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Sunday, April 15, 2001

MEDIA MIX

GLOSS OVER SUBSTANCE

Style as something you buy rather than cultivate


I always leaf through Katei Gaho in my dentist's waiting room. In fact, it's the only place I've ever had a chance to peruse it. Printed on the heaviest glossy paper money can buy, the magazine is more notable for its heft than its content, which is beautifully photographed clothing and household goods for the discriminating okusan. The reason I never see it anywhere else is because the kind of women it targets -- rich Japanese wives with huge houses and refined tastes -- are the kind of women I don't know.

The species of catalog magazine that Katei Gaho epitomizes may not be exclusive to Japan, but it's certainly been perfected here. The high-grade paper and high-rent photographers make these publications expensive propositions, but the fact that only a few people actually buy them isn't as much of a problem as it sounds. Japanese advertisers, especially those who deal in image-intensive products like fashion and brand accessories, are more concerned with how they are perceived than with how many people are perceiving them. The paper stock is the whole point.

But there are only so many advertisers like that to go around, and as the number of these door-stop publications proliferated they had to find ways of distinguishing themselves from one another. Most target the well-to-do, and almost all set their sights on women. All roads, it would seem, lead back to Katei Gaho.

elan, the newest entrant in the catalog-magazine sweepstakes, wants to have it all -- the ritzy advertisers and a sizable readership -- by thematically connecting the products they push to famous older women. The publisher, Fusosha, has grafted the celebrity profile onto a classic catalog magazine, and while this isn't an original idea, Fusosha has gone the extra mile by limiting its celebrity faces to one per 200-page issue.

The inaugural issue, which came out last month, featured 69-year-old actress Keiko Kishi, who these days is more famous for living in France than she is for her film work. In the early '60s she married director Yves Ciampi and moved permanently to Paris, though she also has a beautiful home in Yokohama.

The May issue is all about 60-year-old fashion designer Junko Shimada, who -- not by coincidence -- also makes her home in France.

In both issues we learn not only what these two women wear on the boulevard, but also their favorite bakeries and restaurants, the kind of flatware they've acquired over the years, and which books fill their well-lined shelves. elan calls itself a "personal style magazine," and in its choice of subjects the editors are trying to say that style is something that permeates your life and not just your closet.

But as a matter of fact, we learn very little about either woman that isn't related to either their possessions or their shopping and entertaining habits. The personal information is either commonly known (Kishi's acting career) or standard boilerplate (Shimada's happy and successful marriage).

The media make a big deal about how women are demanding more independent, fulfilling lives, and both Kishi and Shimada are more than appropriate as role models in this regard. Their age is a plus because they provide younger women with a goal to strive for and older women with someone to emulate. The difficulty lies in equating fulfillment with style. Though I'm hardly the target, I just got depressed looking at the magazine since all this gorgeousness is so beyond my reach.

The precedent for elan's editorial concept is Masako Shirasu, a writer who died three years ago at the age of 88. An expert on noh (she was the first woman to ever dance on a real noh stage), Shirasu was mainly famous as a tastemaker. Books and magazines, even serious museum exhibitions, have been devoted to her philosophy of mekiki (connoisseurship) and her collection of fabrics and gewgaws. Legend has it that she made designer Issey Miyake a star just by wearing one of his ensembles.

While we like to think that good taste can be cultivated by anyone, we know that it's easier for people with means. The main thing these three women have in common is that they are wealthy. Shirasu was born into the Japanese nobility and married rich. Both Shimada and Kishi earned most of their money, it's true, but within the realm of elan their work is presented as yet another manifestation of style. Kishi is currently making a film with Kon Ichikawa, but she has less to say about the movie than about her favorite places in Kyoto, where the film is being shot. For the purposes of the magazine, Shimada's work is interesting in that it allows her to buy really cool office furniture.

One of the most important aspects of the first two issues is that while both women live in France, their lives overseas have helped them better understand Japan and Japanese style. This was also true of Shirasu, who was educated in the United States in the 1920s. The point seems to be that exposure to foreign things makes one appreciate the peculiar beauties of home all the more. And if you've got 1,000 yen to plonk down for elan, you can appreciate them, too, without having to go anywhere.



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