Growing Up Japanese Style: Early Maturity Shapes Japan’s Young Consumers

Marketing used to be easy. Assume a growing population. Capture a decent share of each new generation of consumers. With a constant share and natural increase in market size, the job was half done at the start. In today’s Japan, however, marketers confront a real dilemma. Japan is one of the world’s most dramatically aging societies, where the number of consumers over sixty-five is now larger than the number of those fifteen and younger. Each new generation is shrinking. Constant share means declining sales. And figuring out what the young are up to seems more difficult than ever. A decade ago, while writing Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers, based on research conducted by HILL, the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living. I started a chapter on kids as follows:

Worries about the younger generation are a universal phenomenon. Anxieties about Japanese youth do seem, however, to have a special intensity. In the Nikkei Shimbun’s ‘Warning Bell from the Year 2020’ series, we find them likened to the characters described in the late Meiji novels of Natsume Sôseki. Sunaga Ichizô, the protagonist of Higansugi made (Until the Equinox) says, ‘Since graduating from school last year, I haven’t spent a single day thinking about getting a job.’ Like Sunaga, Japan’s younger generation feel polluted by making too big a fuss over work. They resemble those Japanese who, shortly after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, found themselves strangely listless and unable to find a meaning in life.

It was, then, with particular interest that I turned to the February 1, 2008 issue of Senden Kaigi, a magazine that for over a half century has tracked trends in marketing and creativity in Japan, and found a special section titled, “Everything marketers should know about the young.” I was looking for something new. What I found was familiar. The first of the HILL studies examined in the chapter on kids in Japanese Consumer Behavior was conducted in 1982. It discovered that the children of Japan’s Baby Boomers were behaving like small adults. Their ambitions were limited. Their dreams were small.

This conclusion was reinforced by a study of 10 to 14 year olds conducted in 1997, in which children were compared to water striders, insects that skitter across the surface of ponds held up by water tension. Like water striders, Japanese kids were, the study said, deftly skating across life’s surface, apparently oblivious to dangers or opportunities lurking below. A third study conducted in 1993 observed that 15-19 year olds avoided conflict and — a message of particular importance to brand managers — detested pushy, hard-sell forms of communication. The Senden Kaigi special section begins with a piece by social psychologist Rika Kayama who says that young Japanese limit their dreams to what seems possible. If they fail even once in their lives, they give up and become drifters. They don’t make any special effort. They accept whatever happens.

The next authority cited is psychiatrist Tamaki Saito. Saito says that today’s young Japanese avoid membership in groups united by clear ideas. They seem to prefer an insignificant life. The times seem to have shifted from one in which young people felt that society was losing its way to one in which they prefer it that way. But Saito’s most striking observation is this: The generation gap is disappearing. Increasingly young Japanese resemble their parents, who coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s were already growing up in a society where stifling social demands were offset by growing affluence. The pervasive lesson was, “Keep your head down,” the pervasive demand, “Get off my back.”

Next up are more practical matters. Akira Tokita, famous in Japan as the promoter of loose socks (a 1980s mega trend) and subsequent leggings and tights booms says that the classic approach of using a celebrity to exemplify a brand no longer works. Young people’s tastes are too diverse, and no one wants to be just like everyone else anymore. Mihoko Matsumoto, Keisuke Yano, and Asako Baba all edit magazines that target “low teen”(aged 10-15) females. Matsumoto asserts that low teen girls dream of being models. Increasingly they are targeted by a fashion industry that finds older segments already saturated. Yano observes that the age range of the “teen” market is being pushed downward and notes the importance of the cell phone in the lives of today’s Japanese teenagers. He asserts that Japanese teens are looking for authenticity but want to judge it for themselves. They reject adult attempts to determine it for them. Baba notes that the number of those who hold fast to their own opinions and don’t want to be cheated by adults is growing fast. I recall the young man who, in a 1993 HILL study, is reported to have said, “Hold on to your own opinions. Talk of better and worse is like pissing in the face of a frog” [that is, it rolls right off].

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