TOKYO When Japanese men such as Ryuji Shinozaki go shopping, they aren’t likely to see their peers among the pantheon of foreign models on billboards. On Japan’s leading fashion boulevard, Omotesando, Japanese male role models are almost nonexistent. A recent survey of images from L’Oreal to Benetton to the Gap counted 17 white males, 16 white women, one black woman, one David Beckham, nine Japanese women, but not a single Japanese male face.
“I feel strange because it’s mostly foreign guys on billboards,” says Shinozaki, 24. “It’s difficult to find Japanese on billboards, so it’s difficult to build up my own clear identity.”Out of 30 fashion magazines at a convenience store in Tokyo’s Nakano district, only one featured a male – white, of course. “Imagine if you were in New York or Paris and every model was Japanese,” says Shinozaki. “We’re just imitating American or European style.” This male monotony leaves many individualistic young men wondering who they are and where they fit in. “Postwar Japan eliminated all our culture, even the good things, so we are confused about who we are,” says Shinozaki. “I had to go study in America just to find my own Japanese male identity.”
The problem of youth identity, especially among males, is widespread enough to inspire a recent conference, WAKAI, or youth, at Tokyo’s United Nations University. Many students, DJs and fashion and music industry leaders blamed Japanese schools for teaching boys to obey, not express themselves.“We’re afraid to put up our hands in class, because people will laugh,” says Shinozaki. “Many Japanese are too shy to be on a billboard.” “There are too many publications telling Japanese young people how to act, how to look, how to feel,” says DJ Patrick, a popular American-born DJ and activist long in Japan. “In Japan, identity is more media-driven than any other country,” says Tamon Iwasaki, MTV Japan’s vice president for consumer marketing. “Figures and icons are very important. Madonna’s fans are very loyal to her.” “In a consumerist society, people can purchase and shift their identity,” says Ignatius Lin, a student and conference panelist. “But the question is how confusing is this for young people?” Marketing personnel also admit they are confused. “It’s difficult trying to find a hero who can get a message across to youth in Tokyo,” says Iwasaki. “You think this is cool, but it’s not in the next week. The attention span is very short, and so is the lifespan of a trend. In the marketing business, you have to think ahead, but who do you ask? Who are the trend-setters? Next week could be the Star Trek geeks.” Or an athletic hero. Talent scouts are looking more and more toward soccer pitches and baseball diamonds for a Japanese trend-setter. Fashion magazine paparazzi mob Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners’ sleek baseball star, and members of Japan’s soccer team at airports. Naohiro Takahara, 23, with a goatee and shaven head, and the flamboyant Masashi Nakayama, 35, endorse Puma and Nescaf? while the Japan national team captain Hidetoshi Nakata, who plays for Parma, looks Italian in a black shirt on a subway ad. Iwasaki says that the strong, silent, clean-cut working-class hero is falling out of fashion. The rock-solid images of the veteran comedian and director Kitano (Beat) Takeshi, 55, and the actor Ken Takakura, Japan’s archetypal tough guy, still grace TV screens and less trendy areas of Tokyo. But many consider the long-haired singer Kimura Takuya, of the pop group SMAP (Sports Music Assemblage People), as the sexiest man in Japan, while others go gaga over Sorimachi Takashi, 29, who played a beach boy on TV and modeled for Benetton. Masatoshi Nagase, 36, who played a bored traveler in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 cult film “Mystery Train,” is known for thinking for himself. “Actors are still more self-expressive than soccer players,” says the fashion designer Izumi Takahashi, who has worked with Nagase. “Players express themselves better on the field. They tend to be more into big brand names like Gucci than the actors.” But even when Japanese males create the trends, the trends often don’t explode until they boomerang back to Japan from abroad. “Japanese boys have been doing the Beckham thing for 20 years,” says DJ Patrick. “When Beckham himself did it, it became a hit here and around the world.”