By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
TOKYO, Dec, 16 For 12 straight years, sales have fallen in Japanese department stores, with clothing sales -- t he most important category for revenue and profits -- driving the slide.
Behind the sagging rag trade is demography. Young spenders are increasingly rare. And there are swelling herds of older savers.
Enter OilyBoy -- a slick new magazine designed to excite consumption among "elder boys."
Weathered, wrinkled and bald though they may be, the aging Japanese lads who read OilyBoy are still out on the town, drinking. Or up in the mountains, backpacking. Or down at the beach, surfing.
And -- advertisers hope -- they can still be tempted to buy clothes, shoes, watches and accessories.
"We don't think we have become elderly people," said Masami Kanno, 52, editor of OilyBoy, which appeared on newsstands this fall and is selling briskly. "We think we are players, even if we are 50 or 60 or 70."
OilyBoy is a title that requires some explanation. To non-cognoscenti, it might evoke images of kinky behavior. But that is certainly not what the editors had in mind when they created the magazine.
"Oily Boy" is the actual nickname of the late Jiro Shirasu, once the coolest guy in Japan.
Tall, rich and movie-star handsome, Shirasu was educated at Cambridge University, where he drove a Bentley. After Japan's defeat in World War II, his excellent English and smooth demeanor helped when he was called on to negotiate the terms of the U.S. occupation with Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Shirasu was one of the first Japanese men of substance to allow himself to be photographed while hanging out in jeans. He owned and often tinkered with fine automobiles. On social occasions, his pants and shirts were sometimes stained with oil.
"That kind of man never forgets the 'boy' in him," says the OilyBoy Declaration, which can be found in the magazine's first edition. "The boys became not adults, but 'elder boys.' And that is why we cry out loud: We are Oily Boys."
Kanno concedes that OilyBoy is not a perfect name for a fashion magazine aimed at 50-plus men. Not everyone of that vintage remembers Shirasu or his nickname or his cool. In fact, Kanno's first choice as a name for the magazine was "Old Boy," but a trademark dispute nixed that.
OilyBoy is hardly the first magazine in Japan to go boldly in search of the old and their money.
With 22 percent of the population already older than 65 (compared with about 12 percent in the United States), and with the old predicted to outnumber the young 4 to 1 by 2040, Japanese retailers, marketers and publishers are all trying to tease more purchases out of the elderly.
The government desperately wants them to succeed. It is trying to wean the economy from an unhealthy dependence on exports. Growth here depends almost entirely on exports, which have collapsed as part of the global economic downturn and are considered unlikely to come back for at least a year or two.
A government spokesman said last week that for Japan to bounce back, "we have to transform the shape of the economy from saving to spending," adding: "There are elderly Japanese who are financially secure but refuse to spend."
In recent years, several lifestyle publications have tried to help. For women older than 40, magazines such as Éclat and Grace focus on fashion, travel and merchandise. A glossy magazine called Leon teaches wealthy middle-aged men how to be "slightly bad" while buying lots of wildly expensive stuff.
OilyBoy, however, is run by Kanno and a cadre of editors who 30 years ago invented a hugely successful men's fashion magazine called Popeye. Its readers, like its editors, were then young.
"They were cool, and they knew they were cool," Kanno said.
Popeye succeeded in the 1970s because it found 600,000 young guys who were willing to buy the magazine every month to keep up on how to be fashionable. But with the number of children in Japan having declined for 27 consecutive years, there are now far fewer of the fashionably young of either sex. (Popeye's circulation has shrunk to 100,000).
While many Japanese women pay attention to fashion as they age, many men do not.
"At OilyBoy, we think we can probably make fashion happen again," Kanno said. "Our intent is to bring them back."
OilyBoy tries to do so without triggering sticker shock. Instead of $6,000 suits, it features $500 sports jackets. Its male models are on the far side of 50 or 60. They look fit and healthy, but not insanely so. They are out at the beach or in big kitchens or with their beautiful daughters. They wear loose-fitting sports shirts, relaxed-fit shorts and sensible-looking shoes.
"Unleash yourself. Be free. Do what you want to do." That, Kanno says, is the OilyBoy way.
And, while you're on your feet, buy more clothes.