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Consuming Life in Post-Bubble Japan (Review)

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Katarzyna J. Cwiertka and Ewa Machotka (eds). 2018.
Consuming Life in Post-Bubble Japan: A Transdisciplinary Perspective
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
ISBN 97894629806311

Edited books offer varied and diverse views of a particular phenomenon; it is one of the advantages of an edited volume on a given subject. Social themes in general lend themselves well to such a format, and that is certainly true in the case for contemporary consumption patterns in modern societies. And in this aspect, Consuming Life in Post-Bubble Japan: A Transdisciplinary Perspective is indeed a success. It is a work that provides interesting insights into a variety of contemporary forms of consumption.

The book opens by arguing for an anthropological view of consumption, offering that Consuming Life in Post-Bubble Japan provides ‘ethnographic evidence of how a “society of consumers” operates in post-bubble Japan’ (p. 16). The editors promise that Consuming Life in Post-Bubble Japan demonstrates consumption ‘in Japan through a variety of case studies that apply disparate methodological and theoretical insights’ and that ‘[t]he open-ended, transdisciplinary approach …. reflects the nature of the human experience of life that is the main topic of this enquiry’ (p. 17). Although the editors admit that the processes described in the book are not new and the samples by no means exhaustive, the 11 case study chapters take up what the editors view as either classic analyses of consumption, those which revolve around commodities and shopping, together with what they refer to as less orthodox examples in garbage, technology, and the production and consumption of contemporary art (note: my assignment of cases differs slightly from theirs). In this, the breadth of case studies ‘shed light on the …. all-encompassing nature of commodification and consumption as a “total phenomenon”’ (p. 17); instead of being an analysis of how consumers in Japan make their purchasing decisions, how they use different products, or how this behavior has been influenced by the recession or other post-1990 events, the contributions reveal contemporary life in Japan is a ‘consuming project’, in which the meaning and the value of objects is insubstantial, while they ‘float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money’ (p. 17; the latter part of the passage quoted from Simmel).

The Classic Case Studies
The opening seven case studies of post-bubble consumption are not art-related, with four that I would classify as ‘classic’, in the sense of being globally ubiquitous, and three of which show an insightful eye specifically toward contemporary Japanese society. The diminishing importance of department store shopping is one such ‘classic’ case study, and it is contrasted by two others that reflect emerging paradigms of consumption: convenience store consumption and low-priced ‘fast fashion.’ Taken together these first three chapters appear to show that while department stores are losing their anchor status in Japanese shopping (if not Japanese urban society), the ‘structured differentiation’ that characterizes the reality of the otherwise uniform convenience stores that are found across Japan and the bifurcation of luxury consumption and demand for low-priced brands that is yielding global casual-wear chain stores offer views of fundamental commodities-based consumption trends. Two more case studies that seemingly fit together to reveal illuminating contrasts are the chapters on ‘consuming domesticity’, which argues that the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble caused marketing to intensify its grip specifically on Japanese women, and ‘gomi yashiki’ (literally ‘rubbish houses’), an investigation into how hoarding has evolved into a reflection of two distinct regions of value: one based on an avoidance of wastefulness (mottainai) and the other an ambiguous sense of self-enhancing consumerism. The two remaining ‘classic’ views are less universal than contemporarily Japanese, taking up ‘the myth of washoku’ and ‘robot reincarnation’. The former describes how washoku, the traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese, was, and is, being created to combat Japan’s declining competitiveness in the global marketplace and the latter the esoteric and spiritual needs that accompany consumption of modern technology, but also haunt consumers when our technology becomes obsolete.

The ‘Less Orthodox’ Cases
The final four chapters of the book focus exclusively on art, taking up, by chapter, ‘art and consumption’, ‘post-war art and visual culture’, ‘eco-art’, and ‘artistic recycling’, each bounded within a Japanese frame of reference. These chapters present specific artworks, art events and artistic trends as representative of the way that art engages with consumption in everyday life. This is, in the first case, an indication of ‘how the transformation from the third to the fourth stage of consumer society (as suggested by sociologist Miura Atsushi) is reflected in different modes of art consumption’ (p. 175). In another, the development of environmental consciousness has been connected to eco-art, offered in the exhibiting practices involved in the (re)production of the concept of satoyama which, the contributor contends, reveal various political, social, and economic agendas. The third of the four seeks to argue that high economic growth has resulted in the commodification of the landscape, certainly not an exclusively art-based argument, but which meant that ‘the landscape as an artistic genre began to exist as a symbol of itself, a simulacrum, onto which the viewer projected her/his nostalgic yearning for “the real”’ (p. 195), also an argument not exclusive to art. And finally, the fourth examines how artists have transcended the boundaries of art by recycling everyday items in their works, showing that these ‘new approaches are unique interventions into contemporary social life and provide commentary on our troublesome relationships with objects and their consumption and recycling’ (p. 237).

The Bigger Picture
The chapters present insightful research in each of their specific areas of inquiry. That said, the book falls prey to the usual problem with edited works, in that each chapter must set its own research agenda and generate its own conclusions, and save the opening introduction of the chapters that follow (pgs. 23-7), neither of these (agenda nor conclusion) are fully joined together (by the editors) to provide for one comprehensive and conclusive statement on consumption in post-bubble Japan. The editors state in their introduction that the juxtaposition of ordinary consumer items with art is critical to conveying the analytical objective of revealing contemporary Japan as a ‘consuming project’, one in which meaning and value are contextualized by a constantly moving stream of money. Unfortunately, that essential endpoint – the juxtaposition of consumption and art to illuminate a consuming project – is only, if at all, articulated in the ‘stuff’ of final four chapters and certainly not contextualized through any connection of all the chapters. That seven of the chapters do not touch on art at all calls this initial assertion into question; that the final four do not really touch on ‘consuming life’ in a contextually-similar way as the first seven further undercuts this premise. The book turns out to be, as are most similarly edited works, simply 11 chapters on specific case studies, each undertaken, researched, and written up by separate and independent authors, each forging their own arguments and drawing their own conclusions.

Given that the editors themselves accept that part of the contents represent classic cases and the remainder ‘less orthodox’ art-centered samples, it would seem that the book could have offered more, if not better realized its potential, had it gone in one direction or the other. Released from their self-perceived necessity to focus on art, one wonders what the editors could have done with other ‘consumption’ opportunities on offer in contemporary society. Thinking of alternative possibilities – consumption of sport, leisure, education, traditional performance, participatory activism, even ‘eco-products’ as opposed to ‘eco-art’, to consider just a few – Japan seems to offer an abundance of themes that contribute to a transdisciplinary ethnographic examination of consumption. Conversely, a more extensive, and exclusive focus on art could have generated a more complete, if not robust understanding of the argument that the editors articulated above (with reference to that art focus included in the book title). That said, and understanding that editors often have to work with, and around, the contributors and contributions that they have, the book is quite valuable as a reading of the 11 chapters independently. The contents offer a new and inspiring views regarding both everyday consumption as well as more engaging and meaningful consumption, and, hopefully, these views will push researchers to consider their own area of specialty with a new view, recognizing the varied and ‘transdisciplinary perspectives’ that such emerging paradigms to consumption research offer. With this in mind, and ignoring the distraction of the argument on the necessity of art to make the case and focusing instead on the transdisciplinary range offered overall, I offer my thanks to the editors and contributors for a valuable contribution.

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