Marketing guru says Japan must learn to love its 'Otaku' side

October 29, 2011

By Sophie Knight / Staff Writer

Shy, effeminate, childish--hardly characteristics that spell business success, right? Wrong, says Morinosuke Kawaguchi.

The Tokyo-based marketing strategist and consultant at Arthur D. Little believes that these qualities, the trademarks of Japan's "otaku" subculture, are the key to reinvigorating Japan Inc.

In his book "Geeky Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturist's Guide to Technology and Design," Kawaguchi argues that the Japanese government and big companies are too "stubborn and arrogant" to see the value of subculture-inspired products, which tend to be highly customizable, tactile and addictive.

"Otaku" was initially a pejorative term used to describe geeks obsessed with manga, computer games and other solitary hobbies. The word has become increasingly socially acceptable as its definition has expanded to include anyone with an obsessive interest in something, but hardcore otaku, known for their reclusive tendencies, are still widely derided for their poor social skills.

Some of the Japan's older generation worry that the otaku's passivity is threatening the country's ability to survive in a highly competitive global market. However, Kawaguchi says that products inspired by otaku subculture, and its hyper-feminine parallel, the "gyaru" (gal) subculture, have enormous potential overseas.

"There's a real sense of 'Can we really entrust the future to these people?'" says Kawaguchi. "Everyone is wondering what to do, but if we don't capitalize on the subculture then we're going down."

While Japanese manufacturers experienced huge success in the postwar period by focusing on high-quality production, many are now struggling with foreign competitors able to match their "hard tech."

"The postwar generation, who made us rich, were very good at two things: minimizing things or making ecological engines. Now that South Korea and Taiwan can do the same thing, Japan finds itself in a difficult position," says Kawaguchi. "Japanese companies must now shift from thinking about "how" to make something to 'what' to make."

To that end, he has identified 10 aspects of Japanese product design inspired by otaku sensibilities that he thinks should be embraced by domestic companies and marketed to an international audience.

He argues that, while Japan's obsession with cartoon figures is famous, an attraction to cute things is far from a uniquely Japanese trait. It is hard-wired into all of us. Evolution primed humans to respond to infants with affection and, as a result, we are instinctively drawn to characters with proportionally large heads or eyes.

Some in the Japanese design world are drawing deeply on such universal human traits but also a long history of personification of inanimate things in Japanese culture, reaching back into the traditional Shinto belief that spirits reside in rocks, trees, rivers and other objects. That thinking has been sustained by otaku culture, and is now being applied to technology by some designers.

For example, the car manufacturer Honda Motor Co. found in a study that drivers react more quickly to vehicles with headlights that look like scary eyes. Kawaguchi hypothesizes that if small, vulnerable vehicles were given terrifying visages, and trunks had kind faces, motorist etiquette would improve. The same theory gave rise to the invention of a mechanized dog tail on the back of a car that expresses thanks by wagging at yielding drivers.

Kawaguchi argues that making technology "cute" can make it easier to use.

The tactility of products is equally important. He says many popular products are ones that people feel compelled to touch or fiddle with. A primitive example would be bubble-wrap, but today's touch screens draw on the same tendency.

The ideal product is not just cute and personable, according to Kawaguchi, it has to be customized to individual needs and desires.

Take automated toilets, for example: some have sensors that lift the lid and begin warming the seat as soon as someone enters the bathroom. The user can then customize their experience by selecting the temperature of the seat and the strength of the bidet.

Such obsessive attention to the details of personal comfort is characteristic of Japan's consumer market. In Japan, every female toilet cubicle is equipped with a box that plays birdsong or the sound of running water to camouflage embarrassing sounds. Cotton pads that fit inside shirts to stop sweat stains are on sale, and there's even a gum to obscure "the smell of aging"--an issue identified by cosmetics maker Shiseido--with the scent of roses.

While such inventions might seem superfluous, Kawaguchi says they are actually the next logical step for manufacturers and that Japanese companies need to wake up to what their own culture, and subcultures, have to offer the world.

"A Japanese company installed the toilet noise box at their headquarters in America. The female employees thought they were useless at first, but, after a couple of months, they said they couldn't go to the bathroom without them!" says Kawaguchi.

Japan's close neighbors are paying close attention to Kawaguchi's ideas. The Korea Institute of Industrial Technology, for instance, set up a group of scientists, engineers and business leaders to study the book and used it to brainstorm about South Korea's soft power strategy.

Kawaguchi hopes that Japanese companies will begin to realize how lucrative focusing on geekier, girlier products could be.

"Every country has its own traditions, so they have a limited international audience," says Kawaguchi. "Modern Japanese subculture, on the other hand, has captivated young people across the world. That's the future."

An English version of Morinosuke Kawaguchi's book, "Geeky Girly Innovation," will be published in March next year.

By Sophie Knight / Staff Writer
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Morinosuke Kawaguchi (Photo by Sophie Knight)

Morinosuke Kawaguchi (Photo by Sophie Knight)

  • Morinosuke Kawaguchi (Photo by Sophie Knight)

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