and coincided with the oil crisis of 1973-74. Since then, a restructuring of Japan's economy has gradually taken hold. Noda (1988) notes that the number of smaller retail companies is declining, while the proportion of information and service industries is increasing. These shifts have begun to alter the nature of work in Japan. Fuchino (1988) points out that the ratio of highly educated individuals is increasing while the value of a college education in the work force is declining. Job obsolescence is a reality for many workers. While they are guaranteed employment, they face being transferred to another company. They may find themselves doing unfamiliar work, and many have to relocate away from their families. The possibility of promotion, once an almost certain reward for seniority, is now more often based on merit. The result is an erosion of the strong corporate loyalty which has characterized the work force during the last 40 years. As Fuchino writes, work in Japan is becoming a "private affair" (1988, p.17). Workers are less concerned with group cohesiveness and more concerned with personal advancement. "Job-hopping", once socially unacceptable, is becoming more commonplace. Thus the emotional satisfaction derived from feeling a part of a corporate "family" producing, is diminishing. At the same time, work itself is becoming less absorbing, as highly skilled positions are replaced by service-sector jobs requiring less training. Rather than a source of fulfillment, work is becoming a means to an end.

Despite a slowing of growth and job restructuring, Japan is still a relatively affluent society. Over 90% of the Japanese characterize themselves as "middle-class" (Noda 1988, p. 27). In the past, much of what workers earned was saved, accounting for Japan's traditionally high rate of savings and its low interest rates. This frugality was in part nominative, and in part the result of a dearth of consumer goods. Both aspects are changing. With work less fulfilling, workers are turning to leisure pursuits for satisfaction, and displaying a willingness to spend, not save. Lifestyles are diversifying, and self-definition is becoming a matter of consumption patterns. Just as the United States did at the turn of the century, Japan is becoming a society where one's identity is a function of how one consumes, not what one produces. The shinjinrui represent the vanguard of this transformation. Observers have noted their need for instant gratification, reflected in the proliferation of credit cards (Iwao 1988). The "new breed" is associated with a preoccupation with fashion, hobbies, and the mass media. Rather than conforming to traditional patterns of consumption, which involved never living above one's station, or place in the corporate hierarchy, they seek higher status through consumption.

Along with a shift in the nature of work, Japan has also seen a transformation in the make-up of the family. The traditional emphasis on the extended family has been replaced by the nuclear family structure common to the West. The "average Japanese household" now consists of 3 members (Iwao, 1988, p.4). This atomization of the social collectivity has reinforced the tendency toward individuality and diversity.

The changes in work and family structure are functions of the larger economic shift occurring in Japan. It is now national policy in Japan to decrease the number of working hours in an effort to stimulate domestic demand and perhaps reduce international criticism on the large trade surplus (Fields, 1988). These changes have created a climate receptive to the proliferation of consumer goods. This tendency is reinforced by the demands of the new economic order. An economy built upon consumer goods is one where novelty and variety are preeminent values. Iwao notes that between 1975 and 1985, the number of different labels of beer increased by 500%, while overall production only rose by 20% (1988,p 2). Mass-lot production is being replaced by smaller lots, creating greater opportunities for people to individuate themselves through commodities.

The socio-economic changes occurring in Japan seem to support the conclusion that it is being transformed into a true consumer culture. The rise to prominence of the shinjinrui lends added support. But, if this is true and if the changes occurring in Japan merely replicate the transformation which occurred earlier in the United States, then a larger question looms. What is the significance of indigenous Japanese values and institutions? If they are inconsequential, then the consolidation into a culture of consumption similar to the United States is a foregone conclusion. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In some respects, Japanese culture is highly compatible with the values of a consumer culture. In other respects, it is not, and raises questions in particular about the potential effectiveness of advertising. The constellation of values with which we are concerned may be grouped into two general categories: the "synthetic ideal" and the "sacred nothing".


The "synthetic ideal"

In Japan...people are not interested so much in 'real selves' and no attempts are made to hide the fake. On the contrary, artificiality is appreciated for its own sake (Buruma 1984, p.69).

The value placed on artifice is perhaps the dominant aesthetic principle underlying the arts in Japan. The great Kabuki actor Yoshisawa Ayame (1673-1729) referred to this as "the synthetic ideal", a term which is as viable today as it was over two centuries ago (Buruma 1984, p.116). The logic behind the synthetic ideal involves a dichotomy between "real" and "ideal". Roland Barthes characterizes artistic expression in Japan as where "reality f . . [is] signified but not represented" (1982, p.91). Art in Japan deals almost wholly with a world removed from everyday experience. Beauty is found not in that which is natural, but in that which is skillfully cultivated. Buruma sees at the heart of the synthetic ideal a "principle of depersonalization" (1984, p.115). The individuating qualities which characterize the particular are subordinated to stylized representations of the universal. This can be seen behind such manifestations as the geisha (where make-up obliterates individual differences); No theater (masks) and even Sumo wrestlers (where fat is used as a "costume"). Clearly the purpose in such artistry is not to capture or expose that which is, but to create that which is not. Since representing "real life" is not the goal, the subterfuge is explicit. Indeed, to emphasize the unreality is to emphasize the degree of skill necessary to create the illusion. In Japan, there is a long-standing tradition of puppet theater, which predates Kabuki. Unlike marionettes (or muppets) in the West, in Japan little attempt is made to conceal the puppeteers. They share the stage with the large puppets. Kabuki evolved in part out of this tradition. The stylized movements of Kabuki actors were intended to mimic the puppets; not, as Buruma notes "life" (1984). The synthetic ideal is perhaps best expressed by the omagata, the male actors who specialize in female roles in Kabuki. The collective rationale for this clearly demonstrates the synthetic ideal at work: it is believed that men playing women are more beautiful than any woman could be. As Buruma writes,

people do not pretend the ideal has anything to do with reality. They enjoy seeing Lady MacBeth played by a famous Kabuki star, precisely because it is more artificial, thus more skillful, in a word, more beautiful (1984, p.117).

The illusion is thus valued so highly because it is so difficult to achieve. This can be seen in bonsai cultivation, where painstaking training and shaping are employed to create a stylized, miniaturized version of "nature". An additional demonstration of the synthetic ideal lies in the re-creation of Hawaii in Kagoshima, Japan. An artificial microcosm of Hawaii was built complete with a staff made up of Hawaiian dancers in hula skirts, palm-tree motifs, "alohas," a Hawaiian restaurant, a quasi-Hawaiian jungle, etc. As Buruma (1989) wonders:

"One suspects that many people prefer this artificial paradise to the real thing. The synthetic is traditionally favored over the organic, the miniature considered more beautiful than the original model." (23)

Artists in the West have traditionally sought to convey some sense of the authentic nature of their subjects. Portraiture, novels, theater and landscape painting have been perceived as vehicles through which reality could be transmitted. To borrow from the semioticians, in the artistic tradition of the West, specific works signify specific aspects of reality; they strive to individuate their subjects. In Japan, works of art signify the ideal; they strive to represent an abstraction. Barthes (1982) notes that Japanese grammar distinguishes animate from inanimate objects; and that fictional characters are classified as inanimate.

As Buruma (1984) points out, focusing artistic expression on the presentation of an ideal abstraction from reality imbues the work of art with an inevitable sense of pathos. Beauty is only possible through illusion; it is not a given in the real world. The ideal can never be attained; only symbolized.

The gulf between real and ideal in Japan reveals itself in a number of ways. One not yet dealt with here is the imagery of masks, traditionally associated with No theater. Barthes refers to the practice of masking or painting the face in Japan as "the written face"; turning the face into a canvas devoid of real expression (1982, p.36). As a metaphor, masking transcends No, and pervades Japanese social life. Buruma points to the "striking gap" between public and private personas in Japan (1984, p.69). Outside the home, roles are rigidly prescribed. It is not considered appropriate to express one's true feelings publicly. The ease with which the Japanese may switch roles can be disconcerting to Westerners, particularly Americans, who stress openness and "being themselves". Of course, role playing is a feature of all cultures. In many. however, the illusion of authenticity is maintained. In Japan, no attempt is made to conceal the subterfuge. Thus, for Japanese society, the synthetic ideal greatly impresses through its artificiality and the beauty of this which is unattainable in reality.

The "sacred nothing"

Besides the synthetic ideal, another related structural principle mediates the relationship between artistic expression and life in Japan; it is what Barthes called "the sacred nothing" (1982, p.32). Traditionally the Emperor was a role almost without an inhabitant, unseen, unheard, and essentially lacking in political power. Buruma describes this system as a hierarchy with a void at the top (1984). Barthes notes that the spatial layout of Tokyo reflects this principle, since unlike most Western cities its center is not densely populated - it is "empty". It is there that the Emperor resides, his palace hidden from view. Lacking a "self"; an individual identity, the Emperor is instead whatever his subjects perceive his as being. This carries over to the individual Japanese also. In fact, the Japanese have a phrase to express the shallow and fragile concepts of themselves as individual entities. The phrase jibun ga mai means "I have no self." Sociologists say this concept is probably unique to the Japanese. Given the "Japanese Way" of giving precedence to the group, it is understandable why this feeling became a significant aspect of the Japanese character. (DeMente, 1989).

The ambiguity which characterizes the image of the Emperor is the primary political manifestation of the "sacred nothing". But the ideological repercussions are much broader. Buruma, writing about the indigenous religion of Japan, argues that "Shinto has many rituals but no dogma" (1984, p.4). Shintoism is a moral system devoid of absolutes. Good and bad are seen as relative terms dependent on the particular social context. Given this relativism, as Buruma notes, the concept of evil, or "original sin", is absent. Instead, the ultimate transgression involves "pollution", or the violation of boundaries (Buruma 1984). The key elements in this system are the hierarchy of relationships, and proper conduct. One is dependent on the other. This is a contextual system. How people act toward each other is a function of their relative status. The emphasis is on adherence to a code of behavior that depends on the context one is in. Form takes precedence over substance; that one acts correctly for the situation.

Many Japanese scholars have identified the seeming ease by which the Japanese accept change and are adaptable to situations (c.f. Christopher, 1983). Political ideologies and religious philosophies do not provide the same absolute basis for most Japanese as they do for many Westerners. There is an indifference to any settled foundations. This perplexes many Westerners who have different ideas of integrity and trust, (Maruyama, 1969). Robert Christopher believes that because of this remarkable degree of flexibility, "there is no nation whose social and political course over the long term is as chancy to predict as Japan's." (55).

Three manifestations of this sacred nothing structure are in packaging, (Sherry and Camargo 1987) in the Japanese language and in the format of advertising. Barthes (1982) discusses the semantic purpose of Japanese packages. Here the careful design, geometric lines, and interplay of materials create a package that is a temporary accessory meant to transport an object, but itself becomes the precious object. The box becomes the object, not what it contains. In fact, Japanese packaging specializes in presenting the triviality of the object inside as disproportionate to the luxury of the envelope. Thus, the inside is, in essence, emptied and contains nothing. This is evidenced in the care and attention that marketers in Japan need to take in packaging.

With regard to language, this "nothingness" of the self except with dependence on the context, is vividly demonstrated. Two fundamental characteristics of the Japanese language may reflect the conception of the self held by speakers of the language. The first characteristic is keigo, which translates as "respect language." Japanese is a language that is close to devoid of vocabulary that is neutral with respect to status differences. Keigo expresses status differences, respect, deference and intimacy. It is necessary to know another person's status relative to one's self before the correct language can be used. This presents a challenge to advertising copywriters who want to appeal to masses. Secondly, in the Japanese language, the personal pronoun, "I", is always relational and thus, constantly shifting in Japanese (Miyoshi, 1979).

Mood advertising identified as the prototype of Japanese advertising is consistent with the "sacred nothing" also. The "packaging," the contextual or mood aspect, is the foreground of the ads. The center or product itself often receives little explicit emphasis. The extensive contextual cues allow Japanese consumers to determine the appropriateness of the product for them and its appropriate use.


Facilitating a culture of consumption

The dual principles of the synthetic ideal and the sacred nothing both reinforce and hinder the development of a consumer culture. They promote consumption through the fostering of multiple identities and the emphasis on form over substance. The synthetic ideal and the sacred nothing are principles of personal identity based on the assumption of multiple roles. The "self" is compartmentalized and contextual. Buruma (1984) notes the "theatricality" which the Japanese bring to daily life, the care with which different professions dress and act to differentiate themselves. This construction of self-hood through appearance and behavior would seem to mesh with a developing consumer culture. One principle which drives an economy based on the production of consumer goods is the assumption one can create an identity through what one purchases. (see Lears 1983 on the creation of the "self"). The notion of "lifestyle" is a function of this belief. if one's self-identity is a matter of acting a role, then linking that with consumption would seem to be a logical progression.

This focus on the superficial aspects of the self is one way in which the synthetic ideal could reinforce consumption. Another is its preoccupation with fantasy. The ceaseless demand for new products in consumer cultures is fueled by the implicit linkage of those products with one's aspirations. By associating commodities with emotional gratification, wealth, power, and/or fame, consumption is endowed with the ability to transform lives.

In Japanese popular culture today, fantasy is the predominant idiom. Particularly in the visual arts-film and manga, the setting is almost always someplace else in place or time. Science fiction is featured prominently, as are samurai epics set in feudal Japan. Buruma (1984) suggests that the escapist nature of mass entertainment in Japan is in part a response to the repressive, conformist nature of the social order. The synthetic ideal's association of beauty with artifice reinforces this aspect, because it posits an aesthetic sense grounded in unreality. Since their visual arts are so preoccupied with fantasy, the Japanese would appear to be predisposed to accept advertising claims which link products with aspirations.

The "sacred nothing" also could be seen to promote a consumer culture. Like the synthetic ideal, it favors form over content, rules over dogma. As noted before, this tendency is compatible with consumerism, because it links identity with role playing and surface appearance. The sacred nothing also pertains to the lack of an overall paradigm. Buruma notes the ease with which the Japanese tolerate contradictions. This is, in part, a function of morality in Shintoism. One may be violent in one context and gentle in another. Ruth Benedict focuses on this phenomenon in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). This aspect also could favor consumption, because at times the implicit claims about commodities ability to provide self-fulfillment and emotional gratification are contradictory. The very notion that one can individuate oneself by the purchase of mass-produced goods is paradoxical.

Inhibiting a culture of consumption

Despite the ways in which the synthetic ideal and the sacred nothing would seem to make Japan uniquely receptive to the development of a consumption ethic, the transformation to a consumer culture cannot be conceded. This is because both these structural principles also contain elements which work against consumption. In the case of the sacred nothing, there is the contextual notion of hierarchy. Implicit in the relationship between self-identity and consumer goods is the concept of individualism. In a culture dominated by an ethic of consumption, social status is seen as a function of how one consumes. "Keeping up with the Jones"' suggests the possibility of social mobility through selective purchasing. This wisdom can be seen in the popular adage that to succeed in business one should dress like those in the next tier of management. The belief that commodities can enhance individualism runs counter to the traditional Japanese emphasis on hierarchy and the collectivity. One writer notes that there are strong norms which dictate proper buying behavior among corporate wives in Japan. Women are careful to select items which reflect their husband's status in the company. Care is taken not to appear ostentatious. The writer compares this approach to the "Western" mode of consumption, which is competitive and seeks to alter the status quo (Masatsuga 1982, pp. 59-60).

The potential limiting effect of the synthetic ideal on the development of a consumer culture in Japan is even greater because it raises doubts about the efficacy of consumption. The synthetic ideal posits a dichotomy between reality and the ideal. The latter is "ideal" by virtue of not being real. Hence depictions of courage, beauty, or love in Japanese popular culture are set somewhere other than the here and now. As noted previously, a preoccupation with fantasy could work in favor of a consumption ethic. The difference in Japan is that fantasy is viewed as unattainable. Implicitly, the message is that attempts to satisfy one's deepest longings are futile. Buruma (1984) notes how evocative a metaphor the cherry tree is in Japan - its beauty is heightened by its brief period of bloom. So much of drama in Japan is tragic; happy endings are very rare, even in mar ga. This aspect of artistic representation would seem to work against the efficacy of some types of advertising. Ads often promise the attainment of one's fantasies through their products. But for ads to successfully link goods with an image and then translate that into sales, some suspension of disbelief is required. In opposing fantasy to everyday life, the synthetic ideal would seem to make this difficult.


Because these elements of Japanese culture can work for and against an ethic of consumption, they pose a real dilemma for those attempting to predict whether a Western-style consumer culture will take hold. Attempting to analyze the effects of a social structure predicated on internal contradictions is a complex process. Structural anthropology has noted the apparently universal co-existence of structural principles which constitute opposing forces in society. Levi-Strauss (1969) laid the groundwork theoretically in his writings on myth. Myths, he believes, are vehicles for an ongoing collective dialogue about social structure. Levi Strauss posits that all such systems are built upon internal contradictions. Myths act to mitigate such contradictions by elucidating them symbolically and then through a series of transformations, resolving them. Other anthropologists have considered the social consequences of structural contradictions. Victor Turner spent years studying Notembu society and the ways in which rituals serve to redress imbalances. In Schism and Continuity 11957). Turner analyzes the regularities in form and process which constitute social structure. From those, he derives certain contradictions. Social roles and norms are seen as making conflicting demands on individuals. The result is that norms are violated and tensions ensue. Through rituals, which Turner likened to social dramas, contradictions are acknowledged, and society is reintegrated.

Turner's work suggests that contradictory structural principles operate a kind of collective energy. But his work (and that of other symbolic anthropologists) raises the possibility of social change, as well. Contradictions may require mechanisms for maintaining equilibrium, or they may transform the system. That is the issue which is raised by current developments in Japan.

The issues raised by the interaction of macro economic change and traditional structural principles in Japan are both theoretical and practical. In terms of the former, we would argue that assumptions about economic development based on a Western model need to take into account the effects of indigenous cultural elements. Whether the combined influence of the synthetic ideal and the sacred nothing works to promote or hinder the conversion of Japan into a consumer culture is problematic. As we have demonstrated, some of the "modern" qualities which are associated with the shinjinrui may instead be the influence of traditional values and structures. We would argue that despite "Westernization", the indigenous culture is still enormously influential. It may be that its strong representation in the visual arts and popular culture is a means of preserving structures which are uniquely Japanese in spite of socio-economic change.

In practical terms, the efficacy of advertising is brought into question. Given the balance of trade, the United States is pursuing Japan as an expanding market. But given the questions raised by the synthetic ideal, it is not possible to assume that ads will stimulate buying. If the dichotomy between reality and fantasy is strongly held, then consumption as a means to fulfill aspirations is discounted. Advertising may, as just another kind of visual representation, be seen as unrelated to real life. Observers, including Buruma (1984), have noted that the extreme violence which characterizes much of popular culture in Japan is in sharp contrast to what is essentially a non-violent society. This ability to compartmentalize cultural elements reflects the influence of the sacred nothing, and suggests that the value transmuted by ads may not effect behavior. Questions about the effectiveness of advertising in Japan need to be answered. The outcome is of crucial importance to the Japanese as well. Their economy is attempting to make the switch to one dominated by the service sector and predicated on consumer goods. Whether demand can achieve the necessary levels is crucial. The consequences for indigenous cultural values if the transformation to a consumer culture is completed, could be dramatic. The consequences for Japan's economic survival if the transformation is not completed could also be dramatic.


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