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A packed auditorium draws to hushed silence as a pair of Japanese celebrities, standing center stage, hoist wine in a toast. On the left, a man dressed in a vibrant red tuxedo displays a burgundy. On the right a woman, draped in a shimmering white floor-length gown, extends a Chablis. “Which will it be?” the man blusters into the camera. “Red or White?”


Sans the wine, this reenacts a scene familiar to all Japanese TV viewers: the final moments of the annual New Year’s eve song-fest known as kohaku (or “red-white”) utagassen (“song contest”), a contest pitting a team of red singers against a group of white crooners for all the marbles. After hours of impassioned cantillation, the side that has amassed the most points from the listening audience is declared the winner. Every year, since 1951, millions of Japanese have tuned in, awaiting the countdown to midnight, which will bring the ritual slurping of mounds of buckwheat noodles dunked in broth and mastication of two-inch squares of gooey, insoluble, intractable rice cakes.


What is different about the scene above is that this is not a song contest, but an ad. An ad not for noodles or rice cake or song, but for wine. Different, as well, is what comes next. Sidling up behind the two popular stars and then squeezing in between them is a man in drag: a transvestite, scintillating in pink, demurely clutching a rosé. This is not just any man, mind you, but Akihiro Miwa, singer, actor, writer, lecturer, gay activist, former intimate of novelist Yukio Mishima and, of course, Japan’s pre-eminent cross-dresser.


With Miwa present, the television viewer understands: this ad may conjure the spirit of kohaku gassen, but it does so only to declare its difference. For, in the real kohaku gassen it is the men who wear white and the women who don red. And in the real kohaku gassen there is, of course, no pink; no third sex in between. The pink is there to sell product; in this case, wine for the domestic vintner, Suntory. The pink is also there — like the kohaku staging — to catch viewer attention, to draw a smile, to entertain, perhaps even to force some thought. Possibly to tell us that Japan is not just a red-white world; that it contains shades and gradations and alternative possibilities.


In my day job this is the kind of stuff I do: pick apart media messages for the bits that tell us about societal attitudes, ideas and practices. That’s my bread and butter and, hence, it is rather amazing that in the two or three years I’ve been writing this column I haven’t much spoken about ads. Surprising, not just because ads are what I am generally thinking about, but also because advertising is one of the major motors of ReDotPop. Commercials not only serve as the sort of national archives for domestic events and values — the town crier, if you will — but advertising is one of the ways that popular culture actually manages to persist. Without ads, a large amount of popular content would simply cease flowing through the society; ReDotPop would soon come to be like Woody Allen’s famous shark: it would stop moving and expire.


So, when I wear my work hat I generally explain how it is that ads operate to keep society organized the way it is. What advertising is most successful at is not selling products, but keeping viewers thinking and acting on the same general page, within the same set of boundaries. Mainly that means consumption, but also other weighty matters like what a “man” is, how a “woman” should look or behave, how much we have to worry about the person next to us, what kinds of freedoms we are entitled to, what sorts of people we ought to play with — and with what sorts we oughtn’t. Can you believe it?: they actually pay me to think about this sort of stuff. What a life!


To show that, though, I have to pay a certain price: heft and toss around some technical terms. Overblown sounds like “semiotics”, “signification”, “social reproduction”, “simulation” — a lot of “s” words, come to think of it. (“What could that possibly mean?” the semiotician in me asks). But occasionally some “h” words join the process, too; like “hyper-reality” and “hegemony”, “hypodermic needle” and “Habermas”. Unfortunately, in my business, the “f” words aren’t that interesting: we only have monikers like “false consciousness”, “Foucault” and “the Frankfurt School” to write about.


Fortunately (hey, there’s an “f” word) this time out we don’t have to contemplate any such noises. Instead, maybe we can just peel back the curtain a bit: spy the kinds of stuff spooling out nonstop in 15 to 30 second electronic bytes on this side of the Pacific. You can figure out what it might possibly mean all by yourselves. I mean, aside from it revealing some of the shape of ReDotPop.


Let’s start with Kokouhihyo. A trade journal devoted to ads, Kokouhihyo recently published a list of the 100 best (Japanese) TV ads of the 20th century. What was most striking about the list was that few among the panel of 250 industry insiders who were polled could much agree: the number one ad garnered 87 votes, but the number two ad only collected 50; number three drew a scant 37 mentions, and number ten, but 24. Advertising, it seems, is like Olympic judging: less science than taste (and hopefully not a lot of payola or mob influence). Of interest about this list, though, was the number of famous foreign faces that popped up: Sammy Davis, Jr. (remember him?) at number seven; Charles Bronson (how about him?) at number 15; Stephen Hawking (really heady, these ReDotPoppers) at 44; Ronaldo (so, they’ve got the mind/body yin/yang thing fully covered) at 51; Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso (high culture esotericism) at 57; Chuck Berry, tied with Naomi Campbell (balanced out by mass marketed, low cult), at number 64; and Antonio Gaudi (the architect, if you aren’t quite familiar with the name) closing it out at number 90. Other notables who were not quite real: Pepsi Man at number 12 and a Bill Clinton imitator at number 44.


This, though, is far from the finale when it comes to foreign stars in ads. Leonardo di Caprio was big over here a few years back, as was Brad Pitt. The former pushed a line of compact car that had the amazing ability to make girls’ skirts flip up, revealing their crotches; the latter styled jeans as he slopped red paint on window frames, discarded refrigerators and junked cars, strummed a guitar, and appeared accidentally at the wrong woman’s door — all the while acting sheepish and cuddly-cute no matter what mischief he happened into. Stallone looked anything but cuddly in a tight white three-piece suit, hawking ham. Hulk Hogan sang a nursery tune while holding air conditioners and bouncing on a couch. Catherine Zeta-Jones let kids touch her hair in Revlon shampoo ads. Dennis Hopper got steamed, stuffed into a furry penguin suit, then, while reclining in an icy-cool bath, learned from a decidedly nervous director that there hadn’t been any film in the camera. So: back into the suit steaming Dennis went. The French soccer phenomena, Zinedine Zidane, bounced an oversized teakettle off his head on a long run down field, before volleying it past a surprised goalie for the winning score. And, recently, Nicholas Cage stopped his Ford pick-up on a desolate western flattop to confront a troupe of aliens. Seeing that their heads were shaped like shiny silver pachinko balls, manic Nick naturally launched into an episode of head butting with the confused visitors from space.


Stars galore, engaging in all manner of acts that one wouldn’t normally associate with them back home. (Nor would they likely wish us to).


Does star behavior in commercials sell more stuff? Well, probably not. But it makes good lunchroom conversation. And, maybe it gets people thinking about themselves or the world they live in a little bit more. No kidding. For instance, in the Bill Clinton ad, mentioned before, the premise is that this “loud mouth slim, I-know-better-than-him”, kind of guy is letting off steam in the local watering hole. As he wipes his hands and face with a moist towelette, (which is a standard issue item at pubs and restaurants in these here ReDot parts), he starts complaining about how Japan is treated in the world today. “All this talk about globalization, etcetera . . . but Japan is made a fool of by the world,” he rants. “Once and for all we have to speak out gatsun (forcefully, with the sound of a mallet striking a tree).”


He pushes his glasses atop his head. “If it were me, I would say it!” He wipes his face vigorously with the towelette. “I’d say it ‘gatsun’.” Superimposed over his image is his personal data in white letters: “Itoh Masayuki, 37 years, corporate man.” The frame fades to black and white, freezes. When action resumes, Itoh-san declares: “Because I’m that type!”


Itoh throws his towel down in disgust. The picture switches to an extreme close-up of a navy blue trousered leg, on whose thigh the yellow towelette now rests. As the camera pans back, we find the thigh belongs to someone who looks surprisingly like then-President Bill Clinton. Not only does he look like Bill Clinton, he is seated in a room that looks amazingly similar to the Oval Office. To top it off, the room is ringed with translators, advisors and secret service agents. Itoh is now seated opposite this Clinton look-alike, who says to Itoh: “So! I’d like to hear your honest opinions…” The president irritably flicks his Japanese companion’s towelette off his leg.


Itoh looks startled, searching behind him toward the translator. A glimpse of astonishment; one of those waking-from-a-dream like looks. A “What the . . .? where the hell am I?” expression hurtles from Itoh’s eyes.


The translator rephrases the President’s words in Japanese. The President clarifies, using the word “gatsun”. Say it with strength, he insists.


To the swell of spaghetti-western showdown music — a trumpet backed by flamenco guitar — Itoh gulps hard, stares vacantly at the President, absently reaches into his breast pocket, searching for… a gun? An aspirin? Prepared text, perhaps? No, “Boss 7”, a canned coffee. Itoh takes a long hard pull on the drink, looking harried and concerned. The image fades to a picture of the product and the Boss logo. The lips of the man pictured on the logo move and the President’s voice can be heard to say: “come on.”


This is Japanese advertising, in full, flaming glory. Not just the clever scenario, the melding of fantasy with reality, nor simply the playful jabs at representatives of the old order. In Japan advertising is often an instructive, moralistic medium. Behind its 15-second stories are messages about who the Japanese are and how they are expected to think and act. In this Boss ad (in fact the entire series of four ads), the viewer was being told: put up or shut up. The era of the docile, inexpressive Japanese is dead. In the new world order it is time for “we Japanese” to stand-toe to -toe with the powers in the world. It is time to speak and act gatsun.


And such a message is not only found in this one canned coffee campaign. Exhortations for building a stronger self seem to be one of the major agenda items over the past half decade. For instance, in a public service announcement set at a school, the emphasis is on breaking from the group, doing not just what is socially responsible, but also what might at first seem individually impossible. The subject is bullying — a major social problem in Japan. In the real world, who gets bullied tends to vary depending upon the predilections of the resident playground powers, but in general selection tends to accord with the Japanese adage: “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” Those who are different receive “local reform”.


How does the ad treat the subject? In this particular spot, the establishing shot presents a disorderly heap of desks set on the playing field outside a classroom. The desks are strewn as if tossed to earth by some irked deity. Cut to a line of uniformed middle school kids marching single file like automatons, each with faces coated in mud. The narrator, a boy, intones: “Copying everyone else, I engaged in bullying. I didn’t think at all, just bullied.” Cut to a crew-cut boy regarding himself in the mirror, then dousing his face vigorously with water. As he scrubs, his voiceover says: “After thinking about it a little bit, I felt miserable. I stopped bullying.” Now cut to a shot of one satisfied boy (with a freshly-washed face), sitting at one desk in front of the jumbled pile. Then cut to many kids darting down the school corridor, next feverishly bent over sinks, cleansing their skin of grime. The narrator informs: “Copying me, many people quit bullying.” Next we see clear-skinned kids happily extricating desks from the unruly mound. “It was incredible!” the narrator gushes. “Everyone really stopped bullying. They really understood!” The narrator ends by informing his audience: “If everyone combines their bravery…” a closing shot shows all the students seated at their desks, arrayed in neatly order rows, each waving their hands in farewell: “Bullying bye bye!” they exclaim in chipper unison.


Lest the audience think that this is just more old Japanese social process at work — that is, more unreflective mimicking behavior, more mindlessly following the leader — the advertiser takes care to insert a shot from above of an orange umbrella opening. This is followed in quick succession by a white one, then blue, then green. What we spy in the final frame is an array of individual colors, signaling that each person is unique. Everyone is deciding and acting for him or herself. Combined, however, all these individual acts form a wonderful rainbow of harmonious difference.


Of course, as a public service ad, the message here is on “correct” behavior, on being a better citizen. Other ads care less about the collective than in doing what feels right for oneself. For instance, in an ad for whiskey, a youngish, stylish man is experiencing a “Murphy’s Law” kind of day: everything that can go wrong, is. First off, it rains and he is caught without an umbrella. He panics (men are always being harassed by water in Japanese ads) and scampers for refuge beneath an awning. The youngish, stylish woman standing serenely beneath the canopy casts a condescending eye toward him, then sneers; as in: “Chill out, dude, it’s only water!” Suitably shamed, the hero searches for quick escape. He scans the sky for sign of abatement, but no luck; rather than remain next to a sneering lady, he grits his teeth and darts back out into the soggy world. Now inside a subway station, he feeds his sopping metro ticket into the electronic turnstile. It is peremptorily rejected. A gaggle of ganguro-gyarus openly laugh at the hero’s misfortune. Escaping their taunts, he returns to the city streets. Under cover of threatening thunderheads, he peers upward, uncertain whether he will be doused once again. With each step in this very public ordeal, the pulsating rock song echoes in the background:


“Even if it’s raining, don’t let it bother you
Even if you’re late, don’t let it bother you
Even if they laugh at you, don’t let it bother you
Even if you don’t know, don’t let it bother you.”


As the concluding bars of this song brace the man to feel comfortable with who he is — to cut himself a little slack from the harsh glare of the social mirror — a whiskey bottle appears. It tilts down, but its golden brew dispenses upward. As it fills a glass, the written text commands: “Don’t become round…till the end: be square”. What could this possibly mean?


First of all, like most ads, the primary message is for consumers to think of the product (which comes in a square bottle); at the same time, like many Japanese ads, there is a secondary message, a social message. And in this case that message is to think outside the box. In this context, being square doesn’t mean being conventional; quite the contrary, it means being different. Thinking square means defying a society whose population has generally been fed the belief that they are nothing more than pegs, whose edges must be worn down and shaped to fit the round holes. Forget the holes, the ad is saying. Who cares if there is no true fit. Don’t give it a second thought. Remain who you are. Square is great in a society of mass-produced round objects.


So is this the new Japan? Their version of “don’t sweat the small stuff — and it’s all small stuff”? Well, as communicated through ReDotTVPop the answer appears to be both “yes” and “no”. Japan being what it is, even in 2002 one can’t expect anything less than flat-out equivocation. Thus, this newfound preference for individual difference must have its counterweight: a group yang to the individuated yin. In this case the opposite is the “Naomi ni narou” campaign of a couple years back. This was actually a series of ads for a beauty clinic, but the message was the same: “let’s become Naomi.” Who is Naomi? It’s better to explain it this way…


The first ad was perhaps the most stunning. It depicted a “typical” modern family: mother, father and live-in 20-something year-old daughter. Like a slew of her peers, because she roomed with her folks, the young woman had plenty of disposable income; money to burn on clothes, jewelry and leisure pursuits. In this case she sported a leopard skin coat and had just made the decision to invest in an expensive course of treatment at the local beauty salon.


The ad opens with the mother preparing dinner in the kitchen. She asks the daughter: “Naomi… you’re really going to buy it?”


“Yup,” the young woman says with a trace of attitude. As if they’ve been around on this one before.


Her father looks up from his newspaper. “Buy what?”


Esutay (beauty treatment),” the mother replies derisively.


The father’s reaction is volcanic. “Naomi!” he shouts. “Desist immediately!”


The daughter makes a noise of defiance, then pirouettes and storms out the door leaving a stream of parental spittle in her wake. She strides into a building with the beauty clinic logo. Cut to an interior shot of the family home. Eerie vibraphone music suddenly tinkles in the background as the dining room door opens, revealing supermodel Naomi Campbell on the threshold. Ms. Campbell is well coiffed, wearing a leopard skin one-piece, showing shoulder and sporting finely waxed skin.


“Hi, I’m home,” the supermodel says in heavily accented Japanese. The parents stare up from their tea, their mouths agape. Definitely confused. So Ms. Campbell prompts: “It’s me… Naomi!”


The father stammers: “she’s changed! All the way down to her voice.”


Cut to a shot of the star smiling on the masseuse table, a towel wrapped high over her head. The voiceover cheerfully chirps: “Let’s Become Naomi!”


Some years back, the phrase of the moment for American school kids was “be like Mike.” For rugged individualists raised on an ethic of difference, the notion of emulating anyone carried a rather powerful meaning. To dream of being like someone else, rather than oneself? Heresy! (Even if that someone was Michael Jordan). By contrast, the “Let’s Become Naomi” campaign would make the typical Japanese — long bred to mimic the qualities of others — bat not one strand of assiduously polished eyelash. Become that gorgeous Supermodel? Sure, why not? Of course, to pursue that goal would also mean setting aspirations higher than most Japanese have historically allowed themselves to contemplate, let alone strive to reach. It is, after all, unseemly to appear too ambitious, too desirous of perfection or lofty status. At least, that was the old view. The “nail that sticks up” mentality applied in equal force to those with exceptional talents or ravenous reach, too.


So, on second thought, maybe this is a striking message, after all. Maybe “becoming Naomi” is actually a missive announcing the advent of a new Japan. Add it together with the Clinton ad and the whiskey ad and the kohaku ad and what have you got?: a Japan of cranky sararimen and let-it-all-hang-out ganguro gyarus and “third way” transvestite personalities; each busy hawking their own individual version of lifestyle, satisfaction and value (along, of course, with their corporate wares).


As the scenarios summarized above reveal, Japanese advertising is its own world: a vast universe of ideas, stories, people, messages, and behaviors. Books can be filled with tales of Japan’s advertising craft, as well as commentary on J-ad’s cultural meaning and social significance. So much material, in fact, that it is the fool’s enterprise that seeks to cover it all. Perhaps the best we can do in a short column is to book passage into an on-going conversation. It would certainly be of benefit to revisit this topic again. Possibly even fun. We might just end up somewhere worth visiting.


But let’s save that transit for another day. For now perhaps we should pull up for the night. In doing so we can note that Japanese advertising is like a Mobius Strip. One end leads seamlessly into its opposite other. The yin balanced by the yang. Watching today’s ads we are told: “Be brave enough to speak your mind; on the other hand, good luck when you are actually given the chance.” We hear: “Don’t follow the group; instead follow the leader.” We are counseled: “Be yourself, but also become Naomi Campbell.” We are instructed: “Don’t worry what other people think, but also be sure to think like this…”


Confusing isn’t it? Confusing as a mural by Hell Breughel. The contemporary Japanese ad landscape is dappled with such contradictory double-talk. Trying to reconcile the two can be like negotiating trip-wires strung from one pole to the other. For those stout souls seeking to make sense of the schizophrenic collide-a-scope it can be hard to avoid taking a tumble. On such occasions it is important to remember that although ReDotPop may appear to mirror the national flag — a strident red counterbalanced by an uncompromising white — more and more there appears to be space for the pinks of the world to sidle up and present themselves for public contemplation.


* * * *


For more TJM Holden on Japanese culture, click here to read about advertising, and here to read about identity.

Todd is a novelist, essayist, academician, songwriter, web designer, teacher, lecturer, former DJ, past basketball coach, son, brother, husband, father, and friend. Sired in Pasadena, California, with time spent in Paris, France; educated in Syracuse, New York, now educating in Sendai, Japan, Todd is a person of multiple identities: an intellectual gypsy with cross-national links and a transnational perspective. Todd holds a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Social Science and is currently Professor of Mediated Sociology in the Graduate School of International Cultural Studies (GSICS) at Tohoku University, in Sendai, Japan. For analyses of Japanese popular culture by tjm Holden, see archived issues of his column, ReDotPop: Mediations of Japan; and for adventures in the journey of life, see his PopMatters' travel blog: Peripatetic Postcards.


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