Cross Culture Management

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Cross-Cultural Materialism: Commodifying Culture in Japan

Mary Yoko Brannen, School of Business Administration, The University of Michigan [ to cite ]: 
Mary Yoko Brannen (1992) ,"Cross-Cultural Materialism: Commodifying Culture in Japan", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 167-180. [pic]

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 167-180

CROSS-CULTURAL MATERIALISM: COMMODIFYING CULTURE IN JAPAN

Mary Yoko Brannen, School of Business Administration, The University of Michigan

[I am indebted to Richard Burt for a number of critical comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay. I would also like to thank Stephen Smith, Linda Lewis, Katsu Yamaguchi, Shu Ogawa, Robert Murray, James Wilson and Joe Tobin for their insights.] [Significant portions of this paper are published in 'Bwana Mickey: Constructing Cultural Consumption at Tokyo Disneyland,' in Remade in Japan: Domestic Life and Consumer Tastes in a Changing Japan,' added by Joseph Tobin, Yale University Press, July 1992. Used with permission.]

For the past couple of decades the world has been overwhelmed with reports on portentous Japanese productivity. This paper in contrast, is about conspicuous Japanese consumption. As much as it is true that Japanese students study hard and Japanese workers work hard, it is equally true that Japanese consumers consume hard. Profits generated by the exported end-results of such high productivity eventually result in increased buying power which in turn stimulates domestic Japanese consumption. The flip side of Japan's 1970's role as the world's preeminent producer nation is its 1990's role as the world's leading consumer nation. Much of what the Japanese consume - the tangible goods as well as the leisure activities which make up Japan's material world-is western in style and spirit, if not in country of manufacture.

Western products are omnipresent in Japan. Contemporary household furnishings, fashion, food, and leisure outlets are a pastiche of borrowed western elements and Japanese cultural constituents. The abundance of ostensibly western products in Japan lead many people to assume that corresponding Western materialist values have been imported along with the "western" goods. A closer look at the products, however, hints at an unsettling combination of the familiar and the peculiarly exotic. Consider, for example, designer exotic fruit (see appendix A for graphic representation) -common western food items which are not indigenous to Japan have been customized and further exoticized to most the gift-giving needs of a society which values high quality luxury items. Love hotels with exotic western exteriors such as a 'Cinderella's Castle' and the "HMS Loveboat' at once provide a retreat for lovers which is curiously both flamboyant as well as private (see detailed explanation accompanying the graphic representation in Appendix A). Other examples of this strange mixture of familiar and peculiarly exotic are, heated-seat western-style toilets for hemorrhoid sufferers, T-shirts with non-sequiters in English or French, and a variety of novel food concoctions resulting from "transcultural flavor marriages' such as curry flavored bagels, hot cocoa with 2% chili sauce, and "jelly' donuts filled with red bean paste, curry or fish sausage.

The Japanese are known worldwide as quintessential imitators and borrowers. Accounts of Japanese transcultural borrowing generally take on one of two critical views of the Japanese either as passive victims of Western (and in former days, Chinese) cultural domination or, as active, rapacious agents of cultural plagiarism. Both of these views of what might be called Japanese transcultural consumerism assume a one on one transfer of material goods (signs) and the societal sensemaking (significations)...
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