Known for developing nail styles and techniques that later spread throughout the world, the island nation understands the connection between nail art and fashion. Gel nails are popular, and the Japanese gel application technique may soon arrive in the United States.
A nail tech demonstrates product at the Tokyo Nail Forum.
At the Tokyo Nail Forum, crowds of people watch a demo from behind the stage on the TV while others stand in line to purchase products. Photo courtesy @HiJeanJean
American Lauren Jubelt started getting manicures as a young girl, but it wasn’t until she relocated overseas to Japan that she first tried nail art — now she rarely goes without it. As a historical hotspot for progressive nail design, Japan’s nail allure is hard to resist. Jubelt, who blogs about her experience as an American woman living and working in Osaka, Japan, on her blog nihonchique.com, says, “At the beginning I thought the nail art was too flashy, but soon I saw how nail art and fashion blended together here in Japan. I still keep the designs simple compared to some women here, but I like to add crystals or pearls to the designs now, as I really think it’s a nice accent to simple nails.”
According to a Euromonitor International report, in 2014 beauty and personal care in Japan enjoyed its third consecutive year of positive growth. According to a Japanese Nailist Association (JNA) spokesperson, nail services first began spreading through Japan about 20 years ago, then expanded more in the last 10 years. In 2005, Japanese nail salons earned 50 billion yen (US$434 million); in 2014, Japanese nail salons earned 160 billion yen (US$1.4 billion). “It’s still expanding,” the spokesperson says.
The typical Japanese nail tech (also known as a “nailist”) is demographically similar to her counterparts in the United States. The JNA states that she is typically a women in her late 20s to 40s and a high school or college graduate. But unlike her U.S. counterparts, she does not hold a government nail tech license because the Japanese government doesn’t license nail techs. Japanese nail techs typically hold a private license awarded by the JNA. The license is earned by passing the Japan Nailist Examination or the JNA Gel Nail Examination, and the vast majority of salons look for this private license when hiring nail techs. A third option is becoming licensed through a specific nail brand, many of which host their own educational systems and licensing programs in Japan.
Tokyo Nail Forum shoppers with clipboards gather to see the posted color selection. Photo courtesy @HiJeanJean
A nail salon’s clientele typically includes women (not men) and the affordable starting price of manicures and pedicures means professional nail services are accessible to women with a wide range of income levels, especially in the cities where a large mix of nail salons reside. The starting price for a manicure is 4,000 yen (US$35), and the average manicure price is 6,000-10,000 yen (US$52-$87), according to the JNA. Pedicures start at 7,000 yen (US$61). One Japanese nail salon chain, esNAIL, which is comprised of nine nail salons in different Japanese cities and two nail salons in the United States (plus three eyelash salons in Japan), has a core clientele of women 20- to 40-years-old who are interested in fashion and trends, and, hence, partake in the salon’s nail art offerings. According to JNA’s Nail Market Report 2014-15, about 20% of Japanese women have their nails done professionally.
Nail product manufacturers that are popular in Japan include a mix of brands familiar and unfamiliar to U.S.-based techs. Vetro, OPI, Bio Sculpture Gel, Calgel, Ace UV Gel, TAT Inc., and Nail Partner Co., Ltd are among the most prominent. Techs can see live demos from many of these manufacturers, and many other manufacturers as well, at Tokyo Nail Forum, the country’s largest nail show.
Tokyo Nail Forum, organized jointly by JNA and Messe Frankfurt, is a nails-only show held at the same time as Beautyworld Japan. “The biggest attraction of the Tokyo Nail Forum is that the fall and winter trends for the Japanese nail industry are announced by the Japanese Nail Association during the fair. The visitors can see, hear, experience, and even purchase the latest nail trends,” says Katsuya Kashiwagi, who handles public relations for Messe Frankfurt. “At the fair, visitors can watch demonstrations with detailed lectures (in Japanese) and actually have the lecturer perform his or her technique on their nail. The products introduced are also available for purchase at the venue. There are classrooms where exhibitors take 50 minutes to introduce their latest products, techniques, and also strategies to pass the nailist examination to level up their techniques.” International exhibitors, especially from South Korea and China, are increasingly exhibiting at Tokyo Nail Forum, Kashiwagi adds.
At the Tokyo Nail Forum, Vetro focused a video camera on its nail demos so that techs could watch the demos from farther away.
Nail techs Fariha Ali and Jean Kuan, who work at The House of Polish in Beverly Hills, Calif., had an inspirational first-ever visit to Tokyo Nail Forum in 2015. The techs, two of the first U.S.-based educators for Vetro, note how committed Japanese nail techs are to their profession, including their obvious commitment to learning — and buying. Kuan says, “Imagine a venue roughly half the size of the Long Beach ISSE Beauty Show, but entirely comprised of nail-only brands. Every single major booth had ridiculously organized but insanely long lines, and most popular or expo-only items sold out within the first couple of hours. Picture yourself waiting in a line to be given an order sheet with a clipboard. You take that order sheet and join a crowd of people comparing their notes with the hundreds of color swatches posted on one wall of the booth. You then join another line to submit your order form and you are given a number. If you’re lucky, after two or three hours your number will be displayed on one of the multiple TV screens, beckoning you to one of six or so cash registers to pay for your items.” Their commitment extends to standing for hours watching educational demos as well, they add. “It’s an organized frenzy and we were just blown away,” says Kuan.
Kuan and Ali also noticed the “kawaii” vibe — which translates roughly to “cute” in English — was omnipresent. “As soon as you land in Japan, you are surrounded by little knickknacks that make your life easier, but you didn’t even know you needed!” Kuan says. “The same is true for the myriad of nail accessories you can find at the Tokyo Nail Expo. There were cute nail brush bags, liquid dispenser pumps shaped like Lolita furniture, cool paint palettes, gel pod stir sticks, cute aprons, Barbie armrests, colorful nipper protectors...We just kept repeating, ‘That is SO cute.’”
Client Lauren Jubelt says the gel pod method she’s observed at Japan salon chain Speed Nail makes it easier to create nail art than techniques she’s seen in the United States.
Service and Salon Profile
In addition to experiencing kawaii firsthand, tourists who enter a Japanese nail salon will likely also experience “omotenashi,” or Japanese hospitality. Customer comfort is held in the highest regard. Many salons in Japan that offer nail services are nails-only, but recently that has been changing as nail stations are added to hair salons, and nail salons branch out with other services like lash extensions. Similar to the U.S., there are luxury salons and what we’d call “discount salons.” There are also salons that settle into unique niches, such as men’s salons.
There are successful nail salon chains in Japan, including Nails Unique of Japan (with about 170 locations), Speed Nail (more than 12 locations), and esNAIL. The esNAIL concept is “fresh and friendly,” explains esNAIL producer AIKO (who typically goes only by her all-cap nail artist name). The salons’ locations are strategically located in places where fashionable trendsetters gather throughout Japan. “esNAILShibuya is located in the center of Shibuya, which is one of the most famous downtowns in Tokyo. It is easy to access from the Shibuya station and is also close to Shibuya 109, the popular fashion mall,” she says.
Manufacturer Vetro’s Disney Princess gel pods are indicative of the larger gel pod trend in Japan. Photo courtesy @HiJeanJean
The salon’s most popular service is gel nails with art, which is consistent with the nail style that is popular in Japan as a whole. On why clients select esNAIL over other nail salons, AIKO says, “I think it is because we can create a variety of nail art, and there are hundreds of rhinestones, stickers, accessories, and films. We also have many gel colors including our own house brand. We have the latest nail techniques and always make our customers feel comfortable.”
Jubelt, who frequents the Speed Nail salon chain, notes some of the similarities and differences between U.S. and Japanese salons. “The layout inside the salon is very similar in both countries. They both also use a lot of the same tools, except the Japanese use brushes to do nail art more often than Americans,” she says. “The major difference is that in Japan, most of the nail salons only offer gel nails; there isn’t normally an option for regular nail polish.”
While gel nails are also popular in the United States, there’s a difference in how they are packaged and used in Japan: Instead of using gel-polish bottles or gel jars, Japanese nail techs prefer gel pods. The pods are typically high pigment, easy to control, less wasteful, and (of course) cute. Vetro sales manager Megumi Hasegawa says its line of gel pod colors is its most popular product offering in Japan, especially its selection of whites. In contrast, when Vetro entered the United States’ nail market, it added a gel-polish line since pods have not (yet) caught on here. “Gel pods have been the mainstream in Japan and we strongly believe that the gel pods will become more and more popular in the U.S.,” Hasegawa says.
In order to help start the nail trends that Japan is so known for, Hasegawa adds that “Vetro consults with famous designers of leading apparel brands in order to link nails to upcoming fashion and applies it to new color development. Vetro also utilizes its strong connection with successful nail artists who are working worldwide, as well as Vetro educators who operate salons and schools in Japan. By gathering information from them, we can indentify what kind of products are needed in day-to-day operations.” Other popular products in Japan that Hasegawa thinks will arrive in the U.S. are low-acid-content gels and bases that don’t require roughing of the nail surface, both of which she says reflect the larger trend of healthy natural nails.
Nail art showcased at the Tokyo Nail Forum reflects Japanese design sensibilities, such as an adoration for embellishments. Photo courtesy @HiJeanJean
In general, nail styles in Japan boast more eye-catching colors and more flourishes than nail styles in the United States. Whether pastel or vivid, the colors are coordinated and a noteworthy accessory to a fashion ensemble. Nail art and embellishments, such as rhinestones or pearls, are also much more prominent. Of course, cuteness is paramount.
Kuan notes, “Japan is a couple years ahead of the U.S. in terms of nail art trends. We noticed the widespread use of stickers, like the popular Sha-Nail Ultra Thin Japanese Stickers. We didn’t fully appreciate them until we returned and started using them on clients. They stick well, allowing encapsulation, and they’re thin enough to design layers over each other. Flat stone textures or 3-D textures, such as flocking powder designs, were popular product launches. Plus we still saw 3-D art clusters, with more DIY gems/spheres/stones. Gel airbrush demonstrations also seemed to be gaining in popularity.”
esNAIL’s AIKO says that the trends are consistent among the salons’ multiple locations, and so she does not think nail trends vary from region to region in Japan, but she does find they vary from season to season. She says bright pastels are popular in the spring, vivid neon colors and sea-inspired art are popular in the summer, earth tones and deep colors are popular in the fall, and whites and Christmas designs are popular in the winter.
There are several aspects of Japanese nail culture that American salons could emulate to differentiate themselves. The first is to offer a wider variety of more complex and bolder nail art. “A lot of customers in esNAIL Melrose and Beverly Hills say they love our designs because we always have new designs and there are so many choices,” AIKO says. Using fashion trends as inspiration is a good place to start.
Customer service is another area where Japanese salons excel. Jubelt says, “What I found most surprising at Japanese salons is how many times they ask you to confirm things throughout the appointment. When they file your nails, they ask you if the shape is OK. While they are doing the nail design, they confirm many times if it is what you want, and if it isn’t, they change it right away without any complaint at all. Japan has a really high level of customer service in all areas, not just beauty.”
And a healthy respect for continuing education is in some ways a necessity in the Japanese nail market, where the legacy of being a trendsetter carries forward to the nail techs of today. Attending tradeshows and learning about the newest nail trends each year is of value to American techs too.
esNAIL prides itself on having the latest nail techniques and on showcasing hospitality to make customers feel comfortable.
The JNA says it expects that the nail industry in Japan will continue to grow. It is currently working on marketing nail services to the 80% of Japanese women who don’t currently get their nails done professionally. And it’s brainstorming ways to market to tourists who will be visiting the country for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. After all, a woman’s first nail art design may be as memorable as experiencing the other joys of the summer games.
Market size: 160 billion yen (US$1.4 billion)
Licensing: Private licensing via Japanese Nailist Association and nail manufacturers; no government licensing
Trending nail styles: Gel nails with art, everything kawaii (cute)
Salon types: Primarily nails-only salons, but increasingly seeing full-service salons
Popular products: Vetro, OPI, Bio Sculpture Gel, Calgel, Ace UV Gel, TAT Inc., Nail Partner Co., Ltd
What they do well: Nail art, innovative nail product launches
Room for improvement: Increasing the percentage of Japanese women who get their nails done professionally beyond the current 20%
You can find a slideshow featuring more photos from the Japanese nail scene at www.nailsmag.com/japangallery.
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of our bi-monthly InternatioNAILS series. To read all the articles in this series, go to www.nailsmag.com/internationalseries.