The Social Construction of Consumer Needs: a Case Analysis of the “Healing Boom” in Japan*

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The Social Construction of Consumer Needs: A Case Analysis of the “Healing Boom” in Japan *

Takeshi Matsui
Graduate School of Commerce and Management Hitotsubashi University Tokyo, Japan 186-8601 Department of Sociology Princeton University Princeton, NJ, US 08544

[ Word Count: 9,555]

September 2008

* I would like to thank Paul DiMaggio, Russell Belk, Jennifer Lena, Richard Cohn, and Ikuya Sato for helpful feedback and encouragement. Please address correspondence to Takeshi Matsui, Department of Sociology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544. E-mail: tmatsui@princeton.edu.

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Abstract

This paper examines the healing boom in Japan at the turn of the century. Since the late 1990s, many firms in different industries have launched a large number of “healing” products and services. Although such a product category had not existed in Japan until this boom, it had been socially constructed through the self-enforcing interaction between media discourse that reported the boom and the imitative behavior of firms, which was triggered by the reports. This interaction prompted cognitive institutionalization, which means that healing is accepted as an objective reality. It is now taken for granted that healthy people consume “healing” products. Above all, the expression Iyashi-kei (healing kind) is used frequently for describing certain kinds of laypersons, who just help us relax. To investigate the behavior of firms and the media discourse, I analyzed 5,371 newspaper articles. On the other hand, to understand the environment of ideas to which ordinary magazine readers were exposed, I conducted a content analysis of 8,038 titles of magazine articles. The analysis argues that consumers’ needs for healing are socially constructed through the interaction among media discourse, the imitative behavior of firms, and consumer behaviors.

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Introduction The purpose of this case study is to examine the development process of the healing boom, the largest consumer culture phenomenon in Japan at the turn of the century. Since the late 1990s, many firms in different industries have launched a large number of “healing” products and services (hereafter, I use the term “healing products” to refer both). Although such a product category had not existed in Japan until this boom, it had been socially constructed through the self-enforcing interaction between media discourse that reported the boom and the mimic behavior of firms, which was triggered by the reports. The concept of “healing” was originally imported from the American New Age movement in the late 1980s; however, several products and services purportedly appealed as “healing” during the boom, which had no relation with the original meaning. The more the boom developed, the wider the category of healing products and services expanded. Finally, hair dryers that generate negative ions, houses that use many wood materials and are equipped with wood stoves, compilation CDs of easy listening, and animal-shaped robot were advertised as healing products.

The Social Meaning of Healing

This boom drastically changed the shared meaning of healing in Japan. According to Kōjien 5th edition (1998), which is the most authoritative Japanese dictionary, the verb Iyasu (heal) means to cure somebody’s disease or injury, satisfy hunger, or mitigate

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emotional pain1. However, Gendai Yōgo no Kiso Chishiki (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words) 2003 Edition, published by Jiyukokumin-sha that is well known for their Ryūkogo Taishō (an Annual Award for New/Trendy Words), explains that Iyashi Sijō (the healing market) is a market of goods and services that are useful for creating psychological security, and nowadays, various kinds of consumer goods such as books, music, paintings, movies, massage, drink, food, and clothing, which are intended to help us relax, fall under this rubric. As this difference shows, the linguistic meaning of healing has changed. While these words...
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