Export Machine

  • Share
  • Read Later
Amanda Yee thinks made in Japan is way cool. The 18-year-old high school student is out on a Saturday afternoon with three girlfriends, cruising the stores of Causeway Bay--shopping mecca for Hong Kong's teens. With her brown-dyed hair and platform moon-walking shoes, she could easily be a groupie in Tokyo's Harajuku fashion quarter. Her obsession with things Japanese includes her favorite TV programs: soap operas Love Generation and Long Vacation. Japanese society is very fast-paced and always changing, she says with a giggle. Everything is very cute and stylish, that's why we like it. Naturally, she adores Hello Kitty, the ultimate icon of Japanese cuteness. Whenever I'm sad, like when I do badly on a test, I buy some Hello Kitty things to feel better. Japan may not top the popularity polls in banks and boardrooms around Asia, but among the younger generation the homeland of Hello Kitty is hot. Japanese pop music, videos, comic books, clothes, accessories and cosmetics all are being snapped up across the region by a new generation of YPMs--Young People with Money. Slickly packaged and having already run the gauntlet of one of the world's most demanding fashion markets at home, Japanese youth culture is proving irresistible to teens from Taipei to Singapore, despite what local parents and grandparents remember of Japan's brutality in the last war. Four in five comic books sold in South Korea are Japanese. In Hong Kong, people buy pirated VCDs of their favorite Japanese TV soaps within days of their being shown in Japan. Taiwanese and Singaporeans cannot get enough of Japanese pop music. When diva Noriko Sakai abruptly announced last year that she was both married and pregnant, the news was on Hong Kong radio stations just minutes after Sakai's press conference in Tokyo. Of course, Hollywood movies are still the region's biggest box-office draw, and U.S. junk culture is omnipresent. But despite the marketing muscle of American record companies and film studios, there is an inevitable cultural shortfall--Asians may watch the American shows, but the bronzed, buffed bodies of Baywatch are not something that most Asian teens could (or even would) aspire to. Nor are the family values of U.S. rap artists entirely consonant with the Asian values of the region's high school students. Many find it easier to relate to Japanese pop acts like Puffy, the sylph-like duet consisting of Ami, 25, and Yumi, 24, who have been actively courting the Asian market with their girl-next-door looks. Puffy performed at sold-out concerts in Taiwan and Hong Kong last September. In Taiwan they even sang their hit single in Mandarin, and they have released a separate video and VCD for Chinese-speaking fans. Japan's music industry is the second-largest in the world after America's, and increasingly its pop idols are looking overseas to enhance their status. Since interest is generally low in the U.S. and Europe, many have turned to Asian countries with underdeveloped local music industries and growing young populations--and are meeting with surprising success. Asians like to have stars they can identify with, instead of always looking to the West, says Stuart Fraser, HMV's commercial director for Greater China and Southeast Asia. It used to be that, if a song reached the American Top 10, it was an automatic hit in Asia. But as Western artists began experimenting more and more with eclectic beats and alternative styles during the 1980s, Asian listeners felt left out. Bands like Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish just don't do it. Japanese stars modify Western music to make it more suitable for Asian listeners, says Aki Tanaka, vice president of Sony Music Entertainment in Hong Kong. They may use a trendy hip-hop beat, but the melody line is more conventional. The largest Asian market for Japanese music now is Taiwan, followed by Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Taiwan has historically been quite close to Japan, so it's natural that Japanese music is popular there, says Tanaka. In early April, six of the 10 top singles in Taiwan were by Japanese artists. Market research has even shown that although most younger Taiwanese cannot read Japanese, many regard owning karaoke videos with lyrics in Japanese script as a status symbol. Avex, Japan's largest independent label, has aggressively expanded in Taiwan and plans to create a wholly owned subsidiary on the island. Channel V, Star TV's music channel, has upped J-pop coverage this year on its northern beam, which spans the Greater China region. There are limits to how deeply Japanese culture will ever penetrate the rest of Asia. Memories of wartime Japanese brutality still linger in many countries. And despite the country's economic importance to the rest of Asia, few schools in the region teach the Japanese language. But manga addicts don't seem to care: Taiwanese youngsters flock to 24-hour comic-book libraries that dot the island to page through the Japanese imports, some of which are not even translated into Mandarin. Somehow they can grasp the meaning just from the pictures, says Harriet Sun, a Taipei mother of two grade-school manga aficionados. Maybe they use their own imagination to fill in the blanks. Taiwan lifted the last of its restrictions on Japanese cultural imports only in 1994, and in South Korea the debate over admitting Japanese films and music still rages, despite a promise by President Kim Dae Jung to open up to Japanese culture. The Korean government is now committed to a gradual liberalization process: so far only Japanese films that are artistic--those that have won prizes at international festivals--are permitted to be shown. And while Japanese jazz is popular, songs with Japanese lyrics are still banned. The issue is partly cultural, partly economic. Shin Yong Ha, a sociology professor at Seoul National University, is among those who oppose rapid liberalization of Japanese cultural imports. He argues that Korea's economy is not yet strong enough to compete against the cash-rich Japanese entertainment industry. He also feels that, compared with conservative Korean mores, Japanese society is too open about sex. Kim Ji Ryong, a Seoul-based expert on Japanese culture, says the real reason for Korea's hesitation is that the government wants to use the opening of its doors to Japanese culture as a bargaining chip to extract other trade concessions from Tokyo. He predicts that by the time Japan and Korea share the World Cup in 2002, most restrictions will be lifted anyway. Until then, Japanese music, videos and comic books will primarily be sold on the black markets of Seoul and other big cities. And Internet sites like www.tomatolee.com, set up by movie director Lee Kyu Hyung, will keep young Koreans up to date on Japanese aidoru (idols) and top musicians like Namie Amuro, X Japan and Puffy. One reason for the spread of the Japanese youth scene is that it provides an Asian dimension to popular culture in ways unimaginable to Western artists and designers. While the American comic-book character Superman flies solo to protect the good and fight evil, his Japanese counterpart Ultraman enlists brothers, cousins and sundry relations in group attacks on their assailants. In one episode, there is even a Buddhist funeral service performed for the monsters Ultraman has destroyed, says Brad Warner, spokesman for Tsubaraya Productions, the animation company that created the character. Japanese animated films draw heavily from Chinese myths and traditions, with skilled martial artists, magic spheres that can control dragons and characters possessed with a superabundance of ki (or qi in Chinese), life energy that can be funneled in glowing beams against aggressors. Nowhere is the Japanese dimension stronger than in the fashion business. Although the first wave of Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake set up shop in Europe, younger Japanese designers increasingly are looking toward Asia because of its burgeoning young population and thirst for fashion. It's stupid for the Japanese to compete with Western designers, says Eriko Watanabe, 19, a design student in Tokyo. We should be selling our own Eastern styles to Asia, because Asians have the fashion sense and bodies to complement Japanese designs. Why must we go to Europe to dress tall blondes? Our aesthetic matches black hair and slimmer bodies better. Ellena Ng, 17, a Hong Kong student out for a weekday shopping spree, agrees: If I buy a pair of American jeans, I have to roll them up several times and they're still too baggy, but Japanese pants fit fine. Ng, sporting an asymmetrically cut Japanese blouse, says the love for Japanese fashions is a generational thing. Older people only want to wear Gucci or Prada. It's much cooler to wear a shirt from a small Japanese designer that no one else has. I want to be unique in what I wear. O.Z.O.C., one of the hottest Japanese clothing stores in Asia, is redefining trendiness. The label, the junior line of avant-garde Japanese designer Atsuro Tayama, targets customers ages 15 to 30. O.Z.O.C. has 50 outlets in South Korea, eight in Taiwan, three in Hong Kong and one in Singapore--in addition to more than 100 stores in Japan. The first Hong Kong shop, which opened last year, provides patrons with just-in-time fashion, Japanese-style: new stock is introduced two times a week. Every time a person comes in, there are new outfits to try, says O.Z.O.C's Hong Kong spokesperson Margaret Yee. The effort to keep right on fashion's cutting edge is a large part of the appeal. European designs tend to be more classic and appeal to older people, says Yee. But Japanese designers are very concerned with the trendiest clothing, so teenagers really like what they offer. Japan also scores with its attention to detail. The quality of Japanese clothing is much, much higher than locally made garments, says Ken Lee, who owns Duo Boutique in Hong Kong's Wanchai district. Lee sells lesser-known Japanese labels and relies on the Japanese fashion magazine Non-no to keep in touch with what's hip in Tokyo. He says the time lag between fashion trends in Japan and those in Hong Kong has shortened radically from about a year to two or three months. Next up? Drawstring pants in shades of khaki and sleeveless anoraks, says Lee. As with fashion, Japanese TV programs increasingly are viewed around Asia as superior to anything local. In Hong Kong shows, all the characters are always professionals and have lots of money--who can relate to that? says Amelia Leung, a 24-year-old software consultant. But in the Japanese shows, they're usually ordinary people and seem more realistic. Felix To, program controller at Hong Kong's ATV channel, agrees. Japanese dramas all very well-produced, and have much bigger budgets than Hong Kong shows, he says. The competition between the five Tokyo-area television stations is incredibly fierce, so to succeed a show has to be really very good. The obsession with Japanese products is also fueling the boom in pirated entertainment. Many consumers simply won't wait for legal imports. All across Hong Kong, from stalls in Mongkok to corner shops in Causeway Bay--vendors hawk bootleg VCDs of Japanese TV shows like Long Vacation, Tokyo Love Story and The Milky Way. Hong Kong people just love these, marvels a hawker in a Mongkok alley. Some people come back every week to see what new VCDs are here. The piracy problem, says ATV's To, arises partly because it's difficult for local companies to buy the rights to Japanese shows, especially the dramas. A very popular show may air in Japan and not be shown in Hong Kong for three years, or even longer, he says. Japan is becoming a fast-breeder of youth culture, with its population of discriminating and relatively wealthy youngsters who have short attention spans and a mania for new fads. Throw in the widespread Asian preference for group activities and the Japanese template becomes an attractive model. Just ask Linda Sow, 16, a Hong Kong schoolgirl lining up outside a photo-sticker machine, one of the newest Japanese fads to sweep Asia. With photo background choices ranging from marching penguins to Leonardo DiCaprio, she loves the experience so much she makes at least one new set of stickers every week. When you go out with friends, it's a way to remember a special occasion, she says. But most important of all for this budding young consumer: It's a lot of fun. Reported by Hannah Beech and Maria Cheng/Hong Kong, Cybil Chou and Don Shapiro/Taipei and Stella Kim/Seoul