Being “basic” in Japan

Why pumpkin spice lattes are likely to stick around

By Stuart Parson, Masaki Tajima & Kieran Holland

It’s been a decade since the release of Kreayshawn’s Gucci Gucci — a song bursting with excess, posing and how this is correctly managed. It was also a song that helped to coin the concept of “basicness” in mainstream culture.

The idea may be more than 10 years old, but it remains a popular reference in Western, mainstream culture. Recently the concept popped up in discussions within a project here in Tokyo. One of the most difficult questions was how “basicness” might be translated in Japanese. There were a number of candidates. DQN [ドキュン], internet slang that found broader use a few years ago and can be closely translated to the English word “chav.” Alternatively Tanjuu [単純] can be used to say simple, but lacks the underlying meaning alongside its (negative) cultural baggage.

Basicness became a useful foil in an age of globalised cool, enabled by unifed internet culture. Trends moved faster than ever and — supposedly — the playing field was now level, so there was no excuse to get left behind. As Noreen Malone wrote in the New Yorker in 2014:

Malone highlights the importance of power relationships when using the term. By declaring something basic, you are not. It’s a term that slots nicely alongside the global wave of hipsterism: a movement looking to rebel against something, but not always sure what that might be. Tattoos are the most obvious example here. In an age when they are no longer transgressive (at least in the West), tattoo parlours are doing a roaring trade. That basicness is inseparable from consumption choices — Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada — also says a lot about western culture, and particularly the (value judgement) vacuous world of modern hip hop, where basic is essentially about what you buy.

But how does basicness operate in a stricter and more collective landscape, like Japan?

Shudan ishiki — Japanese group thinking — has been widely referenced as an important framework for understanding mass culture, but it remains a useful way into understanding how a concept like “basicness” operates. If basicness is — at its core — is a form of knowledge-based power dynamics, understanding how relationships might work is key to understanding what it might look like.

One of the more popular suggestions was the term miihaa [ ミーハー], which roughly translates as following the crowd or being fadish. It’s even derived from the English “Me [to be like] her” as in to follow her/another. On the surface this works well to convey a similar mindset of what basic aims to depict but it falls down when we look at how the term is used. While basic has typically been an insult (and then, unsurprisingly, inverted ironically) miihaa is a term that people freely apply to themselves, without irony. Miihaa does not have to be a negative thing, it’s more about subscribing to the trend, rather than slavishly following it.

This connects with the broader idea that — while outsiderism can be an interesting thing in Japan (and exists widely across subcultures) — the active decision to be inclusive does not need to be sneered at or be a target of embarrassment. Whereas Western basicness is a point of division, in Japan it’s often about a central reference point. A recent study showed that nearly half of all Japanese women owned some form of Louis Vuitton bag. So, while Kreayshawn’s thoughts on these brands — such as Louis Louis — might still hold true in some ways, safety in simplicity and similarity remains a powerful force in Japan.

Thank you for reading. If you want to say hi or continue the discussion please get in touch.

Tokyo-based, researcher & brand strategist. Sketching thoughts on culture here.