Japan Raises the Male Beauty Bar

How do you say metrosexual in Japanese? Men of all ages are stepping out and spending a bundle on cosmetics, facials, and weight loss

Move over, staid, fashion-challenged Japanese corporate warriors. A new breed of self-pampering, appearance-conscious guys is driving a rapidly expanding male beauty business in Japan. And it's not just the Japanese pretty boys in their 20s and 30s anymore. Middle-aged Japanese men, once clueless about seaweed wraps, are now booking facials at elegant Tokyo salons.

Not that long ago, Hirofumi Nihonyanagi, 48, an English teacher at one of Japan's biggest preparatory schools called Kawaijuku, decided he was in desperate need of a makeover. He had gained 17 kilograms (38 pounds) of unwanted weight and had the habit of wearing the same clothes to work on successive days. He worried his appearance might work against him come contract renewal time at Kawaijuku.

Now he's a regular at Dandy House, a men-only esthetic boutique where he spends $880 a month on a twice-a-week, 90-minute body slimming and cleansing regime. He starts out with a 15-minute-sauna bath, then moves on to a "triple burn" weight loss treatment, a lymph node massage, and detox body-pack. He also carts home lotion and night cream ointments. "It took courage to go at first, and it's expensive, but I'm quite pleased with the outcome," he says.

The Philosophy of Cosmetics

The metrosexual movement in Japan is evolving into a sizable business. The men's beauty care market has doubled in the past six years and now rakes in $248 million in annual revenues, according to Yano Research Institute in Tokyo. Domestic sales of men's cosmetics, boosted by skincare products, are up 30% since 2001 and advanced 12% last year to $124 million, according to figures compiled by the Economy, Trade & Industry Minisry.

A recent survey by Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido (SSDOY) indicated that more than 70% of male respondents think it is important to take care of their appearance, and 15% spend more than $17 a month on cosmetics.

The cultural shift owes much to a growing awareness that a good appearance matters in the business world, be it that critical first job interview or winning new deals, figures Kaori Ishida, an assistant professor at Komazawa Women's University in Tokyo, who specializes in the philosophical study of cosmetics. "Recently ordinary Japanese men, starting with salesmen, have become aware of the need to make a good impression in order to get business," says Ishida.

Facing Up to It

Even Japanese politicians, typically blue-suited drones, have jazzed things up on the fashion front, inspired perhaps by the stylish former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who stepped down from office in September. With his Beethoven locks, thin build, and dapper choice of suits, Koizumi was something of a heartthrob with women voters. He was even fond of manicures. Meanwhile, soccer players in the popular J-League who sport dyed and edgy coiffures have become fashion icons in the popular media.

Minoru Kioka, a spokesman with Shape Up House, a chain of 114 esthetic salons in Japan including the Dandy House brand, marvels at the shift in men's attitudes. "When we opened the first men-only Dandy House in Osaka in 1986, most customers were top executives or men who had serious troubles with pimples or hairiness." Now he is seeing younger guys right out of university who are getting facial treatments as they seek work.

The trend really gained traction back in 2003 with the Japanese translation of the U.S. bestseller: The Metrosexual Guide to Style: A Handbook for the Modern Man by Michael Flocker. A book entitled Hito-Wa Mikake Ga Kyu-Wari (translation: 99% of a person's impression is created by appearance) is a current best seller.

The Eyes Have It

Web sites on male beauty tips and self-care have cropped up, and there is even a blog produced and hosted by a group called the Metrosexual Promotion Committee. Men's magazines such as LEO have published many special reports on men's skin care.

So there are some serious yen to be made. Shiseido launched a men's skin care brand called Shiseido Men—prices run from $25 to $60—and sales grew 20% in 2005. In March, Rohto Pharmaceutical, the largest manufacturer of over-the-counter eye care products, entered the men's cosmetics market with the Oxy brand of skin care products, which is selling faster than expected.

And in September, Ryohin Keikaku, which produces the Seiyu department store chain's private label household goods brand Mujirushi, moved into men's skin care products for the first time. Within a month, more than 10,000 items were selling every week, and the company raised its annual sales target three times to $2.6 million. Encouraged, Ryohin Keikaku is planning to introduce new items next spring.

Fountain of Youth

Foreign cosmetic makers have also seen a change in fortune. Younger Japanese men are flocking to a hot-selling product from Estée Lauder (EL) called Aramis Age Rescue, which goes for $57 for a 49 gram bottle of cream. Earlier in the decade, such men's beauty products had a tough time in Japan, though fragrances sold reasonably well.

"We had a long winter-like period in the men's cosmetics business," says Nobukazu Yamaguchi, vice-president of Estée Lauder in Japan. Now skin care products account for 45% of total sales of Aramis in Japan.

Some men, of course, are doing appearance salvage jobs in pursuit of sweet romance. Kosei Hayashida, a 43-year-old salesman at Air France in Tokyo, hopes his anti-aging treatment will raise his charm quotient with women. "I want to keep my appearance young and want to get married," says Hayashida. Regardless of the motive, a big and growing segment of Japanese male consumers are in serious makeover mode.