Women wrest spending

By Published on .

Traditionally, men have been the powerful force in Japan, but now it is women's time in the sun. Not only are Japanese schoolgirls influencing cultural trends around the world, the country's growing number of stay-at-home single women and affluent divorcees are now an economic force to be reckoned with.

Advertisers in the world's second-largest ad market are realizing the importance of reaching Japanese women, who cast a deciding vote on family and individual purchases of everything from noodles to home electronics to vacation spots. Women, in fact, are the only consumers spending freely in Japan: Just one female group of many identified by demographers, "parasite singles," alone spends $6.5 billion a year in Japan.

"The business opportunities that these single women present are immense. From face creams to fashion items, from weight-loss products to wealth-management services, potentially every industry stands to benefit," said Jessie Wilson, an independent researcher in Tokyo.

Responding to their rise, marketers are changing the way they reach out to women. They are developing empowering marketing messages and self-indulgent new products-such as bunny icons on bankcards and condoms decorated with monkey emblems-that tap into trends the varying female groups embrace in Japan, such as costuming, cuteness and novelty.


From here has sprung a cottage industry of untraditional products, from women-only condominium buildings to financial services provided by friendly female staffers and Cinderella-themed parties at five-star hotels to help women live out fantasies. Especially popular are travel packages for groups of women or mother-daughter trips.

"Young single women in Japan are getting more exploratory in the types of places they visit, like spa holidays in Southeast Asia and adventure trips like scuba diving in Palau, trekking in New Zealand or going on African safaris," said David McCaughan, senior VP-director, strategic planning for McCann Erickson in Tokyo.

The youngest generation of women transforming Japan's consumer landscape is its schoolgirls, especially ultra-hip teenagers patrolling zones like Tokyo's Harajuku district. "They have enormous amounts of disposable income and influence cultural trends at home and abroad," said Mark Blair, president, Japan at Ogilvy & Mather in Tokyo.

They are also attracted to novelty, one reason products age so quickly in Japan. The soft-drink industry, for example, introduces over 1,000 new products every year and only three on average survive. "Sometimes a product is removed from distribution before we even get a chance to run the ad we created to launch it," said Mr. Blair. The trend is called otakuism, literally an obsession with novelty, and clubs are building online that obsess about everything from candy wrappers to video games.

Many of these schoolgirls will grow up to be "parasite singles," the slang term for the 30 million or so unmarried women living at home who spend nearly all their income on luxury accessories or extravagant indulgences such as spas and foreign travel. Their numbers have skyrocketed so much that the country now has more pets than children.

Japan has a far higher percentage of single women aged 20 to 40 than the U.K or the U.S. This trend is particularly pronounced in Tokyo, where more than 30% of women between the ages 30 and 39 have never been married, according to Ms. Wilson.

Me first

The country is drifting toward women in their 20s and 30s who are more independent-minded and more focused on themselves, added Mr. McCaughan. "Even when they do get married, they are still into being `me' first and `mother' second as opposed to old days, when it was `mother' first and `me' disappeared."

As consumers, "parasite singles" are particularly susceptible to kawaii (cute) advertising. The cult of cute is so strong in Japan it helps sell everything from banking (Miffy the bunny on Asahi Bank ATM cards) to praying (Hello Kitty charm bags at Shinto shrines) to sex (condoms decorated with Monkichi the monkey). Advertising is frequently infused with childlike characters and jingles to raise its kawaii factor.

Expanding the ranks of unmarried women is a growing number of affluent divorcees who left home after years of married life because their company-dedicated "salary man" husbands spent so much time at the office or socializing with colleagues after work. When the men retired, these women realized that they had nothing in common with their "sticky leaves," a Japanese term for retired husbands with no hobbies or outside interests.

Citigroup has sought after this demographic with Unimat Ladys, a personal-finance division entirely staffed by women. Although the brand is 30 years old, Citigroup revamped its ad strategy for the unit earlier this year to tap into changing social dynamics that give newfound freedoms to women, said Peter Brodnitz, VP-group managing director at JWT, Tokyo, the agency behind the campaign. The cheerful ads "have a more progressive feel, a pro-active, can-do spirit. We're not saying Unimat Ladys is a brand for women, we're saying we understand that women need to feel secure, positive, constant and independent to lead a successful life."

One of the current fashion trends appealing to Japanese women is now creeping into mainstream advertising as well. Costume play (or "cosplay" in slang) means dressing up in public, either as real celebrities or fictional icons like manga/anime characters, at times transforming trendy Tokyo neighborhoods into grown-up costume parties.

McDonald's played on this trend recently with a daring print and TV campaign created by Beacon, a joint venture in Tokyo by Dentsu and Leo Burnett, to raise sales its McGrand burger. The spot, which features a model dressed in haute-couture outfits made in the chain's trademark red and yellow colors, was such a departure for McDonald's globally, "people thought it was a spoof and it became a viral e-mail campaign. On the streets in Tokyo, Japanese women even started wearing red-and-yellow colored clothes like the ones in the ad," recalled Alejandro Lopez, president of Beacon in Tokyo.

How very kawaii.

Most Popular
In this article: