While it is accepted as fact that the American nail industry leads the world and that Japan’s industry is about 10-15 years behind that, Japan’s fast-growing nail industry has become the one to watch. And from a technical rather than business standpoint, Japan might actually be 10 years ahead of the U.S. Japanese nail artists astound with their precision sculpting, deft brushstrokes, cutting-edge designs, and minute detail. Competitiveness is a Japanese tradition, and just as the country overcame its reputation for cheaply made goods (think Japanese cars 25 years ago) they are out to become preeminent in nails.

Japan’s culture and very history make it ripe for a nail care boom. The country’s youth, rebelling against the stoicism and conservatism of its parents’ generation, is willing to try just about any new fashion trend that comes along. Although Japan’s current economy has caused a tightening of the purse strings, it’s nonetheless still common to see 14-year-olds with $500 Prada backpacks slung on their shoulders wearing $90 Hanae Mori t-shirts.

It is this environment of conspicuous consumption and fashion trendiness that has brought about the acceptance of professional nail care. Although Japanese women are generally conservative, the youth of Japan are too young to associate long or brightly painted nails with the geisha image, yet they’re young enough to want to mimic the styles they see on MTV and in the pages of Vogue. And the older (or at least middle age) generation is slowly warming to professional nail care as an essential part of good grooming, remarkably similar to the way attitudes changed in the U.S. when the nail industry was in its own infancy.

Hisashi Matsuoka, president of Life Beauty Co. in Osaka, has been in the nail business for 10 years and is a distributor tor OPI, Essie Cosmetics, Backscratchers, Flowery, Jessica, Gena, among other major U.S. brands. His company owns 19 “nail bars” in various department stores throughout Japan and also runs three schools. He is optimistic about the burgeoning nail business in his native country.

“When we opened the first nail bar in Kyoto 10 years ago,” says Matsuoka, “it caused a big sensation because it was such a new concept. The media rushed to report on it because at that time the nail business was small and unfamiliar in Japan. We were thought to be pioneers, and now you find nail salons all over Japan.”

Marketers Look East

Most major U.S. manufacturers have seen the potential of Japan as a growing market for their products. Again, because of the devotion to brand names and the recognition of American nail companies, American nail products are highly sought after in Japan.

Creative Nail Design recently dipped its toe into international waters in partnership with Takara Belmont. Creative president Jim Nordstrom says the Japanese nail market is evolving similarly to the American market 15-17 years ago.

“The Japanese market is ready to break out. Although it’s too early to tell how things will fall into place, if you simply look at the numbers — Japan has the second biggest economy in the world — it has great potential,” says Nordstrom.

Why now? “Clearly, the Japanese consumer is very open-minded to what Europeans and Americans like. We have no doubt that the Japanese female consumer is going to he a big fan of nail extensions,” says Nordstrom.

“The fact is Japanese women are very conservative. You don’t see a lot of red nail polish there yet. In a way, even wearing red polish might have been associated with women of the night. That’s changing, hut slowly,” he says.

Another industry heavyweight, OPI, has recently opened a 1,500-sq.-ft. office in Yokohama’s Landmark Tower, the tallest building in the country, and is seeking local educators. Just as they have in the U.S., OPI plans to do major consumer advertising to build brand awareness and drive shoppers into salons.

Larry Gaynor, whose FPO line markets the Pinnacle brand, has two distributors set up in Japan and sees Japan’s great promise. “Like Europe, Japan loves American-made nail products. Brand names are very important in Japan, especially in fashion. Thai’s why those companies that promote their brands the best will be the most successful in Japan,” he says.

Star Nail Products’ Tony Cuccio says simply, “The Japan market is about to explode.” His company is planning a local manufacturing facility, similar to the one it had in the United Kingdom, and is looking for a local partner to handle distribution and manufacturing. Cuccio attributes the “explosion” to the younger generation’s affinity (or artificial nails.

Essie Weingarten of Essie Cosmetics saw the potential in Japan early on; her company has been selling polish there for nearly 19 years and she visits personally a few times a year. She says the service in Japanese salons is unequalled anywhere in the world. As if reliving the personal experience she says, “They wrap you in a warm towel from the tips of your fingers to the top of your shoulder. Two girls work on you at once, like they’re synchronized. The massage ... ahh.”

Competitive Culture, a Winning Streak

Japanese nailists (as they’re called in Japan) have been entering nail competitions in droves, and finding their way to the winners’ platform circle in droves as well. After the first major shows of 1999, seven of NAILS’ Top 25 Competitors hailed from Japan, and the number-one competitor, Michiko Matsushita of Tokyo, had a sweep of the competition biggies the likes of which haven’t been seen since Tom Holcomb in his heyday. (And there is a growing contingent of Holcomb-trained nailists, as the renowned competitor makes so many trips to Japan to do training for EZ Flow and independently he earned 365,000 frequent flyer miles last year.)

Nordstrom says that the influx of Japanese competitors is an indication that the market is waking up to the potential of nails. “For Japanese competitors to win in international competitions brings greater credibility to the industry as a whole.”

Takara made its commitment to the nail market very clear with its Takara Belmont World Beauty Congress, held in March this year, where invited guests from the U.S. (including me) observed the competitions, did technical demos, and met with association leadership. Marlene Bridge of the NCA and Christine Derr of Creative Cosmetology Consultants did hands-on training as well as judged the competitions.

Says Bridge of the Japanese competitors and nailists: “They are very organized and meticulous. I think they do well in American competitions because of that and they seem concerned about not disappointing anyone.”

“When I first went there two and a half years ago,” says Holcomb, “the nails were awful. Today, they blow us away.” These days he is teaching a two-day “academy” that includes design sculpture nails, which is nail art using colored acrylic, a technical trend that started in Japan. “They are the best because it’s not about ego or money for the Japanese,” explains Holcomb. “It has to do with the way people are brought up there. They want to make their country and themselves proud. And it’s not only how they do nails, it’s bow they treat people -- it’s with total respect.”

Education and Licensing

Japan does not currently require nail technician licensing, although most nail professionals have received technical training, and many nailists have spent time abroad going through the training program in California (at 400 hours, one of the more intensive programs in the U.S.) and taken the California state board, despite the fact that an American license is not recognized in Japan. Takara Belmont’s Takara International Nail College, whose entire teaching staff holds licenses from California, expects to graduate over 100 nailists a year to start.

Says OPI president George Schaeffer, “We have been doing education in Japan for about four years, and it’s been a pleasure teaching students with such a high standard for education. The Japanese manicurists are some of the best in the world. They take pride in all the services they offer.”

Creative plans to participate in establishing technical skills standards, although whether they will become involved in a legislative attempt is doubtful. Explains Nordstrom, “Through our work with the schools there we established educational standards for work quality, and based on what I just saw on a one-week visit, I think it’s working very well.” Because they work with the distributors so closely, many elect not to sell enhancement products unless they’ve taken a certain number of classes. Says Nordstrom, “It develops a de facto license.”

$200 Sets and $50 Manicures

Much is made of the price of goods and services in Japan, where a taxi ride from the airport to Tokyo costs over $200. A typical manicure is $40-$50, a full set of acrylics $165-$200, and pedicures $100-$140. In an established salon, nailists can expect to earn about $24,000-$36,000 a year, salon managers$36,000-$55,000. Prices vary just as they do in the U.S. and the increased competition from the influx of new salons has brought service prices down somewhat.

“Service prices will come down a bit, not to American levels,” opines Nordstrom, “but they will come down to appeal to a broader portion of the market. As for deep discounting like we’ve seen in the U.S.? I don’t think so, for a lot of reasons. For one, the Japanese political machine wouldn’t: allow it to happen, but there is a national acceptance of the high cost of things in Japan, and it’s a philosophical issue as much as an economic one.”

Galli believes that the generally accepted high cost of living in Japan inhibits the discounting that has plagued the American market. “The old saying that you get what you pay for is never truer than in Japan. Japan is living proof that people will pay for quality and service,” she says.

Channels of Distribution

Nailists buy their products from distributors just as they do in the U.S., explains Gaynor. “As the nail category expands in Japan, so does the distribution. You have many independent distributors, but also department: stores and schools play a role. Due to the density of Japan, we have yet to see a national distributor, but we’re sure that will change over time.”

Matsuoka says that the competition among beauty distributors is becoming fierce as more companies enter the fray and that ultimately similar patterns will develop in distribution in Japan as what has occurred in the U.S.

Nordstrom admits that the Japanese distribution channel contributes to higher prices: “They have a lot of layers in their distribution cycle, but people don’t seem to mind. In the U.S., it’s the American Way to cut out the middleman, but in Japan they are concerned that everyone earns a decent living.”

Service With a Bow

Exquisite customer service is a source of national pride and that’s no exception in the salon. In this country where even dollar souvenirs are wrapped in flowered paper, presentation is everything.

And despite the fact that no government agency is checking up on salons, they are usually as clean as a hospital room, and nail techs wear starched uniforms or lab coats. Nail stations are scrupulously clean, the floors practically gleam, and you’d be very hard-pressed to find a dusty bottle of congealed nail polish on the retail shelf.

Nailists take pride in their surroundings as well as their chosen profession. Says Matsuoka, “In Japan becoming a manicurist is one of the most fashionable occupations now, just as air hostess was in the past.”

Natural nail care is by far the most common service category in Japan, but artificial nails and nail art are growing in popularity. Nail designs tend to be nationalist in design, often depicting flowers, especially the world renowned cherry blossoms, birds, Kabuki dancers, and characters from the intricate and beautiful Kanji alphabet.

The work seen in nail art in the competitive arena has raised standards, especially in flat nail art. Commented Jewell Cunningham, who judged a large group of Japanese nail artists at Long Beach and ICE/Los Angeles, “When I did the first scan of the competitors at Long Beach, I had to go back behind the judges’ curtain for a minute to just say, ‘Wow.’ The work was phenomenal.”

What Does the Future Hold?

“While we can’t determine the dollar value the market may bring, we see a higher percentage of women gelling professional nail services in Japan than the U.S,” says Gaynor. Right now the biggest challenge in Japan is simply bringing more techs into the industry. Although that is also the very same challenge U.S. salons face, it’s for two entirely different reasons. Here, the staffing need is great because so many techs leave the industry and it provides a lower wage than ever because of plummeting prices, but in Japan, the profession hasn’t yet caught: on enough, let alone burned anyone out.

Nordstrom says there’s a need for patience as the industry unfolds. He says, “Enhancements will have to — and are — gain credibility with the average Japanese woman. The younger generation is ‘nail crazy,’ but they simply don’t: have the financial resources to be regular customers. The prices are high enough to put off teenagers from committing to enhancements, which is the only way for the professional nail industry to grow. For true industry growth in Japan, we have to make customers of the same demographic as in the U.S.: the 25-45 year old female with the money to make a commitment to regular professional nail care,” concludes Nordstrom.

Matsuoka says the future is bright: “Although Japan may be a small country geographically, we are second only to the U.S. in population and economic power. You have to say that the Japanese nail market has tremendous potential in every respect,” he says. Although he estimates that there are only about 2,500 nail salons currently, he illustrates the growth of the industry this way: “The phone company just expanded the listings in the phone book. Nail salons are now categorized separately from beauty salons.”

Again, Japan’s nail business is following the same evolutionary pattern as the U.S., when the phone book separated nail salons from beauty salons it signaled to the world, the industry was here to stay. That very topic was a cover story in the very first issue of NAILS Magazine in 1983.



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