From time immemorial, consumption has largely been the yardstick for signaling one’s position as regards social status, membership to a given group, or even one’s own self-esteem. The expenditure incurred out of these, therefore, is directly influenced by the symbolic value they bestow upon the buyers as these are the motivators that create the need, for one, to associate themselves with such (Clammer, 1997). This fact is based on the socially accepted norms within a given society. Competition has pushed businesses to tap into the imagination of their clients, thus new marketing tools have been devised as a means to stay afloat. They, therefore, classify their clients according to their social class within the given society.
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This, aptly put, dictates that the consumption of the given product is influenced by the symbol attached to it, and the value appended is directly proportional to its symbol in society, such is regarded as symbolic consumption. Clammer (1997), in another simpler definition, states this as “the use of cultural capital and consumer information to satisfy desires that transcend the mere status that is intrinsically accompanied by the goods consumed” (Clammer, 1997). This paper, therefore, seeks to define the values attached to the symbols and the competition that arises within the Japanese set-up socially.
The Japanese, on prima facie, is a classless society when observed from afar. It is an assumption that given the fact that their earnings are almost on the same scale, but that is only an external observation. They have a consumptive society which, in their undertakings, has a tendency for semblance in terms of their choices; as such, they imbue their national values as a people. Japanese society, though uniformity, has created a unique social set-up that has a totally different set of standards for the definition of a given persona.
Independence and eccentricity are attained by a given gradation in their consumer behaviors. Symbolic competition as a concept among these people is necessitated by the need to classify the different people in terms of their persona, their uniqueness, and their acceptance to the norms that define their culture (Clammer, 1997). However, this has not dampened the fact that differentiation is still a part of this culture and that differentiation has come about as the effects of property ownership, control of space, and their general lifestyles. The difference in possession of these has proven to be the symbolic boundaries between the classes.
The Japanese society in itself is almost a homogeny culture, meaning the distinction of the self is rather uncommon. However, international trade and commerce have resulted in a conflict between the Japanese values and a people’s need for self-identity fuelled by their appetite, to keep and maintain a homogenous society (Clammer, 1997). Homogeneity in Japanese society is intrinsically desired and overtly present in the form of small differences in the levels of income the workers earn. Income, to a large extent, dictates expenditure, naturally implying that most Japanese would buy the same things as they earn almost the same amount in terms of salaries. Therefore, it is necessary to separate the societal values from individual ones and the psychological need for differentiation. The balance between individual and societal values becomes an essential factor in Japanese society (Skov & Moeran, 1995).
Symbolic competition, therefore, provides a balance between these foreign and domestic values. The difference in the conflict is that their values are the complete contrasts, for instance, in America and other societies, competition is exaggerated and is displayed through opulence in consumption; the Japanese frown at this as they practice uniformity in their culture. Aside from wealth attachment, the difference in the two societies stems from the fact that their earnings are totally different, America has truly huge disparities in the incomes of its people whereas the Japanese have exceedingly small wage differential gap (Skov & Moeran, 1995). Therefore, the Japanese cannot compete materially to a great extent, thanks to their small wage difference. This limits them on several factors, such as the choice to buy whatever commodities, information, aesthetics, comfort, taste, and leisure. Additionally, Japanese like to downplay overt differences, thus, they are less likely to compete based on such (Clammer, 1997).
Other than culture and the values attached, symbolic competition is perpetuated by several other factors. The most notable among them is gender and the role of gender in the constitution of factors that define consumer culture in Japan. In essence, the working population in Japan is a composite of both male and single women (Clammer, 1997). When they marry, they resign from their occupations, to go tend their homes; they are the primary caregivers in their society. They are the ones who do household shopping; therefore, determine what is to be used in the house. Major or big purchases such as a house or a car are determined by the man. Other things the man can purchase, though he is sometimes also restricted, are food, clothing, and general appliances that are used in the house (Skov & Moeran, 1995). This, in a nutshell, implies that women drive the consumer economy since they are the ones who determine household expenditure on consumables.
To the housewives, shopping is a key activity in their daily lives and is, therefore, a pre-planned event of significant importance. Several strategies are employed when it comes to shopping i.e. the use of catalogs, do-it-yourself shopping, and the use of co-operatives to do shopping (Clammer, 1997). Information on the products one consumes is crucial in Japan. This information is accessed from the thriving Japanese advertising industry and is essential in the determination of consumer choice geared to the portrayal of the desired image (Skov & Moeran, 1995). Information and advertising thus form an integral part in the consumer culture of Japanese people as it helps people sharpen their taste while staying relevant to the cultural codes they desire and, keeping within the limits of one’s income.
In some sense, shopping to Japanese women forms an essential recreational activity. Women are mostly tethered to the home and, unlike men who have designated activities of play like sports; women get few opportunities to pursue leisure (Clammer, 1997). Shopping is thus a good part time activity, presenting women the opportunity to actualise themselves through choice, imagination and consummation of desires. Shopping is deemed essentially as a hobby; therefore, most of the shopping activities are done from a perspective of fun and fulfilment of desires rather than the inherent utility of the purchased goods.
This form of play achieved through consumption also forms an integral part of the self of Japanese women. The self is expressed and defined by the interaction between the shopper and the things they purchase. The self in Japanese culture is more of a relational entity, as such; the self is expressed through the relations that one has with the things around them as well as the people surrounding them. Shopping enables one to express his/ her identity through purchasing goods that may have a symbolic form of expression, and at the same time, it gives one a sense of belonging to a preferential purchasing class.
The normal ideas of display play a minor role in the differentiation of self in Japanese society. Since the society is a conformist, the idea of overt display, is used to create a sense of belonging to a certain group. The real target of the display is the self; the value outward appearance of consumer goods is preceded by the personal significance the goods have to the owner (Clammer, 1997). The irony of display in this case is that it takes a subjective form rather than a conventional intention in a public sense.
Another feature of Japanese consumption linked to the idea of symbolic competition is cosmopolitan consumption. While it is true that Japan is economically superior to most nations, most Japanese feel culturally inferior. The major essence of international goods within Japan is, therefore, aesthetic, motivated by the need to appear eclectic and stylish (Clammer, 1997). Cosmopolitan consumption is symbolic and appears to be a reflection of one’s taste and style, which results in buying not just locally but from other cultures, as well. It should be noted that this consumption is quintessentially Japanese and not necessarily the subversion of the Japanese culture through foreign influence. This is displayed in the traditional Japanese wrapping of gifts. This consumption is political in nature and, therefore, does not undermine the essential feeling of nationalism that the Japanese possess (Skov & Moeran, 1995).
Class in Japanese society is more relational and less conscious than it is with other nations. Class, in this sense, is marked by preference, taste and similar cultural capital. This intra-class competition is largely symbolic and occurs in consumption (Clammer, 1997).
Symbolic competition in Japan, therefore, denotes a complex social phenomenon precipitating from the local culture, consumption, nationalism and the unique economic situation in the country. In a nation where egalitarianism and restraint are normal, symbolic competition is used to differentiate the different social classes.
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Clammer, J. R. ( 1997). Contemporary Urban Japan: Sociology of Consumption. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Skov, L., & Moeran, B. (1995). Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.