TOKYO — The broiled meat is tender and the rice is silky-smooth. But as Japan’s economic recovery falters, beef bowls have come to symbolize one of its most pressing woes: deflation.
Japan’s big three beef bowl restaurant chains, the country’s answer to hamburger giants like McDonald’s, are in a price war. It is a sign, many people say, of the dire state of Japan’s economy that even dirt-cheap beef bowl restaurants must slash their already low prices to keep customers.
The battle has also come to epitomize a destructive pattern repeated across Japan’s economy. By cutting prices hastily and aggressively to attract consumers, critics say, restaurants decimate profits, squeeze workers’ pay and drive the weak out of business — a deflationary cycle that threatens the nation’s economy.
“These cutthroat price wars could usher in another recessionary hell,” the influential economist Noriko Hama wrote in a magazine article that has won much attention. “If we all got used to spending just 250 yen for every meal, then meals priced respectably will soon become too expensive,” she said. “When you buy something cheap, you lower the value of your own life.”
Deflation — defined as a decline in the prices of goods and services — is back in Japan as it struggles to shake off the effects of its worst recession since World War II.
While prices have fallen elsewhere during the global economic crisis, deflation has been the most persistent here: consumer prices among industrialized economies rose by a robust 1.3 percent in the year to November, but fell 1.9 percent in Japan.
In the decline, companies that undercut rivals too aggressively are being chastised as reckless at best, or as traitors undermining the country’s recovery at worst. Every markdown of beef bowl prices by the big three restaurants — Sukiya, Yoshinoya and Matsuya — has been promptly broadcast by the national news media here.
Japan has reason to be worried. Deflation hampered Japan from the mid-1990s, after the collapse of its bubble economy, to at least 2005. Households held back spending on big-ticket goods, knowing they would only get cheaper. Companies were unsure of how much to invest. At the time, the three beef bowl chains were in a similar price war.
Still, government officials back then emphasized the supposed benefits of deflation; falling prices were good for households, they said. Others said deflation would help restructure the economy by weeding out weak companies.
But the drawn-out deflationary cycle weighed heavily on Japan’s recovery. Apart from putting a damper on consumption and investment, asset deflation ravaged the country’s banks and shut out new businesses from credit.
Now that deflation is back, Japan is wary. Unemployment remains near record highs, and wages are falling. Mounting public debt is also a problem, causing Standard & Poor’s on Tuesday to cut its outlook for Japan’s sovereign rating for the first time since 2002. Japan must do more to lift its economy out of deflation and bolster long-term growth, S.& P. said.
Moreover, the population is shrinking, making demand inherently weak. Economists say Japan’s economy is saddled with a 35 trillion yen, or $388 billion, “demand gap,” or almost 7 percent of the country’s economic output.
“With supply continuing to exceed demand by a massive margin, deflationary expectations are proving very difficult to shake,” said Ryutaro Kono, an economist at BNP Paribas in Tokyo. “Households have been tightening their purse strings as the income outlook looks increasingly bleak, and we believe firms will continue to respond by lowering prices.”
Matsuya, the smallest of the three chains, set off the price war by cutting the price of its standard beef bowl to 320 yen, or $3.55, from 380 yen in early December. The market leader, Sukiya, followed suit that month, lowering its price to 280 yen, from 330 yen.
This month, the No. 2 beef bowl chain, Yoshinoya, lowered the price of its beef bowl to 300 yen, from 380 yen, though it says the cut is temporary. A smaller chain, Nakau, has also lowered prices.
The restaurant chains insist they have not downsized their portions, and will make up for cheaper prices by raising efficiency.
“We don’t consider this a price cut. We’ve simply set a new price,” said Naoki Fujita at Zensho, which runs the Sukiya chain. “With incomes falling, we needed to figure out what would be a reasonable price,” he said. “We hope customers who came every week will now come twice a week.”
In a sense, the beef bowl has always been about low prices. Yoshinoya, the beef bowl pioneer with about 1,560 stores in Japan and overseas, helped bring beef to the Japanese working class with its first restaurant in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo in 1899.
Though beef was a delicacy at the time, Eikichi Matsuda, the Yoshinoya founder, kept prices cheap by buying in bulk, and serving as many customers as possible from his tiny stall. Speed and efficiency reigned, with workers trained to start preparing a bowl even before a customer sat down.
The same principles still apply at Yoshinoya. At a branch in central Tokyo, servers rarely take more than a minute to fill an order. The average customer spends just 7.5 minutes on a meal, and a small restaurant can serve more than 3,000 customers a day.
But forced to sell at ever-lower prices — and hurt by lower-priced competitors — making a profit has been increasingly difficult. The company suffered a 2.3 billion yen net loss in the nine months to November, and the next month, before Yoshinoya slashed prices, its sales slumped 22.2 percent. In contrast, sales at Sukiya, which serves up the cheapest beef bowl, surged 15.9 percent that month from the previous year.
Yoshinoya is not considering further price cuts. Squeezing out more savings is “like wringing a dry towel,” said a spokesman, Haruhiko Kizu.
Meanwhile, labor disputes at Sukiya show how falling prices and revenue can quickly hurt workers. A string of former workers have sued the chain over withholding overtime pay. Sukiya denies the accusations.
Other companies have been harshly criticized for slashing prices. Fast Retailing, the company behind the fast-growing Uniqlo brand, has garnered as much disapproval as awe for selling jeans as low as 990 yen. McDonald’s, on the other hand, has won kudos for resisting bargain basement prices by introducing a series of big “American-style” burgers for more than 400 yen, considered expensive in today’s Japan.
“Some Japanese companies are waging such reckless price wars, they’re wringing their own necks,” said Masamitsu Sakurai, who heads the influential business lobby Keizai Doyukai. “Companies need to be more creative. They should come up with products that add value.”
Economists say it is absurd to blame individual companies for Japan’s deflation. “For prices to fall during an economic downturn is natural. That stimulates demand and facilitates an eventual recovery,” said Takuji Aida, chief economist for UBS in Tokyo. “But this mechanism doesn’t work when there is such a big demand shortfall.”
“When prices fall because of an increase in productivity at a company, it’s good for the economy,” said Sean Yokota, an economist for UBS based in Tokyo. “It’s the demand gap that’s damaging.”
The government has vowed to lift household incomes through a series of subsidies, including new cash payments to families with small children. But the scale of government payments — 2.3 trillion yen in the case of the child subsidies — is hardly enough to fill the nation’s huge demand shortfall. With interest rates close to zero, Japan also has few options left in monetary policy.
In the meantime, cutthroat price battles are already driving laggards out of business. Wendy’s, the American burger chain, left Japan on Dec. 31.
It is not surprising, considering the competition. A mere stone’s throw from Tokyo’s celebrated Ginza district is Shokuan, the kind of restaurant that is undercutting everyone.
Shokuan, which has no chairs nor table service, is a cluster of beer vending machines huddled under the train tracks. A man behind a tiny counter sells dirt-cheap morsels: fish sausages for 50 yen, prawn crackers for 60 yen, canned yakitori for 160 yen. Many days of the week, Shokuan is spilling over with customers.
“I don’t think there’s anything around here cheaper than this. That’s why I started to come,” said Yasunori Miura, a manufacturing company employee and a recent regular. “This here,” he said, pointing to his fish sausage, “is deflation.”
In the face of global branding, designers are seeking inspiration from the everday, the quotidian experiences found in the routines of daily life
What defines contemporary graphic design today? The shelves of your local bookshop provide at least one answer. Most books published on the so-called avant-garde of contemporary design represent the institutionalisation of graphic experimentation, only confirming that the radical signs surrounding design in the late 1980s and early 1990s have become thoroughly predictable. Not only has this kind of work become a marketable aesthetic niche, but it is perpetuated by educational institutions that dutifully churn out the latest incremental variations in formulaic fashion, fueled by the twin myths of expressionism and stylistic pluralism.
In his analysis of the 1980s art scene, the critic Hal Foster describes at least two conditions that identify a state of pluralism: a proliferation of accepted styles in the marketplace and a profusion of educational programmes that together constitute a new academy. I believe that graphic design operates under similar conditions today. The problem with pluralism is that styles become relative options, not critical choices. Although pluralism ensures many styles from which to choose, we lose any sense of critical alternatives because, as Foster states, “tolerance and acceptance doesn’t threaten the status quo”. Instead we have incremental or, in the parlance of 1990s economics, “managed” change. Just as the last round of “radical” graphics entered the profession in the late 1980s, many critics predicted an immediate opposite reaction, not understanding perhaps the speed and depth of assimilation such work would engender.
The prevailing notion of what defines contemporary graphic design took hold early in the 1990s – variously and problematically referred to as Deconstructivism, grunge graphics, or simply, the “cult of the ugly”. In antithetical fashion, some critics foresaw an inevitable reaction to the trend by predicting a return to more minimal or reductive approaches. Emigre magazine devoted an issue to the subject (“Starting from Zero”) as early as 1991, in which the idea of reduction was taken to mean a return to the primal, and in 1995 Carel Kuitenbrouwer presciently saw the turn in contemporary Dutch design away from its baroque excesses and towards a “new sobriety” (Eye no. 17 vol. 5). The prophecies continue with the recent publication of Less Is More, by Steven Heller and Anne Fink, a collection of contemporary design defined by familiar yet retrograde notions of simplicity. In the wake of these predictions has the cult of complexity given way to an ethos of simplicity?
At the beginning of the decade it seemed as if there was an ever-expanding universe of graphic possibilities, yet now it feels as if we have reached the limit. Is there no way forward when everything seems possible? In this infinity of possibilities, we may arrive at zero. But to begin again does not mean returning to the “good old days” of clarity, legibility and objectivity. Starting from zero does not mean that contemporary design arrives free of the past.
There are signs of different forms of design taking hold, projects and solutions that embrace reductive not additive working methods, explicit rather than implicit structures of organisation, a preference for the literal over the ambiguous, and where the ordinary and the quotidian, not the exoticised subcultures of the vernacular, are sources of inspiration. At their best such projects are a critical encounter with problems of representation, both verbal and visual, rather than the next round of stylistic permutations. This shift away from the simply complex and towards a complex simplicity is a condition that I would like to read against many of the most celebrated characteristics of design produced in the 1990s.
A complex simplicity
In the realm of the simply complex, fragmentation is preferred as the viewer assembles various bits of text and image to form an aggregate message. Such work tends to treat language as a free-floating talisman, isolated words drifting across the page in search of meaning. By contrast a complex simplicity relies on enumeration and explication, a series of digressions and elaborations linked in the flow of language. What seems trivial and tangential becomes essential – like so many bits and pieces of data in the detritus of the information age. This abundance of information is employed to dramatic and occasionally humorous effect. Structure becomes paramount in order to handle large quantities of texts and images: a penchant for charts, diagrams and maps prevails. But in the most interesting work what appears to be good old information design reveals, upon closer examination, something more subjective – a kind of over-rationalised explication – that undermines its historical associations of neutrality and objectivity.
The diagrammatic and the eccentric converge in Timothy McSweeney’s, a literary journal in which words reign supreme. This is confirmed by the admonishment on the cover of issue two: “If words are to be used as design elements then let designers write them.” Prone to confabulation, this small, book-like journal is set in only one typeface, Garamond, about which is provided a five-page pseudo-colophon. McSweeney’s is typically bereft of imagery, especially photography, preferring small line illustrations and the occasional diagram or dingbat. Its well crafted covers evoke Victorian typographic guises with elaborate extended prose and marginalia, while intricate charts structure the contents of each issue in much the way that nineteenth-century physiognomy charts tried to map human nature. McSweeney’s relies on verbal explication and finds a visual corollary in the diagram. The contents of issue two, for example, are represented by the number of words per article and approximate reading time, and by a pie chart that categorises the offerings by percentage, for example, “Stories that want you to be happy: 19%.” Carefully ordered, but abhorrent of white space, it leaves no place unused. Witness, from the third issue cover, messages such as “This area was blank for the longest time” or “Nothing need happen here”, or an article printed on the spine. For McSweeney’s the modernist principle of “activated” white space seems empty, both wasteful and useless, because every place is a seen as a potential space to hold meaning.
It is also possible for the form to structure itself. For example, various bits of data taken together form a powerful gestalt in Jeremy Coysten’s poster series on aeroplane crashes and traffic accidents. Coolly rendered as scatterplots, Coysten’s Civil Airline Disasters 1950-1998 fixes the location and death toll of 607 aviation tragedies, their resulting dispersal pattern forming an image of the world. Coysten’s poster was prompted by his own near-miss incident aboard a flight to Australia. A second poster in the series documents road accidents in the uk over one week. In both instances the rational forms of information design have been employed to register the seemingly irrational loss of life. The calculated nature of the statistics contrasts with random events or accidents. The posters are produced for sale and are not commissioned for public safety campaigns. In this way information becomes both a product and a surrogate form of experience.
While the overt intervention of the designer figured prominently as a signifier of self-expression, one can detect the suspension of many of the designer’s more subjective decision-making tasks. Like forms of conceptual art, the preferred mode is more detached, relying on systematic approaches to produce solutions. Sol LeWitt once proclaimed that “the idea is the machine that makes the art”. The systematic nature of a predetermined process generates its form, and in this way it is the process itself that becomes the concept. Although the designer has not been entirely removed, what is foregrounded is the visible traces of the process. Unlike some Modernist attempts at abandoning subjectivity in favour of machine-like rationality, certain projects provide a framework for future actions outside the usual control of the designer and are often completed by the viewer.
An example of such participatory, rather than prescriptive, design is a poster by Paul Elliman for a conference on the work of the French writer Lautréamont (see Eye no. 25 vol. 7, page 31). White boxes have been inserted between the words “image”, “Maldoror” and “text”, for conference participants to complete, alter or negate. This simple gesture allows the project to generate a multitude of responses, which as an action echoes the nature of the event’s interpretive agenda. In a similar but more extreme vein, Daniel Eatock’s utilitarian poster project, essentially a generic form silk-screened on newsprint paper, methodically guides the user through the steps of creating their own advertisement, and includes blanks to insert relevant information, such as titles of events, images, persons to contact, etc. In this instance the work is wholly dependent on viewer response, the absence of which denies the piece its essential content.
Anne Burdick’s design for Wörterbuch der Redensarten, a dictionary of idioms, demonstrates an intricate form of complexity that weaves together various texts. Gathered from the work of Karl Krauss’s Die Fackel, a literary journal published between 1899 and 1936, Burdick worked with a group of researchers in Vienna to generate a series of design directions for the subsequent layout of 1,056 pages. The aim of the project is interpretative, not exhaustive, therefore the body of the text comprises only 144 expressions used by Krauss in Die Fackel. The purpose of this dictionary is to register the nuances of Krauss’s concepts and expressions. Representing a decidedly postmodern “tissue of quotations”, Burdick has structured the pages so that the central column of text includes excerpts from Krauss’s writings, while the left column contains citations and cross-references, and the right column contains texts that perform “interpretative actions” on the main passage. Because Krauss often used typography and imagery semantically in his writings, the central column frequently contains images and passages of text lifted directly from the original. Burdick acknowledges that conventional assumptions of design authorship were hampered by both the scope of the project and the barrier of a foreign language. Relying instead on a series of instructions, Burdick’s solution nevertheless bears the traces of the designer’s close attention to the details that would allow the project to realise its most appropriate polyphonic form.
Simple complexity demands typographic experimentation, highly articulated structures and eccentric typefaces. By contrast, a complex simplicity revels in the spartan vocabulary of what might be called “vanilla typography”, where typography has been reduced to a near-zero degree of expression – neither pretty nor eccentric, but quite plain. This is an inverted world where the ordinary stands out from the crowd as a distinctive gesture. By comparison, yesteryear’s shaped paragraph blocks and micromanaged type treatments look like fussy affectations, so many histrionics in the passion play of design. This change in typographies signals not only a shift in fashion, but also helps expose the expressionistic fallacy behind much 1990s design.
Expressionism denies its existence as a language, and thus a style, in order to preserve a sense of immediacy, a supposedly unmediated or direct connection to individual desire and the unconscious. Indeed, in most forms of contemporary design, expressionism has become synonymous with individuality. While modern typography in the 1960s and 1970s could be easily linked with the increasing rationality of the then-emerging industrial technocracy, today’s similar but simpler typography is aligned with the cultural sectors of fashion and art. This simplified approach to typography, while relatively common to many culture magazines, is most often employed in conjunction with the nouveau realist photography of the quotidian.
Picturing the everyday
One of the more influential publications in this genre is Paris-based Purple, which surveys the worlds of art, fashion, fiction, prose and interiors. Segregating the verbal (prose, fiction) from the visual (art, fashion, interiors), Purple’s preferred image is the snapshot, the most immediate form of photographic address. Uncomplicated, unstudied, and frequently unstaged, the snapshot negates the conditions of professional, commercial photography, with its requisite need for elaborate lighting set-ups, make-up, styling and retouching. While images have undergone extensive digital manipulation in the past decade, the recent resurgence of the snapshot makes one wonder whether this form of representation is a critical alternative or simply a fashionable one. The extensive presence of fashion advertising that mimics this look in the pages of Purple suggests the latter.
In this image world, life is collected in pictures documenting the everyday in the face of a highly mediated, spectacularised existence. The moment preserved by the snapshot is valued because it signifies “realness”. This theme appears in cultiver notre jardin, by Jan van Toorn. Using a structure of perforated and folded pages, Van Toorn alternates between colour and black and white images – pictures taken mainly by him – of people, friends and places around the world. Interspersed through the book are quotations about social reality, mediated experience and notions of public and private space, including a quote by social critic Mike Davis, who argues for a re-examination of nineteenth-century realism and its relationship to everyday life. Van Toorn extols us to “cultivate our own garden”, by carving out a space in the public sphere in what have become expanding corporate and institutional fields.
Rather than striving to record moments of realness as it happens, other designers prefer a much more mediated approach to representation. Eschewing visual ambiguity, including the clichéd stylistic affectations of blurriness, the preferred mode of pictorial represent-ation is documentary realness – not an attempt at capturing the authentic, but a much more studied trope that signifies the real but does not try to stand in for it. This strategy is evinced in Jop van Bennekom’s self-initiated project, re-, a magazine about everyday life. In an issue devoted to sex, the cover models (a man and a woman) appear fresh from a sexual encounter – replete with small beads of perspiration on their faces. Inside, the clichés of sex are distributed accordingly – sexual innuendo and phallicism, photos of stained mattresses and bits of blacked-out (“censored”) texts. Importantly, the subjects of re- are ordinary people, not celebrities. The texts remain first-person accounts, either testimonials, diaristic thoughts, or confessions.
The ordinary made extraordinary
With the reconsideration of the ordinary and everyday within graphic design, one may ask whether we are witnessing the end of what was once referred to as “the society of the spectacle”. It is more likely that with today’s campaigns for global branding – the process that transforms the ordinary into the memorable – we long for the less-mediated experiences found in the routines of daily life. Perhaps we can’t recognise the spectacle because it exists all around us.
After attending America: Cult and Culture, last year’s AIGA [American Institute of Graphic Arts] conference in Las Vegas (Reviews, Eye no. 34 vol. 9), it seemed all too easy to leave the spectacle behind as my plane departed. Watching television at home, a group of rather ordinary young men and women dressed casually but alike were singing along to an old Madonna tune. The minimal white stage set and the uninflected karaoke ushered in the autumn season of clothing for The Gap and I found myself transfixed: ordinary clothes worn by average people elevated to a new aesthetic. At that moment it was difficult, but not impossible, to remember that the truly ordinary lies in opposition to the brand. I was reminded of the architect Deborah Berke’s warning, in writing about the transformation of the landscape from banal to branded: “To confuse ubiquitous logos with generic identity [is] to mistake successful marketing for ‘popular’ culture.” At the eclipse of the society of the spectacle, the ordinary is made extraordinary and the trivial and mundane become memorable.
For his second feature, Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul crafted a delicate, impressionistic depiction of a lazy summer afternoon shared between Min (Min Oo), a Burmese who has illegally crossed the border into Thailand looking for work, his girlfriend Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), and Orn (Jenjira Jansuda), an older woman who Roong has hired to help Min. The film is decompressed to an extreme degree: virtually nothing actually happens in its two hour duration, as routine tasks and long moments of stasis are captured and mined for their emotional and sensual nuances. In the lengthy opening scene, which starts the film without any credits or lead-in, Roong and Orn have taken Min to a doctor to treat his skin condition, and they simply argue in a low-key way with the doctor about what’s wrong with him and what he needs. Min stays silent; much later, it will become apparent that Min is pretending to be mute so he won’t reveal his foreign dialect, while Orn is trying to trick the doctor into giving Min the health certificate he needs to find work. But Weerashethakul doesn’t dwell on any of this. He simply allows the conversation to play out, as puzzling and elliptical as it is, capturing the absurd way in which Orn and Roong are forced to keep talking in circles, confronted by the doctor’s obstinate refusal to do anything outside of regulations.
It is a frustrating, mysterious scene, but also a strangely funny one; Weerashethakul has a streak of dark but playful humor that often shows up in moments like this. Here, it becomes apparent when the conversation with the doctor goes on for several minutes as though it’s about a new condition, and then when the doctor asks how long this has been going on, they answer that he’s had it since he was a child. It’s the kind of absurd reversal of expectations that Weerashethakul subtly integrates into his otherwise hyper-realistic, observational aesthetic. Even better is the brief few moments when the director lingers to watch the doctor’s next patient, a hard-of-hearing old man who’s grumpily bickering with his daughter. Upset over his broken hearing aid, he advises the doctor that if she should have children, she should have a son because “boys are much better with electronics than girls.”
In this way, Blissfully Yours simply drifts along, from moment to moment and place to place, patiently watching these people’s daily routines. In one scene, Orn mixes together chopped-up fruits with a table full of creams and skin lotions, creating her own concoction, halfway between a fruit salad and a skin treatment. Weerashethakul loves to watch procedures like this, just as later his camera admires the careful, methodical way in which Roong prepares a snack for Min, wrapping up a piece of meat with a cluster of rice grains, then tearing off a piece of bread to engulf it all, and dipping the small bunched ball into the juices from some fruit. She repeats the procedure twice, making one for Min and then one for herself, and Weerashethakul captures the hypnotic quality of her careful motions as she assembles these snacks. She does it, perhaps, with the same mechanical care with which she paints Disney figurines at the factory where she works, where she’s so overworked that, as Min laments in voiceover, her hands are sore after a particularly hard day. The film’s extreme patience becomes especially clear when, nearly 45 minutes into the film, the credits suddenly appear as Min and Roong are driving towards a picnic in a remote woodsy area. It’s as though Weerashethakul is saying, now the movie is starting, everything that came before was simply a long prelude, an introduction, presenting the necessary context for what’s to come.