The bright lights and crowded streets of Tokyo

What Japan can teach us about owned media

In an age when people are flooded with content, you need to be brutally honest about what stories you need to tell
The bright lights and crowded streets of Tokyo

Words by Paul Simpson

Is it worth filling a bucket with water to add it to a flood? That question haunts Hayao Miyazaki, the director of such animated masterpieces as My Neighbour Totoro. The Japanese people, the 78-year-old filmmaker argues, are being constantly bombarded with words and images, in which case, he says: “Does it make sense to add a bucket of water to that flood even if you tell yourself that it is really good water?”

Miyazaki is not exaggerating about the flood – especially in the heart of Tokyo. On the Metro, adverts are everywhere, draped across carriages, above the seats and stuck on the doors. The ads range from simple discount offers to videos trying to persuade women to drink beer and, most bizarrely of all, an ad for telecoms giant BellFace poking fun at young geekish executives who are too lazy to put in leg work. 

In the advert’s most popular iteration, the point is made literally. Two suited ‘salarymen’ are walking across a field when the younger one stops for breath. The older executive turns, looks disgusted, slaps his buttocks and pulls up his trouser leg to reveal calf muscles that are visibly pulsating with power. To emphasise the point, he shouts at his colleague: “It’s old!” 

Japanese ad agencies love to use English words because they believe it makes them – and their clients – look cool. The triumphant cry of “It’s old!” is a slightly lateral way to promote telecoms services but once seen, the ad is never forgotten.

Tokyo Metro ads need to stand out because most passengers are either asleep, on their mobile phones or asleep and on their mobile phones. To be fair, many are reading ‘keitai shousetsu’, mobile phone novels, which can be downloaded quickly and cheaply in chapters of 50 to 100 words – perfect to occupy them between stops. Many commuters write – and publish – their own.

The “It’s old!” advert also reflects ‘Owarai’, Japan’s comedy boom which has prompted agencies to develop ads that are humorous and occasionally downright surreal. The outstanding example is SoftBank’s hugely popular ‘Whites’ TV ads. Otosan, the patriarch of the dysfunctional White family is a dog, the mother and daughter are Japanese, the son is African-American and their monobrowed alien housemaid is Tommy Lee Jones. As you can see here, it’s weirder than it sounds. 

SmartBank is promoting mobile technology, but the ad’s nostalgic sitcom set-up reflects the country’s remarkable ability to look forward and back. 

Japan is pioneering the automated digital future – hence the rise of robot baristas – in part to satisfy consumers who crave novelty. When Krispy Kreme opened for business in Tokyo in 2006, people happily waited three hours to buy a doughnut. The joke in the Japanese capital is that if a passer-by spots a long queue, they join it in the belief that people must be waiting for something special. 

With long commutes – and long queues – people in Tokyo devote a lot of time to media. Last year, the average person consumed 396 minutes of media a day – 103 minutes of that on their mobiles – compared to 319.3 minutes when the iPhone was launched here in 2008.

Yet Japan is also besotted by its anilog, natural past. Robot baristas are popular, especially in Tokyo, but there are probably more cafes where customers can drink in the company of owls, otters or snakes. 

Waiting for a bullet train at Kyoto station in the summer of 2013, I saw something that captured these paradoxes perfectly. A sumo wrestler in a powder blue kimono, decorated with pink cherry blossom patterns, plugged into his iPod, strode into the waiting room and dispatched one of his aides to buy him a latte at Starbucks. That idiosyncratic amalgam of tradition, technology and reverence for Western brands illustrates why so many gaijin (foreigners) are perplexed by Japan.

In his book Wrong About Japan, Australian novelist Peter Carey satirises foreigners’ obsessive quest to discover ‘the real Japan’. His son Charley loves anime and manga and, as a bonding exercise, Carey decides to “enter the mansion of Japanese culture through its garish, brightly lit back door.”

Asking every one he meets (including Miyazaki) about the sub-texts of anime, manga and other narratives, Carey is greeted with polite bafflement.  If Carey had asked Miyazaki different questions, he might have got further. In his anthology Starting Point, the director – who, unlike 65% of his compatriots, doesn’t use a smartphone – is asked what he looks for in an animated movie. His answer? It’s all about the story. Is it any good? Is it worth telling? Or is just another superfluous bucket of water in a flood of content?

Asking those questions has worked for Miyazaki, creatively and commercially. His classic Spirited Away earned twice as much on release in China as Toy Story 4, made by Pixar, whose founders were inspired by him. 

There’s a lesson here for brands’ owned media. Before you add your own bucket of water to the flood, be brutally honest and ask yourself: is this story worth telling? And if it isn’t, don’t tell it. Or tell it differently. Or say something completely different. 

These stories don’t need to be structured with a beginning, middle and end. Nor must they overtly promote your brand. Let’s be honest, most of the stories brands like to tell about themselves are of no interest to anyone who isn’t an employee. (And most of them, asked privately, might admit to faking enthusiasm.) 

So, one of the secrets of successful owned media is knowing what to put into the bucket. The other is recognising when the bucket is best left alone.

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