How Japanese brands are mastering the collision of virtual and real worlds

In the beginning, there was a new continent. The explorers started migrating. They couldn’t find their place in the old world and craved the liberation a new identity withheld. The new continent had no rules or ethics; it was wild, fresh, promising in its endless potential. A new frontier that wasn’t just another uncharted territory, but also a place where the pioneers were able to reinvent themselves — to be everything they ever wanted.

This is neither America in the 17th century, nor Australia in the 18th, but the Internet, just three decades ago. Japanese web critic Kawakami Nobuo uses exactly this kind of imagery when he speaks about the Web in recession-hit, 1990s Japan: an alternative, utopic space that attracted a lost generation. Disenchanted with the pursuit of purpose and direction, these lazy, jobless nobodies searched for an outlet to blow off some steam at a society that was falling apart. Journalist Sasaki Toshinao explains that the culture of Japan’s online communities originated with these cynical, escapist youth. It wasn’t the do-it-yourself, hippie generation of Steve Jobs and Paul Allen who sought to better this world using the power of new technology. Instead, technology was merely a portal to an alternative existence, and the world ‘out there’ was completely shut off. Left behind.

The cultural movement that championed this real-virtual dichotomy was strangely atomised and conservative in nature, and it’s still influential. Surveys explicitly show that Japanese users are less likely to share information with friends online. In one conversation, a CEO of a gaming company confessed to me that he only advertises on train billboards since Japanese gamers hardly ever send invitations on Facebook. “When you play”, he said, “you don’t want to see an extension of your real self — you want to see, or be, someone completely different. And surely, you don’t want your friends to know that other someone.”

This tendency, however, presents a problem: how do companies, seeking actual consumers, market their products? Blizzard, for example, chose a brilliant way to bring together the mundane and the fantastic, engaging anonymous, reticent consumers. In their new Japanese commercial a middle-aged, suit-clad man steps down from a chauffeured car, greeted with humble bows and other signifiers of respect. In a Japanese corporate cultural context, this visual resonates with any salary-man or office lady in the country. But suddenly, a junior female employee in uniform stands proudly against traditional authority. To everyone’s bewilderment, she refuses to degrade herself, and only she, and the boss know why. The virtual world becomes not only a way of therapeutic escape, but also means to create alternative, secret relationships to which societal rules do not apply.

Despite Blizzard’s achievement, the vision of the two worlds is eroding. First, there were social networks, which mediated a carefully constructed, negotiated self-online. Social network service (SNS) communications focus on the deconstruction of the self, and the subsequent strategic reconstruction of an appealing image. It is a narcissistic endeavor sometimes, and also one that requires constant validation from friends and followers. But what about the second option: altering reality itself?

Augmented reality (AR) seems to be the answer evident in hits like Pokemon-Go or Ingress. With AR, the self stays one-dimensional and, conversely, reality becomes layered and diverse. The advantage in AR for companies is obvious: Special Pokémon characters purchased by businesses to appeal to clients are just one possible example. Artist Keiichi Matsuda recently produced a dystopian vision of AR, typically applying a first-body gaze on a media saturated city. Matsuda’s work, though, should not be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brands need to reimagine reality, as seen through users’ eyes and build on it, or manipulate it to accommodate consumer needs.

The best way of connecting the two worlds is perhaps through characters. As semiotician Sunsuke Nozawa claims, people in Japan are used to living “as characters and with characters”. As characters, like in cosplay, maid cafes or virtual reality games, suggests a more immersive experience, usually targeted at subcultures, gamers or die-hard fans. This trend is already showing commercial manifestations with products like HTC’s Vive or Facebook’s Oculus Rift. Human interaction, in the ‘as’ characters mode, is only an indirect outcome of a virtual, or imaginary one. Consumers, however, are also more committed, and will probably be also willing to invest more.

In the with characters mode, however, the virtual is only a mediator, enabling users to cope better with reality. Users actually go “out there” and engage more easily with both human and non-human actors. The businesses in this category aim at mass appeal, with the best example being LINE, the instant messaging app, popularly known for introducing original, large character ‘stickers’ that replaced the old emoji in conversation. In a symbiotic relationship with people, characters’ role is to explain, warn, instruct, recommend and mentor users. This “real yet not human” quality is the one that bestows trust and familiarity on them. Characters can guide people to shops, or to the polls, and facilitate social, political, or commercial campaigns.

And lastly, when assessing digital products and their corresponding crowds we should never cease to ponder what is actually real and for whom? Since relationships and experiences are extremely subjective, cultural context can only give us a sense of direction regarding the local interpretations on the boundaries separating the fictional from the actual. Like the Internet 30 years ago, or SNS a decade ago, VR and AR are slowly but surely making their transition into mainstream acceptance, making us wonder, again, whether reality imitates fiction or vice versa.

This article first appeared in Campaign Asia’s Cultural Radar column

Image source: in.ing.com