“Japan’s personal grooming market is simply one of the most sophisticated in the world”

Getting ready for work

How the Japanese toiletries market is shaping personal grooming

Text by Gavin Blair

The intricacies of Japanese society and culture can sometimes feel like impenetrable riddles. However, some things are easier to understand and are, quite literally, closer to the surface. It’s no secret that Japanese women spend a great deal of time, effort and money on their appearance, and that these habits have spread to many young men. The reality is, Japan’s personal grooming market is simply one of the most sophisticated in the world.


In addition to the maturity of its grooming market, the fact that Japan’s population is on an ageing trajectory — something that a number of countries are beginning to follow — means the country is becoming a vital test market for European companies in the sector.    

Pierre Fabre, a major French pharmaceutical and cosmetics company, has been operating a joint venture with local giant Shiseido for 30 years; it was Pierre Fabre’s first foray into a major market outside Europe. The company recently opened an R&D centre in Japan, its first outside France, and products developed for the Japanese market account for 40 to 45% of local sales, according to Laurent Martin, president of Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique Japon.

One example of a successful locally-developed product is Avène Hydrance Water Gel-in-cream, an all-in-one moisturizer.

3h“The skincare market is very advanced in Japan, and many women use multiple layers of products. But as more women are working, they have less time; and the Water Gel is a response to that,” says Martin.

Following the success of the product last year, Pierre Fabre launched it in South Korea in January and is scheduled to release it in China next year, explains Laurent.

“Our central marketing team wasn’t convinced about the product at first, thinking it would be competition for our [existing] products,” Martin adds. “But after it was so successful in the market here, they are planning to launch it in Europe in 2019, and we are also getting requests from the U.S. and Canada for it.”

Nevertheless, Japan’s strict regulations on quasi-drugs (or functional cosmetics) remain a hurdle, and Pierre Fabre is unable to make certain claims about some of its products, including its hand creams and moisturizers, which in Europe are touted as being effective against the effects of atopic eczema (referred to in Japan as atopi).

They are allowed to promote the efficacy of the active ingredient in a separate advertisement in a magazine where they are promoting the product, for example. But this is not as efficient as we would like, explains Martin. Nevertheless, he says he finds dealing with such challenges, “tricky and interesting.”

Another French firm, Chanel, took the route of developing an ingredient, TXC, specifically for the Japanese market that would conform to its unique quasi-drug requirements. The skin-whitening sector is huge in Japan, and Chanel’s Le Blanc Cream TX was the first product from a foreign company to achieve quasi-drug status.

“The registration process was extremely strenuous as a foreign brand in Japan. It took Chanel nine years to finally be able to launch Le Blanc Cream TX in 2011,” says Chanel Japan president Richard Collasse.

The process involved four years of studies on the product’s safety, efficacy and stability to prepare for registration. Then there were three years of examination by the health ministry, and a further two years of market safety tests, explains Nobuhiro Ando, managing director of Chanel’s R&D lab in Japan.

“Due to the huge investments of time and money, nobody believed that Occidental brands could do it,” says Ando, who calls the final result a “dream come true.”

Chanel also has a skincare product developed for Japan that is set to go overseas, a pipeline that Collasse sees as an important one for the future, particularly in the anti-ageing sector. Crème Douce was formulated for the over-fifties market in Japan, and will be launched worldwide this August.

For Japanese men, refined grooming habits are no longer confined to those in their teens and twenties. One factor has been the rise of the term sume-hara, or smell harassment, to describe a litany of olfactory offenses including both excessive use of fragrances and strong body odour.

Unilever’s Axe range, sold in the UK as Lynx, includes a milder fragrance in Japan than that sold elsewhere. The marketing approach is also less reliant on the kind of stereotypical images of masculinity traditionally used in deodorant advertising in Europe, according to Unilever spokesperson Seikei Itoh.

“The product portfolio is also different,” he adds. “We have hair-styling products, in addition to fragrance and shower gel, since hair styling is a must item for men’s grooming brands in Japan.”

The advanced Japanese market is also a major opportunity for grooming appliances, such as electric toothbrushes and shavers.

3iPhilips’ Sonicare was the best-selling rechargeable electric toothbrush in Japan last year, with the high-end DiamondClean doing particularly well. The market penetration of electric toothbrushes remains relatively low here, providing considerable growth potential, according to Philips Japan CEO Danny Risberg.

However, more than half of Japanese people use an electric razor, a relatively high proportion. Philips’ Shaver 9000 series has been well-received by Japan’s demanding consumers, says Risberg. He also notes that Philips’ rotary technology — as opposed to the foil razors still popular in Japan — also represents a potential driver of growth.

“In order to gain market share as well as brand awareness, we have prioritised marketing activities like providing ‘touch and try’ opportunities and magazine tie-ups to explain the benefits of using a rotary shaver,” explains Risberg.

Skincare among Japanese men is another growing trend in grooming, with the amount of money being spent by them having, “increased drastically over the past three years,” explains Risberg. In response to this, last year Philips launched VisaPure Men, an electric face-cleansing brush for men. The product has been selling well, and Philips expects the male grooming market to continue its strong growth. 

“Japan’s strict regulations on quasi-drugs remain a hurdle”