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Whoot! What? Wut! German Fashion finds a home in Tokyo

Japan Subculture Research Center is going through puberty and heading towards adulthood. After a long discussion with the Japan Subculture Research Center team, we’ve decided to expand the blog to cover not just the underworld and subculture of Japan, but to Japanese pop culture, movies, and books. We’re also reworking the layout to bring you a better, more accessible, easier to navigate format.

Joining the JRSC team is Camille Blanchot, a fashion and set designer originally from France, and now our Special Japan Fashion Correspondent. In her first article, Camille interviewed Yann Le Geoc, the founder and manager of one of Tokyo’s most chic and interesting niche stores, Wut Berlin (東京都渋谷区神宮前5-1-15/5-1-15, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Japan). In the interview, Camille is represented by “C” and Yan by “Y.” While this may be readily apparent, we at JSRC feel that you can never over clarify. In other words, we like needless exposition.

Wut Berlin: Bringing German Fashion To Tokyo

C: So, please introduce yourself

Y: I am Yann Le Goec. I am French, 35 years old, and I am a buyer.

Our Man In Japan: Yann Le Goec

C: You have this shop called Wut BERLIN. When did you open your store and how did you found it?

Y: Wut opened in February 2006 in a very little space in Omotesando. Basically the concept was to open a select shop for German designers and the idea came from the president of my company, a Japanese company, HP France.

C: Most Japanese when they think of fashion they think of Italy and France, how did you convince the Japanese fashionistas that German fashion was hip and cool?

Y: That is true, but also sometimes a bit fed up with the same brands so they are always looking for new brands so we have to go to other countries or cities to bring something new to fashion customers.

C: What is it about German fashion that the Japanese like?

Y: There are some German designer which fit the Japanese taste and some who don’t. Especially, German women are very tall, so German designers make clothes for that size of woman.

But some German clothes are in the Japanese taste, not so much into body conscious, not over-sized per se, but not about the sexiness of the clothes, and our best seller is, ANNTIAN, which is a very unisex style of clothes.

Not very masculine, not very feminine.

C: About your shop, please explain the white tile look of the store. And the way the tile cracks in the store. Don’t you worry the Japanese might think the store is failing apart?

This shop wasn't damaged in the quake. The damaged tiling is part of the design.

Y: The name of the shop is woo which means anger, but means southern anger – as you can see, the front of the store is perfectly done but step by step it is crackling and exploding towards the dressing rooms. I don’t think the customer will think the store is falling apart.  I think the customer is seduced by this without understanding the meaning.

C: Has the great tohoku earthquake changed people’s fashion taste?

Y: No, not really. Consumption hasn’t really changed, either. Nothing has been affected except for the first few days after the earthquake, and then everything went back to normal.

C: Who is the most Japanese influenced designer from Berlin?

Y: There aren’t really any German designers who take their influence from Japan. If they do so, I haven’t heard of it.

C: So would you describe your store as Japanese fusion fashion?

Y: I don’t think it’s a fusion, but more German clothes that fit Japanese body.

C: Do you think Japanese people wear German fashion the same way German wears German fashion?

Y: Actually Germans aren’t very fashionable. The brand we sell here they don’t sell at all in Berlin – very few stores, maybe. So German brands are most popular outside of Germany. The brands which are popular in Germany aren’t the brands that would be popular here.

C: How do you market to the Japanese public?

Y: We do a lot of promotions through our website and our blogs – blog is very important to communicate directly with customer. We don’t do a lot of press, as I don’t believe anymore in press power, but we rent a lot of clothes for singers or hair magazines.

C: Do you think magazines are still useful?

Y: It depends on the market, but for stores like ours there almost aren’t any magazines that deal with this kind of fashion. They don’t sell high fashion magazines anymore. But they still sell mass fashion magazines, like kawaii (可愛い)– style magazines, which still surviving.

C: Do you think it is different in Germany?

Y: Yes, press is still very important there.

C: How is your Japanese?

Y: My Japanese is not perfect at all, I don’t think I know the language well. I would say its better to know a little, so you can make sure people know what you are talking about. Actually, there are very few Japanese working in the industry who speak good English.

C: Who is your favorite Japanese designer?

Y: I really like Balmung. He is a very young Japanese designer so not so famous in Japan or Europe.

K: Why do you like Balmung?

Y:  Because he makes very particular shapes, which you don’t find in any other Japanese brands, or in Europe fashion. He really has a very particular style, and doesn’t make so many pieces per collection.

C: It’s summer; it’s very hot. What should one wear to survive?

Y: Naked? (laughs) Long, flowing, floor length dress, light, white, even for a man.

C: Sometimes, people think you are German. Why are you selling German clothes?

C: Like I said, it was not my idea in the beginning, it was the president of my company who decided  to send me to Berlin- and then I was surprised to find interesting designers. And I think its better to do it like this, because it avoids a nationalistic feeling about it, if I choose it, it’s because I like it, not because it’s my German brother

Yann’s store

C: So, your favorite pieces in your shop?

Y: This coat, a kind of trench coat and I like it because it is made of nylon but on the collars its doubled with leather, and this stitching is a very colorful which is very rare and new and the brand is KTZ.

KTZ Trench Coat

This brand comes from London.

This is a Japanese brand, this is a bag, it’s the IKEA bag with a leather bottom. I like the idea of making something very cheap expensive. The brand is STOF. And it’s from Tokyo.

This is a Tata Christiane, she makes tunic tops from vintage scarves.

Tata Christiane tunique -front

C: Why do you like this item?

Y: I really like her style because she’s a weird designer in Berlin. I like what she is doing.

Teaching an old dog (breed) new tricks

On July 19th (2011), Mr. Futaba (二葉), who belongs to an indigenous breed of Japanese dogs, known as shiba-ken (柴犬), became the first Japanese dog to qualify as a police dog in postwar Japanese history. He will be serving with the Okayama Prefectural Police Department. It was his third attempt at qualifying, after having failed the exam in the fiscal years 2009, 2010. The third time was the charm, proving the Japanese saying, (三度目の正直・sandome no shojiki=the third time is when a victory is really decided) is both true for humans and canines as well.

Mr. Futaba is 50 centimeters tall, and weighs 11 kilograms. In compliance with the personal privacy information protection act (個人情報保護法),  the Okayama Prefectural Police Department will remain silent on Futaba’s real age. He is not over the age limit.

He will be spending the next year primarily searching for missing persons. In a normal year in Japan, one without colossal earthquakes and killer tsuami, over 80,000 people are reported missing; he will be one very busy dog.

According to the Asahi Shinbun, typically, native Japanese canines make very poor police dogs because, “they are stubborn, go at their own pace, and do not listen to orders from anyone other than their own masters.” In many ways, this passage could be used to describe the average Japanese bureaucrat–they also make for poor police officers.

Up until now, reverse discrimination had relegated most prime police dog positions to foreign breeds, but Mr. Shibata’s inspiring victory has shown Japan and the world that it is possible to teach an old dog (breed) new tricks.

Mr. Futaba, on July 19th, became the 1st native Japanese dog to qualify as a Japanese police dog. It was his third try.

Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works

What is the future of Japan? Can the country get back on its feet? It’s a question that the world and the people of Japan are asking themselves. McKinsey & Company have edited a book that aims to answer this question.

Reimagining Japan is a collection of eighty essays that aim to shed light on how Japan can rebuild itself in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. The contributors come from a variety of backgrounds – from CEOs to journalists, to academics – also include a fair amount of both Japanese and foreign writers. Roughly half of the contributors come from the business sector, and 14 of the 80 come from McKinsey itself.

Though the topics explored range in subject, there are a few recurring themes that run through the collection. Outlined in the introduction, they include the need for openness (the unwillingness of young Japanese to venture outside of their country, and of companies to take their ideas global), diversity (Japan has a relatively homogenous population), innovation (Japan’s need to move away from labor-intensive industries) and leadership (strong company and government officials who can act boldly and expediently). Though sometimes the reemergence of these themes can be tiring, and even seems like a bit of a broken record, often the authors provide enough of their own unique insight to keep it interesting.

There are also a few authors who break hard with the general consensus. Just when you think you have certainly heard enough about the  “change-resistant” personality of the population, John Dower shakes it up with several historical examples that belie this characterization of the Japanese. Forced to reconcile these conflicting assessments, it’s a rewarding experience to recognize the truth in both and thus gain a deeper understanding of the problems facing Japan.

I noted this kind of mental progress several times through the reading of these articles; how is it that Japan ranks 4th in Innovation in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, yet one of the most consistent charges against the Japanese is that they fail to innovate? It’s actually hard to put the book down once you get into the discussion.

Chapter 3, Restructuring Japan Inc., was particularly interesting and well-edited, with each consecutive chapter offering a challenge to the one before. Macroeconomic policies, such as decisive quantitative easing vs. restructuring, were debated as each policy expert laid out his case. The article “Reforming Japan, Nordic Style”, I found particularly interesting; author Richard Katz points out the egalitarian ethic and homogenous, well-educated society that Japan has in common with the Nordic countries, and proposes that Japan should consider how these countries have been able to foster growth and improve efficiency through their policy of government provided employment security rather than individual job security.

Interestingly, the Japanese writers were the most critical of their own society, the quickest to bemoan the complacency and resistance to change. Yasuchika Hasegawa, president and CEO of Takeda pharmaceuticals said, “…until this country hits bottom, our people will never get serious about change”. Tadashi Yanai, chairman and CEO of Fast Retailing, which owns UNIQLO, had even harsher words: “Japans biggest problems are conservatism and cowardice”. Foreign contributers, on the other hand, it seemed couldn’t help but temper their criticisms of Japanese politics or economical policy with praise of all the things we foreigners have love affairs with the Japanese over.

After a few days of reading these essays back to back, dissecting Japan’s dysfunctions and prescribing elaborate solutions, I felt overwhelmed by the work ahead of my adopted country. Japan has been lagging not only economically, but also losing global influence, its once formidable share of the tech market, and having recently lost its status as the “linchpin” of American strategy in Asia to South Korea, even its political prominence.  Several authors, noting the shifting power structure in Asia that has accompanied the rise of China, and more than half of the authors inn “Redefining Japan’s Foreign Relations” chapter argues the need for a pan-Asian alliance–one which Japan must lead.

However, the aforementioned broken record comes in handy here: it does the powerful task of affirming the consensus among experts on Japanese culture. Our problems aren’t so varied, and at the end of the day we really aren’t in disagreement about them. In many cases, we aren’t even in disagreement about the corresponding solutions. And indeed, many solutions were offered, particularly by the writers who dealt with political and economic problems.

However, while many also mentioned social issues, (a great number encouraging the use of women in the work force), few offered any solutions to those problems. Here, the heavy reliance on business-sector contributors is seen. Sure, nearly half the population is underutilized, and that could be a great source of labor for a country that faces an aging population, but how does this happen when an increasing number of Japanese women say they would like to get married and stay at home?

And how do we deal with an aging population if women say they only want one child because doing all the work by themselves is too 大変 (taihen/difficult)? As Kaori Sasaki says in her contribution “Putting Families First”, “changing the law can only do so much; our value system needs to change, too”. I had lengthy discussions with my roommate, Shigeaki Baba, about the theories and policies here, and he said, they are missing the biggest problem- there are a lot of ways in which Japanese society sucks. For a country that prides itself on efficiency, the current family set-up seems disastrously inefficient; one member puts in enough work hours for two, and sacrifices time that could be spent with his children; and the other is deprived the individual necessity comes with a fulfilling career. Of course, this model works for some families, but I think that for many Japanese people, both men and women, this set-up greatly contributes to their unhappiness. Maybe people don’t want to get married, pursue careers, or have kids, because in Japanese society these are difficult things to manage even one at a time. I would have liked to have seen more authors elaborating on that.

Overall, this is a highly thought-provoking and inspiring collection of works and recommended reading for anyone interested in Japan. This certainly sparked great discussion among my friends and roommate. I think if you care about Japan, this is an important collection to read, and hopefully add too as well.

Jake’s comment:

The book would have benefitted by having an essay by Kathy Matsui, who at this year’s TokyoTedX, gave a scathing review of Japan’s sexist polices and demonstrates how incorporating women into the workplace could save Japan’s economy and help solve the declining birth-rate. Personally, I also felt that there should have been some focus on the endemic problems of organized crime in Japan’s politics and business. The culture of corruption, collusion, and corporate malfeasance is a huge stumbling block in re-imagining Japan. I hope that the book is read by more than just the foreign population and that some wise souls in the government of Japan pay attention. Unlikely, but one can hope.

The book is also available in Japan from Amazon as well.