Sexy Biz

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2006

New companies add oomph to Japan's lingerie market.

by Kym Hutcheon

Wacoal and Triumph have long been the heavyweights of the lucrative Japanese intimate apparel market -- but this is changing rapidly, with new players such as Peach John and Image adding a whole new bounce to the industry.

My first visit to a Japanese lingerie store leaves me with a sense of déj? vu. It takes a little memory fishing to figure it out: I feel like a kid wandering through the glowing rows of a pick’n’mix sweet shop—except these treats are cuter and more intricately decorated. It’s a real magical mystery tour, particularly for a lad from New Zealand, where underwear is mostly something you use to keep the soft bits all going in the same general direction.

There are a few token pairs of "containment" underwear—like those your gran used to give you for Christmas—but other styles seem less familiar. Panties are shaped to hug and curve flatter Japanese buttocks. Bras are designed less to cradle and support and more to push up and out—although thankfully not to the degree of ?50s American torpedo styles. Most local items also include a significant layer of cushioning.

Then there are the accessories: Gel bra inserts full of glittering stars that squish nicely between fingers, silky soft pads for delicate areas?. And apparently there are more goodies on the way. Just last November, Triumph Japan lent its support to Junichiro Koizumi’s "Warm Biz" campaign and unveiled the prototype of a bra with eco-friendly pads that can be heated in a microwave. Hey, Japan already has a vitamin bra, so why not?

You have to keep these "innovations" in perspective, though. Judging by the product on hangers, your average piece of better-quality Japanese underwear represents an impressive feat of engineering, combining wispy fabrics with NASA-level functionality and usually held together with obsessively detailed stitching. Which some might say adds up to a fairly accurate visual metaphor for Japan itself.

It is the same in each shop Jihae, my research partner, and I visit: luscious lingerie and willing staff. The only exception is a B-girl specialist store. I am fine with the grungy hip-hop and dizzying racks of animal-skin prints, but somehow the ultra-tanned staff don’t seem too happy about the rough-looking white boy getting up close and personal with their wares. Unusually, the product quality is a little suspect—although this doesn’t seem to be hurting sales. I guess a B-girl needs what she needs.

After a very educational couple of hours, we have gone through five stores in the shopping area of downtown Kyoto. Jihae went into raptures when we found the Peach John outlet, but my favorite was Image, mainly for Akiko, Yoshiko and Keiko’s cute shop-girl outfits and matching hairstyles. We may also have found a Triumph store, but somehow could not seem to locate Wacoal—a mysterious thing in the company’s home city.

All of the stores on our tour were clustered into a few hundred meters, yet all were doing solid business despite the proximity. Such is the strength of the market. Japanese women seem more than happy to regularly drop thousands of yen on underwear that seems to weigh less than the notes themselves.

You might question the ROI when the lingerie is to be hidden under layers of other garments, but ask around and you will probably be told "it’s just like shopping for clothes," or even "it’s part of being a woman." And, in any case, as the days grow warmer, this lingerie becomes progressively more exposed. Local manufacturers have it right when they refer to their garments as "inner wear" rather than underwear.

Revealing new needs
There is no doubting it: Shopping for lingerie here can be a whole lot of fun. It has not always been so, however. The reign of Western-style undergarments in Japan has been a relatively short one, with most historians tracing the era back to a Tokyo department store fire that claimed the lives of 14 women in 1932. It is difficult to filter for urban legend, but it seems the women were reluctant to jump from the store’s rooftop because they were not wearing bloomers.

The PR definitely could have been better, but this event is credited with popularizing the concept of body-fitting underwear in Japan. The next major spike on the lingerie timeline came in 1945, when the U.S. Marines waded ashore. The Occupation changed Nippon in myriad ways, and when the Yanks finally sailed home, they left, along with a mortalized emperor, a new perspective on intimate apparel.

However, if it was the Americans who laid the foundations, it was the French, or at least their lingerieres, who reaped the spoils when the economy started to boom. Lacy French intimates were the choice of women of taste, and Japanese designers borrowed heavily from their styles. But times have changed: Nowadays, with the exception of international giant Triumph, local companies rule the market, and their product is sought by foreign connoisseurs with a taste for the colorful and feminine.

Wacoal has long been the big mammy of the J-lacies market. The company opened for business not long after the Marines landed. In FY2004 it showed its continuing strength by posting an operating income of some $100 million. This is no small feat, given that, particularly in the last 10 years, the industry has seen more movement than a fuller figure without adequate foundation garment support.

These changes have been taking place on both a demographic and a competitive level. The most obvious of the demographic shifts in the market results from Japan’s rapidly aging population, which has been responsible for the inexorable spread of relatively affluent mature and senior segments, requiring specialized products, such as girdles and other "reinforcing" underwear. However, less predictably, the market has also expanded downward.

According to Japan’s education ministry, over the past five decades the average 11-year-old girl has grown by approximately 10 kilograms and 13 centimeters—gains that have induced lingerie companies to launch a range of junior styles to seduce this burgeoning segment. Notes Wacoal, 20 years ago around one-third of second-year middle school girls wore bras. Now the same figure applies to fifth-graders.

The lifestyle changes leading to the emergence of these new segments have also significantly altered the profile of the industry’s core market: women in their 20s and 30s. As these women have won greater social and financial independence, their fashion tastes have grown up, creating a desire for something a little more adventurous than the styles traditionally produced by companies such as Wacoal and Triumph.

This certainly was not lost on Mika Noguchi when she co-founded Peach John in 1994. In her 20s herself, Noguchi was in a prime position to know what did it for younger women. She seems to have got it right. Twelve years on, Peach John has earned the right to claim its bright, frilly creations are the lingerie of choice for "fashionable young ladies throughout Japan."

Tailoring the product
As impressive as Peach John’s rise has been, with its FY2004 sales weighing in at around $8 million, it is unlikely to be challenging Wacoal for the top spot anytime soon. What Peach John and also Image have done, however, is show you can go far simply by selling people what they want in a way convenient for them—a lesson that still seems beyond the ken of many local companies.

Japan had plenty of sexy lingerie before Peach John came along, but very little of it was girl-wise sexy—a lack Noguchi has satisfied with what she calls "I love me" underwear. The company has also made it easier for busy working women to buy its product by promoting catalog and online sales, a la the U.S.’s Victoria’s Secret. In fact, even though it now has its own chain of stores, PJ still describes itself as a mail-order business.

To the naked eye, Image would seem to occupy a very similar position in the market. Yet, when I asked Akiko, in the company’s Kyoto shop, she explained, with great concentration, that Peach John imports many of its lines from popular designers such as Betsy Johnson, an American known for her edgier styles. This may be one reason PJ catalogs pack noticeably more raunch to the page than the average.

Catalog sales are also a major part of Image’s business—to the extent that marketing director Masafumi Miyazawa cites improving consumer perceptions of the channel as a key issue for the company. He believes consumers still connect catalog sales with cheaper, lower-quality products. One of Image’s more successful reeducation efforts has been its "OL Happiness Project," a focus group program responsible for its 2005 big-seller, the Mote bra.

While Wacoal has not ignored the potential of catalog-style marketing, its approach is much less visible, at least when you are on a random tour of lingerie shops. The company is no phantom, however. A visit to its customer center and lingerie museum is a must on a trip to Kyoto. The two are a glorious pantheon to the heroes of the Wacoal range, many of which you can watch in technicolor videos and even try on.

If you can’t make it to Kyoto, head for your local department store. Until recently, department stores were the main outlet for both Wacoal and Triumph products. They are still, in fact, an important channel, but with the weak results being posted by many chains and the increasing challenge from Peach and Image and other operations, the companies have been forced to broaden their focus.

The result has been the launch of a number of spin-off brands through dedicated specialty stores. The new outlets have allowed both companies to offer younger, softer styles at more competitive prices—that is, at prices significantly below department store levels. While this model is maybe not revolutionary in business terms, its application has clearly altered the landscape of the Japanese lingerie industry.

Wacoal, for one, has even more far-reaching plans. Tadashi Nishitani, a member of its marketing department, discloses that the apparel maker looks to expand its already significant overseas interests. As part of this process, Wacoal is now busy getting to know its markets, because, as Nishitani notes, "Women’s bodies are different in every country."

Perhaps this information will be analyzed at the company’s Human Science Research Center, which in its 40 years of operation has reportedly compiled data on over 35,000 women. If foreign girls are so different, it makes you wonder why the more nearly naked models in Japanese catalogs all seem to be uniformly white.

It will be interesting to see to what degree other companies follow Wacoal’s lead—there certainly seems to be a demand for Japanese product, and the net local market is only likely to shrink in the future. According to staffer Yoshiko Masuda, Triumph Japan, itself the local face of a multinational, has already started to broaden its domestic appeal by developing products to match Wacoal in the junior, mature and senior segments.

Masafumi Miyazawa reports that Image is also eyeing the mature segment with its spin-off brand Blancafe. Meanwhile, Image and Peach John have again clouded the mix by adding a wide assortment of lifestyle products to their lingerie base. The connection with the coats, bags and shoes is easier to see, but Image now also offers its Rice Force skincare series, while PJ sells fragrances and health supplements.

Whichever way Japan’s intimate apparel market goes in the future, it is likely to be a fun ride—for both men and women. Personally, I’m waiting for the launch of a range of male lingerie. Lacy y-fronts?? You bet! JI

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