A Five-Minute Talk

by johnmccreery

I and several other speakers have been asked to give five-minute talks as part of the celebration of the launch of a new journal of Japanese studies, Contemporary Japan. Here is what I plan to say.

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Why study lifestyles? A five-minute talk.
By John L. McCreery (jlm@wordworks.jp, http://www.wordworks.jp)

Our hosts have asked that I talk about why lifestyles are relevant to academic research? That could be seen as a tough question, since, on the face of it, lifestyles, in the usual mass media sense, are the froth on the surface of social change.

If, however, we pause to consider the economic and political implications of how people live their lives, the topic becomes very serious, indeed. Lifestyles are, after all, where economic and political forces take on material form.

So we might be talking about the demographics of Japan’s aging population, in which people like me, 65 and older, already outnumber children 15 and younger. The implications for Japan’s labor force, companies that sell their products to young consumers, schools with shrinking student bodies, and demand for social services and the funding required to pay for them are staggering.

We might be talking about how generations differ. I think of a conversation between Oka Yasumichi, the founder of Tugboat, Japan’s first independent creative agency, and his friend Odajima Takashi, in a delightful book called Jinsei 2 wari ga choudo ii (20% of life is just right). Oka, who graduated from college and went to work for Dentsu in 1980, says that members of earlier generations found satisfaction in sacrificing themselves for something greater than themselves—the nation or the household. He himself found satisfaction in competition and striving to be a winner. He doesn’t know what to make of his son, who justifiably has no faith in nation or family and for whom competition seems meaningless.

When I think of more recent issues that have caught my attention, two instantly come to mind.

First, is the disenchantment with the automobile that seems to be spreading among young Japanese. For Japanese Baby Boomers, a car was part of the package, a nuclear family, a house in the suburbs, a car of their own, that defined a modern lifestyle. For New Breed men who came of age during the economic bubble of the late 1980s, an imported car was a girl magnet. Now that incomes are stagnant, that kind of toy is too expensive. Taking the train is cool again.

Second is the rise and fall of TV and the still continuing rise of the Internet and digital news and entertainment. In another conversation, Oka Yasumichi is talking about TV with his Dentsu mentor Odagiri Akira, who joined Dentsu in 1961. Odagiri remembers when there was one TV in the living room and commercials targeted families. Oka says that his commercials assume being watched by individuals, who watch them on their own sets or, increasingly, their own PCs or mobile phones. He suggests that TV was once a lover, whose every word demanded attention. Now it is only a friend or acquaintance, to whom you only sporadically pay any attention at all.

As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a’changin.”
Contemporary lifestyles have serious consequences.

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2 Comments to “A Five-Minute Talk”

  1. How did it go? Did you get any interesting comments/questions?

    Re: tv, apparently they’re on for an average of 8 hours a day in American households. But I think you’re right that they’re not being watched with great attention for much of that time. My friend Narya used to refer to hers as ‘the fireplace’ and I always found that pretty apt. So then the question for admen would be how to actually wrangle the attention of the audience when they may be merely ‘present’. It’s the same question I have as a teacher.

  2. Good response from the audience. As usual, I was the h comic relief in a parade of deadly dull serious academics.

    Do note, please that the comments about TV weren’t mine. They were from two of the most successful producers of TV commercials in Japanese history, guys who pay a lot closer attention to TV than I do. How do they get people’s attention? All sorts of devices. They mainly come down, though, to doing something unexpected. If most commercials are noisy, you might, for example, start one with a few seconds of silence. What always works best, though, is something with which the intended audience can instantly identify. I think for some reason of a series of Pepsi Cola commercials that featured Pepsiman, a superhero in a silver suit who was (1) faceless and (2) an incredible klutz. It is hard to imagine an easier role model for young guys raised on manga and video games, with superhero fantasies and obsession with feeling ignored and Inept.

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