Education, Health, and Safety

Japan’s women-led start-ups are making period cups and the pill a thing

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TOKYO — The cosmetics section of the luxury department store Isetan offered a retail experience last month that no doubt prompted a double take from Tokyo shoppers: a pop-up store with a sprawling display of colorful menstrual cups, vibrators, kegel balls and period underwear.

It was a jarring sight in the storied institution, which for decades has offered a sanitized version of what it means to be a woman. A shopper-friendly chart of each menstrual cup’s capacity, down to the milliliter, and a diagram illustrating pelvic-floor muscle training showcased women’s health issues in a rare, in-your-face way in male-dominated Japan.

“A lot of the time, people think it’s a taboo to use these products, but we want to create an environment or community where people don’t feel that barrier,” said Amina Sugimoto, 33, of Fermata, an e-commerce company she founded with another woman in 2019 and the brand behind the pop-up store.

Sugimoto is among a group of female entrepreneurs revolutionizing the reproductive and sexual wellness space in Japan to answer needs that are shared by half the population but often ignored. They join a growing cohort of women across the Asia-Pacific region creating products and services for women who are underserved by mainstream companies, male-led governments and patriarchal societies.

These women are also carving out career paths outside corporate Japan, where it is notoriously difficult for women to thrive and rise to leadership levels. They are creating companies where both women and men work toward greater social awareness about reproductive care, and they have recruited younger male politicians to push for change on policies regulating women’s health products.

The “femtech” industry — companies that focus on services, technology and products that serve women’s biological needs — is a growing sector worldwide. The Asia-Pacific region is expected to see the greatest share of the boom in the next five years, according to some market analysts. Japan’s Economy Ministry estimates that by 2025, the market impact of femtech companies in the country will reach $16 billion.

These companies serve a variety of female biological needs, including menstruation, pregnancy, contraception and menopause. In many countries throughout Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia, their services and products are critical for women and girls who have inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products and education, according to Nikkei Asia.

In Japan, these companies are encouraging the use of oral contraceptives. Japan adopted birth-control pills in 1999, becoming the last industrialized country to do so. Just a few years ago, though, fewer than 3 percent of Japanese women were using the pill, according to a 2019 United Nations report on contraceptive usage and estimates by the Japan Family Planning Association. That low percentage was attributed to a lack of awareness and education as well as social stigma.

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Arisa Sakanashi, 32, founded Mederi in 2019 to bridge this gap, hoping to normalize talking about and seeking out contraceptive and fertility options. At the time, she was going on yet another round of infertility treatments after trying for several years to have a baby, and she wanted her company to help women who lacked information and a support network during the process.

A Japanese government survey in 2021 found that people increasingly felt that infertility treatment was difficult to access and afford. As of April 1, infertility treatments are covered under national health insurance in an effort to raise the birthrate.

Mederi provides advice about and access to birth-control pills, as well as items such as supplements for infertility and home testing kits for vaginal bacteria. Birth-control pills are not covered by national health insurance, but Sakanashi’s company covers the costs for its employees and provides days off for infertility treatments. She is trying to persuade other companies to do the same.

“I founded the company hoping that more people will become conscious and aware and gain access,” she said. “Femtech is starting to become more noticed, but talking about pills and menstruation still is taboo.”

With femtech companies still a new trend in Japan, Sakanashi had trouble getting funding for Mederi. But a few years ago, she saw a tweet from Japanese billionaire and entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa offering financial help to start-up founders. She applied and, after a year-long vetting process, was accepted and mentored by Maezawa.

When femtech companies came on the scene in Japan in 2019, the government’s laws and regulations for sanitary products defined them as “white in color” and generally disposable, meaning only white pads and tampons and not newer solutions. Companies like Fermata could not advertise the purpose of period underwear and cups.

Sugimoto recalled taking several menstrual products to a mostly male group of policymakers and talking about how they are used, hoping to educate them about women’s experiences and win regulatory updates.

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“I show them menstrual cups and period underwear and say, ‘Pads and tampons have been replaced with these — which one do you prefer?’” she said. Each time, policymakers picked the menstrual cups or period underwear. The strategy was more effective, she said, than just complaining to them about what women experience and expecting them to understand.

“I mean, I don’t understand what their [male] bodies are going through,” Sugimoto said.

Fermata now works with a government group to get exemptions for individual products from the decades-old regulations.

Japan consistently ranks low among advanced countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap analysis, which looks at how nations fare on equality in politics, the economy, education and health. These start-up founders are helping to close that gap, bringing more awareness to issues of gender equality, LGBTQ rights and the experiences of nonbinary people.

A key focus is creating communities and events that can challenge social norms and educate the public beyond cities like Tokyo. Fermata’s founders have traveled to rural Japan to introduce feminine-care products and start conversations about reproductive health.

In 2019, Shiho Shimoyamada, who identifies as nonbinary and is Japan’s first openly gay professional athlete, launched Rebolt to educate people about gender diversity and the experiences of women in traditionally male-dominated industries. The company created a line of gender-neutral sanitary boxers to provide alternatives for women who have used only sanitary pads, as well as for those seeking less-feminine options for period underwear.

“Our company came about with the idea that society shouldn’t define what normal is. I feel that society is full of expectations and demands of how women should be, how athletes should be,” said Shimoyamada, 27, a soccer player.

Rebolt’s client base began with athletes but now includes those who work in physically demanding jobs such as construction, plus parents who want to talk with their children about menstruation. She hopes to expand its product line and runs seminars on social equality for young female athletes.

“When I came out, I was overwhelmed by the response I got, and I realized that there were lots of things I can do myself to change society, like raising my voice and creating products and services,” Shimoyamada said. “So my work is really a means to become closer to a society I want.”

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