Showa Nostalgia

At Decks Mall in Tokyo’s Odaiba there is a whole floor devoted to an attraction called Daiba Itchome Shoutengai. That precinct of the shopping centre is a self-contained step back in time to the urban Japan of the sixties. The place is bursting with candy, trinkets, games, toys and vintage pinball and video game machines (the video-games are admittedly a seventies innovation, but no need to let that get in the way of a good time!). There is an eclectic mix of old and new on show but, on the whole, as you’d expect in Japan the attention to historic detail is very faithful. As an immersive shopping experience I have yet to experience anything quite like it!

Daiba Itchome Shoutengai is but one example of Showa nostalgia in Japan. Several hit movies and dramas such as the “Always” series and “Tokyo Tower: Mom, and Me, and Sometimes Dad” hark back to an earlier era where human relations were warmer and seemed somehow more innocent.

But why does late-period Showa imagery hold such relevance in today’s Japan? On the surface it’s quite easy to explain it in terms of the huge demographic bulge of baby boomers who experienced the significant moments of their youth in the sixties. There is of course an element of personal nostalgia in a cohort of the population driving this, but it is equally true that young people find the aesthetics of the era attractive. When I visited Daiba Itchome most of the people around me would not have even been born in the Showa era!

It may be helpful to turn back to those golden years of the sixties and compare them to today to garner some clues. The sixties were a time when the Japanese economic miracle was in full flight. The country had rebuilt itself from the ashes of World War Two, and was basking in the pride of a successful 1964 Olympic Games — Japan’s post-war ‘coming-out’ party. The country’s technical prowess was beginning to be recognised around the world due to game-changing innovations such as the Shinkansen high-speed rail network. Levels of trust in politicians were high. The society was able to put aside what differences may have existed in favour of the greater goal of catching up with the West and making Japan great. People were not wealthy, but the times were the most prosperous Japan had experienced to date; and the entire country could look to the future with a high degree of hope.

Fast-forward to 2012 and we can see that, although Japanese society is far from coming unstuck, the conditions that prevailed in the sixties no longer hold true. Today, the rest of Asia has also advanced a lot from its agrarian roots. Korean companies are, to put it politely, eating the Japanese consumer electronics behemoths’ lunch. The Chinese economy has surpassed Japan’s in size, making Japan’s hegemonic ambitions of the 20th century seem almost quaint. Politicians, no matter what they do, seem only able to disappoint, and the revolving door of prime ministers seems to be spinning constantly.

Whether Japan is in permanent decline or not, it is most definitely suffering from a confidence problem. A psychiatrist might describe it as suffering from a case of chronic depression, as it struggles to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The patient knows he’s unhappy but can’t understand the roots of the problem or the actions he might take to make his life work again.

The sixties were time when the wonder of the new was still in force. Japan was finally beginning to experience the things that those in America had enjoyed for some time. It was much easier to see the way forward and people knew what they had to do to have a successful life. In the current era, this is not clear and insecurity about the future rules. This is leading to “smaller” lives and smaller ambitions. In terms of consumption habits people are taking joys in the little things — a new blouse from H&M, a trip to Disneyland, a new app for their Apple or Android smartphone and so forth.

The appeal of the nostalgia of a safer era can be seen as part of a drive to greater simplicity among Japanese consumers. This drive is associated with the need to know about where things come from and, post Fukushima, to know that food and consumer products are safe. The idea that consumption should not be wasteful was definitely given a boost by the power-saving efforts after Fukushima, and this yearning for simplicity and authenticity is driving a renewed appreciation, even among the young, for the past and for traditional Japanese culture. In many ways, in a time of unprecedented challenge for Japan, people are falling back on the things they know and trust the most. Society is undergoing an extended phase of modesty and personal consolidation, and marketers that know how to address that need are sure to enjoy continued relevance in today’s stagnant market.

CarterJMRN is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients with consumers and businesses in Japan and beyond since 1989.

We believe that, although the terrain you face in building a successful marketing strategy and activation path sometimes seems obscure, the path to success is knowable and that the consumer is the guide who will show you the way.

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