Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cultural Deodorant

I enjoyed how Iwabuchi's article, Taking Japanization Seriously, brought a new language and way of describing cultural exchanges and global marketing flows to the table. His "cultural odor" gives a tangible feel to the abstract notion of a cultural imprint on a product or export. "Cultural discount" was another interesting way of describing a foreign product that isn't well received in a new market because the local culture doesn't understand or accept it.

Iwabuchi notes that many of the items Japan exports (mainly the three C's: consumer technologies, cartoons/comics and computer/video games) are culturally odorless because they lack any influential idea of Japan on them. Whereas McDonald's can be said to sell the American ideal and lifestyle, Japanese products are just that - consumer products with no overarching values attached. However, there are Japanese products that do retain a cultural odor and have been celebrated in markets (for example, the images of samurais or geishas).

Using this idea of cultural odor, I found it interesting that Iwabuchi mentioned three examples of de-odorizing Japanese culture. One was invisible colonization where Japanese products lose their Japaneseness when incorporated into marketing localization strategies. Another was the "Americanization of Japanization" where Japan is forced to merge with Western global distribution channels in order to get its products out, losing any defining Japanese characteristics in the blending process. The other example was the process of transculturation where local cultures take foreign products or ideas and meld them with current accepted ones - making it their own.

All of these processes remove the Japanese "odor" from a product, making it difficult to judge the impact of Japanese cultural power (or other small emerging powers) on global markets. As systems become more integrated and as the frequency of products exchanged globally increases, it would seem that this deodorization of cultural products or images will increase in general.

Iwabuchi doesn't really touch on the ever-changing fickleness of markets and their trends (since his focus is on the current state of Japanese cultural influence). However, Japanese "odors" have become more acceptable now than after WWII when American consumers would turn away from anything with a Japanese fragrance. Now, Western consumers and in turn, the global markets tend to shy away from products with Middle Eastern "odors". It will be interesting to see if Iwabuchi's idea of odors lead to a less politically-charged (smelly?) global market as products become disassociated with their home countries or if it will only enhance the current favorite or disliked perfumes of the day.

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