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A little bit of Martha in every rabbit hutch

by Philip Brasor

Considering the state of the Japanese economy, the current popularity of penny-pinching advice in the media is hardly surprising. There seems to be a fundamental paradox at work here, in that advertisers prefer programs and articles which encourage the spending of money, while the advice given out these days by “lifestyle coordinators” and “charisma housewives” is centered on the idea of making do without spending money.

In truth, though, this paradox is only theoretical — and in any case, money saved on one thing (everyday items) can be spent on another (fun). What makes Japan interesting in this regard is how penny-pinching has become an end in itself, a competitive activity that can be graded or judged based on how little someone spends while still managing to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.

Into this economizing breach rides Martha Stewart, the American superstar homemaking maven who sells magazines and household goods, but whose only real product is herself. She is one of the few businesspeople who, like a pop star, is immediately recognizable by her first name.

Or, at least, recognizable in America. Japan is the first overseas venture of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, a move that, according to a recent article by Roland Kelts on Salon.com, seems to be based more on Stewart’s personal affinity for Japan (she comes here twice a year) than on any specific marketing strategy. This affinity is so strong that not only is Japan the first non-American market for Martha’s signature household products, but it is also the first place in the world — America included — where she has opened a store dedicated exclusively to those products.

If such a business model sounds dangerous right now, what with foreign companies closing up shop here or drastically cutting back on operations, then it should be noted that Stewart’s success is based on personal vision. In other words, the 60-year-old former model-caterer-housewife-investment consultant did not become rich and famous because she sold the best towels, she did so because she projected a lifestyle that appealed to many women, including non-housewives.

The main question, as Kelts points out, is how well Stewart’s specifically American vision will go over with Japanese homemakers. Japanese household advice-giving is shaped by factors both environmental (cramped living spaces) and cultural (Japanese don’t entertain at home very much). The advice that Stewart dispenses is often ridiculed for its narrow suburban mindset, but most American women watch her not because they are going to do the things she suggests (despite Martha’s constant assurances to the contrary, many are complicated, costly and completely unnecessary), but because they’re attracted to the fantasy of elegant leisure that the show embodies.

Compared to a down-to-earth advice show like “Ito-ke no Shokutaku,” in which a Japanese screen family road-tests clever household tips submitted by viewers, Stewart’s programs seem comically pretentious (do you really need to make a special magnetized stick to measure your child’s growth?). But that, apparently, is part of their appeal in America.

In Japan, her programs are aired up to four times a day on LaLa, a nationwide cable TV channel for women that attracts around a million viewers. Last month, the magazine Martha Stewart Martha was launched in Japanese, but for the time being it’s only available through subscription. In order for Martha Stewart The Brand to become viable here, these two media formats must successfully promote her vision to the masses.

It sounds difficult. With the help of retail giant Seiyu, Martha has entered the Japanese marketplace by adapting her product line to the Japanese lifestyle, but brand-recognition is starting from zero. More problematic is the fact that Martha Stewart Everyday is a budget line (in the States it’s sold exclusively at discount chain Kmart, which last month filed for bankruptcy), while the lifestyle she espouses is clearly upper middle class. In Japan, anyone who possesses the kind of kitchen or dining room Stewart shows off on TV would have to be wealthy.

Many of Stewart’s American fans also live in less affluent circumstances than those shown on TV, but, it’s the fantasy they tune in for. Japanese housewives are used to the opposite fantasy-reality relationship: from the media they want advice that’s practical and within their grasp, while in their purchases they spend that extra 10,000 yen to satisfy their dreams of affluence. Which isn’t to say they will ignore a bargain; only that quality comes first.

What Martha Stewart Omnimedia and Seiyu are hoping is that Japanese housewives will project their fantasy of affluent American living onto the Everyday line (Kelts refers to such fantasies as “Disneylike”), but that’s also difficult. The Japanese obsession with American affluence has little to do with American reality. As everyone now knows, even the president of the United States munches on pretzels right out of the bag.

In the U.S., Martha Stewart Everyday probably looks snazzy in a cheapo emporium like Kmart. But the Martha Stewart Living store in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district is in the same building as Mujirushi Ryohin, ostensibly a budget brand but which, compared to the Everyday line, looks high-end. After browsing the pastel-colored, acrylic-based, generically designed products lining the shelves in the Martha store, Muji merchandise seems more refined and, ultimately, more desirable. Martha herself may be an American original, but her stuff is pretty average.