She's a Material Girl
Shopping with precision and steeped in style, a typical teen shows why lords of commerce follow young ladies
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo
It's 10:50 on a Friday morning, but in the frantic world of teenage trendiness, time is almost running out for Norie Ono. With a fistful of yen from her boyfriend's account at the post office, where nearly all Japanese keep their savings, Norie starts her search for a new face at a sunglasses rack in a crowded suburban shopping mall. What is she really looking for? What does Norie want?
At 17, entering her last year of high school and attached at the hip to her teenage boyfriend, Norie is the kind of girl who propels the fads that have swept across Japan and Asia. She fell for the Tamagotchi, the virtual pet that was once all the rage. She is addicted to her latest gadget, a sleek silver NTT DoCoMo cell phone; three of four Tokyo high-school girls own a mobile phone and spend an average of $100 a month to use it. She is absolutely gaga over Hello Kitty, the beribboned feline that's popping up all over the region. Her vocabulary is heavily populated by the word kawaii. It means "cute" literally, but so much more than that figuratively. Something kawaii is infinitely desirable, something to make a young girl's life complete. The Kawaii Culture is what has made girls like Norie--and Japan has 3 million of them between the ages of 15 and 18--pop-culture icons. Their every whim and impulse-purchase is religiously observed and analyzed by the titans of advertising, marketing, fashion, publishing and the cute-little-gadgets industry. What does Norie want? That's what everybody wants to know.
"It's not how much they spend," says Yoshiyuki Ogino, editor of a teen magazine called, naturally, Cawaii!, spelled with a "C" because the editor thought it was even more kawaii that way. "It's that they all buy the same things. So if someone has a $10 product, they can sell lots of them." He and his staff figured out in 1995, when the magazine started publishing, that the best way to sell copies to girls was to ask them what they want. The strategy worked: circulation is now 300,000. So every afternoon, dozens of teenagers stroll into his editorial offices to smoke, play videogames and chat with the editors.
Some, like Norie, end up modeling makeup and clothes, because the magazine wants to feature regular girls in its pages, not pop stars or professional models. "We see 400 girls every month," says Ogino, 39. "It's a great way to do market research." If an item is hot, like pagers--they're called pocket bells in Japan--a manufacturer can get almost 100% market penetration, and fast. "If it is really powerful, it can take less than a week," says Ogino. Once 5% of the teen girl population takes a liking to something, he says, 60% will join the bandwagon within a month. A few weeks later, everybody will be on board. The hard part is predicting what the famously fickle teenage girls will next anoint as kawaii.
Miyuki Miyagi, the teenage-girl expert--and thus perhaps the most valuable employee--at Dentsu, Japan's largest advertising agency, uses the pocket bell as an example. "These fads become a boom despite the intent of the manufacturers," says Miyagi, who is in her 30s. "The pagers were supposed to be for emergencies." Who knew girls would find them fun, indispensable, cute? "These girls come up with new ways of using products, totally separate from what the manufacturers intended." Sure, Hello Kitty was meant to be a cute mass-merchandise image, and Tamagotchis were meant to be addictive toys. "But when people try to push an idea they think will be a hit, they usually fail," Miyagi says. For example, fashion designers thought tailored suits would catch on with girls this past winter. "I asked the girls what color they liked," says Ogino. Their response? Suits were decidedly non-kawaii. "These trends don't usually get created," says Miyagi. "They just happen."
In the early 1990s, collegiate women were the arbiters of taste. Now, it's high school girls. Some researchers think the age of influence will continue to decline, to junior-high-age girls. Which means Norie's moment as a fashion arbiter could be fleeting.
With boyfriend Shinichi Okubo at her side, Norie stops at a small shop selling sunglasses in a busy shopping mall. She tries on a pair. "Don't you think the blue ones look cute?" she asks Shinichi. "They make your eyebrows look black," he replies. Norie puts them aside. She moves on to a canary-yellow backpack. "Isn't it cute?" Shinichi nods non-committally without saying anything. Norie puts it back on the shelf. The high school seniors, both 17, walk out hand in hand. From the back, it's hard to tell one from the other, as both sport manes of shoulder length hair with frosted highlights, and Norie's black suede platform boots elevate her to Shinichi's height.
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Young Japan Home
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