Post-Materialist Youth

Savings and relaxing over shopping
31 October 2007
Fashion orients away from kids, but kids save their nickels to buy big
The latest Marui fashion building in Yurakucho opened to huge fanfare on October 12. Although near-identical Marui outlets litter almost every neighborhood in Tokyo, this new complex sold itself as something quite distinct. Marui has very explicitly marketed and designed the new Yurakucho to be "adult-oriented." This does not necessarily mean staid shoppers in their 40s or 50s, but this emphasis on "adult" has excited a wide range of visitors, starting with working women in their 20s and 30s and going up from there.

Although Marui has built its long history on catering to youth customers, the Yurakucho location is a step towards integrating with larger market movements. After the high-profile openings of Roppongi Hills, Omotesando Hills, Tokyo Midtown, and Shinmaru Building, Japan's fashion scene has completely been retooled to a philosophy completely commonplace in the West: fashion is for adults, not kids.

The idea that adults should make up the main customer base for high-priced luxury brands and avant-garde designers may seem obvious, but in fact, this repudiates one of the long-standing core principles of the Japanese fashion world. Just a decade ago, teenagers and young adults set the agenda for trends and marketing. In the 1990s, companies were obsessed with capturing the fickle tastes of Japanese schoolgirls to ensure a winning product for the whole of society. Even kids who were not "fashion maniacs" nor in design school generally set aside a huge chunk of allowance and part-time job earnings each month to buy the top brands. This, of course, was until they reached formal employment at age 22 and said goodbye to indulgence in fashion for a lifetime of suits or uniforms.

With such a rich history of youth-oriented fashion in Japan, what happened in the last decade to change around the entire industry? The 21st century has not been very kind to Japanese kids. First off, there aren't very Japanese youth left. Japan is currently going through a demographic crunch, and youth now occupy a very small proportion of the overall population. Japan once only had 7.9% of its population above 65; this figure is now around 30% and rising. Due to later marriages and later pregnancies, the number of children is shrinking — especially in urban areas. Japan will soon be the "greyest" country on earth.

More importantly, however, teenagers in 2007 were the first generation to grow up in a non-ascendant Japan. 18 year-olds right now were born in 1989 and became aware of themselves as consumers right in the depths of a long, endless economic downturn. Not only do they most likely have less pocket money than older cohorts did at the same age, they have no expectations that teenagers are supposed to go out and spend all their money on luxury brands.

Even though they may know vaguely about the lavish spending that came before them, they are not necessarily sore about the economic conditions. Instead, they have internalized recessionary aversion to spending and lowered expectations about their own consumer lives. With priorities towards friendship and living less troublesome lifestyles, they are very much taking the role of "Post-Materialist Youth."
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