How Japanese live a kaleidoscope of identities

A number of years ago, I found myself celebrating Christmas in the depths of Kyoto’s red-light district. The club was a time capsule of the bright and brash 1980s, albeit sparingly decorated in 100 yen store-bought tinsel, draped over the neon lights.

Amidst the flash and frivolity, we found a seat. My host was a high-ranking Buddhist monk and club regular, clearly as much a part of the furniture as the entertainers themselves. I felt uncomfortable, but this was his way of entertaining me whilst I was down in Kyoto. I didn’t know him well – a casual acquaintance of his from Tokyo – and I felt I knew him even less in this environment. It jarred with my preconception of what it meant to be a pious monk. Surely such a lifestyle was against every Buddhist notion of reaching enlightenment through shedding worldly desires?

“Isn’t it strange that a monk would be in a Kyabakura?” I asked him.

“During the day I am a monk and fulfill my duties as a monk wholeheartedly, but when I take my robes off I am no longer one. I am just a man,” he responded.

This reply might be jarring to a Western onlooker. Indeed, it reads as disingenuous. Surely a morally upright monk must devote his entire existence to his calling, in order to be true to it? How do you shrug off what could be seen as a paradox at best, hypocrisy at worst? Shades of grey are not fundamental to the fabric of Western identity. Rather, we lean towards oppositions: heaven versus hell, Democrat versus Republican, love versus hate. To take sides is important for your identity, and to be loyal to the side you have chosen is a strength of character.

“During the day I am a monk, but when I take my robes off, I am just a man”

In contrast, Buddhist cultures such as Japan’s are ever-changing, according to circumstance and context. As such, Buddhist thought sees the individual as a collection of instances loosely tied together; and so it is possible to be a monk and a man, just as a salaryman may dress up as a manga character at the weekend. The two worlds can exist independently without any implications for each other. You are your ‘true’ self in both instances.

To live a multitude of identities in Japan is common, if not the norm. Even as simple a concept as having a wardrobe of different styles, each combination with a clear purpose, responding to a certain context, is testament to that. Authenticity here is about committing to the role you want to embody in the most complete sense. (Of course, the flip side of this is the perception that you can only do a task properly if you look like you can. I have been told more than once by Japanese friends that I surely can’t be a consultant, as I don’t dress like one.)

In contrast, many Japanese people map out their lives as a variegated landscape of ‘lifestyles’: curated worlds that each capture a defined feeling, action, and aesthetic. Like a chameleon, the person changes their colour entirely to suit the context, without losing themselves in the process: what I would call ‘contextual authenticity’.

This shifting kaleidoscope can also be seen in the way Japanese businesses multiply the number of their brands and sub-brands, each with an entirely different look and operational approach. Doing this might seem irrational to a hardcore margin-optimization evangelist, but in the Japanese context it makes perfect sense: each brand should single-mindedly cater to an individual consumer lifestyle and need.

For example, local fast food chain MOS Burger has in recent years launched several different ventures that cater to different clusters of needs, which consumers would find inconsistent under one roof. MOS Cafe speaks to a more health-conscious female customer, who wants to enjoy a leisurely café menu based on rice and salads, but MOS Classic offers a premium and more adult version of its core burger range. Besides these, there are another eight MOS concepts to match differing lifestyles: something entirely unthinkable for a typical Western chain, which would fear the complexity.

Collaborate and cross-pollinate

Just as notable is how extremely well Japanese brands collaborate with other brands residing in the same lifestyle space. Cross-pollinating endorsements reaffirm each partner’s central role in defining a consumer lifestyle. Recently, Snow Peak and Suntory created a new energy drink for the ‘great outdoors’ called Peaker Bitter Energy. By combining Suntory’s bottled water brand from Japan’s southern Alps with Snow Peak’s image as ‘outdoor lifestyle creators’, they have co-created a valuable and precisely-targeted new product.

Outside Japan, it is more usual to see brands locked into concepts rather than expanding into differing consumer worlds. There are exceptions, of course. Newspapers with clear consumer typologies have made great efforts to leverage the lifestyle they stand for. The Guardian in the UK and Die Zeit in German – respectively writing for the left-leaning, middle class intellectual, and the centrist, cultural elitist – have developed magazines, lecture series, dating portals, package tours, and even wine clubs. Nevertheless, brands in the West lag behind, cautious of working together in case they lose power or definition.

This makes me think that there is plenty of potential for global brands to begin thinking of consumers as multi-dimensional, and to pay close attention to how Japanese brands navigate their customers’ multiple identities. That said, the thought of a priest in a brothel will remain the beginning of a bad joke for a while longer.