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Supermarket Aesthetics

Keiko Yamamoto
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

It is now mid July and spring semester classes have reached their climax just before the coming exam and report period. I have one more lecture to give on Living Environment Aesthetics. Living Environment Aesthetics is a class that broadens the scope of aesthetics, which has focused on traditional art, to include aspects of daily life such as food, clothing, and shelter. We take a broad view of culture in the class, examining the aesthetic viewpoints of beauty, sensitivity, and the five senses. We examine, for example, the point of sale for groceries in supermarkets where many people go on a daily basis.

A supermarket is a veritable battleground, where consumers who have a strong desire to seek out quality food face a daunting array of products to choose from. It is a battleground frequently visited by consumers who take pride in their concern for what they eat, as they are sensitive to issues of food mislabeling, pesticides, and additives. However, if we take a careful look at the actual purchasing process, we notice that there is no way for consumers to make buying decisions by sufficiently examining the actual products they wish to buy. This is because many products are packaged. For example, a number of uniformly sized tomatoes are placed on a single tray and packaged by using an outer wrapping. Although this is often seen particularly in Japan, I feel as if there are two hidden problems in terms of sensitivity in Japanese supermarkets.

Two tomato supermarket displays (photo left: from a supermarket in Germany; photo right: from a supermarket in Austria ). In Europe, vegetables are generally separated by type and are not packaged. Since they are freely piled up, consumers can hold vegetables individually in order to make their selections.

Desensitization in Consumer Society

The modern era is called the Age of Sensitivity. The term emotional consumption first appeared in the Gendai Yougo no Kiso Chishiki (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words ) in 1985. Today, the Kansei Value Creation Initiative has been established as a policy of the Ministry of Trade, Economy, and Industry. In addition to high performance, reliability, and low cost, sensitivity is the fourth key value that is garnering attention, and emotional marketing relating to features such as the color and feel of products is stressed. When possible, even neighborhood vegetable markets beautifully arrange a large number of tomato packs that have three tomatoes each. The entire point of sale is designed to powerfully evoke the sensitivity of consumers. There are various means of expression, and the promotion of sensitization is on the rise. Creating product appeal in this manner often leaves an impression on consumers.

However, German aesthetician W. Welsch describes this not as sensitization but rather as desensitization (Anästhetisierung, in German). The emotional values that stimulate excitement found in places where we shop, such as shopping areas, instantantly overwhelm us. On the other hand, if we pay attention and look closely, we find that there is nothing beyond the superficial, instantaneous excitement which is created, in other words, desensitization. This is because information that is packed with emotional content actually numbs our sensitivity. Due to this instantaneous excitement, it can be said that this sensitization which prompts consumers to make purchases definitely creates a condition where consumers are desensitized and do not focus on individual products.

Another Form of Desensitization

Even if we are not trapped by the excessive sensitization created throughout the entire point of sale and are determined to focus on the tomatoes themselves, another form of desensitization will also interfere in this process. Consumers are precluded from using their valued five senses since packaging prevents them from checking the texture, smell, and feel of vegetables. In fact, some say that tomatoes have no scent these days, and I cannot help but think that packaging is one of the causes. Packaging itself, after all, already sends the message that: inferior tomatoes, those with no scent or that have a poor texture, are acceptable. Although excessive packaging is often criticized for its environmental impact and similar problems, it is a major problem in the realm of aesthetics as well.

However, it is as if many consumers assume that they are voluntarily selecting and purchasing vegetables which actually cannot be selected properly since they are packaged and cannot be touched. What is the reason for this?

The many labels on the package wrapping are supposed to take the place of smelling and feeling the vegetables, actions which are no longer necessary for making selections. Starting with prices and areas of production, there are even labels that show the names and faces of the producers. In other words, the text on labels has become the largest form of information which influences consumers to decide which products to select. The underlying causes of this development are the promotion of traceability and other efforts that were triggered by food mislabeling problems, which were excessive especially from 2002 to 2007, and the rapid promotion of transparency in food product information.

However, another matter came to light at the same time that these food mislabeling problems occurred. As a result of the habitual, continued dependence on labels up until now, consumers are trapped in a situation where they cannot determine for themselves whether meat is domestic or imported, even when they see it or taste it. Therefore, when the accuracy of the text on labels was called into question at the time the food mislabeling problems occurred, rather than using their own five senses, consumers relied still more on meta labels and labels that guaranteed other labels (traceability). This problem is caused by the increasing degeneration of our five senses and the increasing overdependence on labels. Even today, packaging forces us to take part in a passive, involuntary purchasing process, and the distance between products and people grows ever wider. If we continue to ignore this situation, the dulling of Japanese consumers' ability to make value judgments through the use of their senses will probably become increasingly inevitable going forward.

Keiko Yamamoto
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Keiko Yamamoto was born in Okayama Prefecture in 1974. After graduating from Musashino Academia Musicae, she switched her major to philosophy and earned a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University. Dr. Yamamoto took up her current position after serving as a teaching assistant for the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University. Grounded in Nietzschean philosophy, she is engaged in the research of contemporary aesthetics, cultural philosophy, living environment aesthetics, and body theory. Her primary works include Nietzsche and Physiology [Niiche to Seirigaku] (University Education Press, 2008). Since 2009, Dr. Yamamoto has served as the chair of the Food Culture Research Society, which features culinary researcher Yoshiharu Doi and other experts.