Japanese femtech companies like Fermata are revolutionizing women’s sexual health

TOKYO — The cosmetics department of luxury department store Isetan offered a retail experience last month that no doubt inspired it a double shot of Tokyo shoppers: a pop-up store with an expansive display of colorful menstrual cups, vibrators, Kegel balls and period underwear.

It was a harrowing sight in the long-established institution that has offered a sanitized version of what it means to be a woman for decades. A shopper-friendly graph of each menstrual cup’s capacity down to the milliliter and a chart illustrating pelvic floor muscle training revealed women’s health issues in a rare, direct way in male-dominated Japan.

“Often people think it’s 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 She founded the brand behind the pop-up store with another woman in 2019.

Sugimoto is among a group of female entrepreneurs revolutionizing the reproductive and sexual wellbeing space in Japan to meet needs shared but often ignored by half the population. You join a growing group of women across Asia Pacific who are developing products and services for women underserved by mainstream corporations, male-led governments and patriarchal societies.

These women also carve out career paths outside of the Japanese company, where it is notoriously difficult for women to succeed and rise to leadership positions. They set up companies in which both women and men work toward greater social awareness of reproductive care, and they have recruited younger male politicians to push for a change in policies regulating women’s health products.

The “femtech” industry – companies focused on services, technologies and products that serve the biological needs of women – is a growing sector worldwide. According to some market analysts, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to be the largest contributor to the boom over the next five years. Japan’s Economy Ministry estimates that the market impact of femtech companies in the country will reach $16 billion by 2025.

These companies serve a variety of women’s biological needs, including menstruation, pregnancy, contraception, and menopause. In many countries in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, their services and products are vital for women and girls who have insufficient access to menstrual hygiene products and education. according to Nikkei Asia.

In Japan, these companies promote the use of oral contraceptives. Japan was the last industrialized country to introduce the birth control pill in 1999. Just a few years ago, less than 3 percent of Japanese women were taking the pill, according to a 2019 United Nations study Report on the use of contraceptives and Japan Family Planning Association estimates. This low percentage has been attributed to a lack of awareness and education, and social stigma.

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Arisa Sakanashi, 32, founded Mederi in 2019 to fill that gap, hoping to normalize the conversation and search for birth control and fertility options. At the time, she was undertaking another round of infertility treatments after trying for a baby for several years, 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 are increasingly believed that infertility treatment was difficult to access and affordable. From April 1st, infertility treatments are covered under national health insurance to increase the birth rate.

Mederi offers advice on and access to birth control pills, as well as items such as infertility supplements and home testing kits for vaginal bacteria. Birth control pills are not covered by national health insurance, but Sakanashi’s company pays for its employees and provides time off for infertility treatments. She tries to convince other companies to do the same.

“I started the company with the hope that more people would become aware and aware and get access,” she said. “Femtech is becoming more popular, but talking about pills and menstruation is still taboo.”

Since femtech companies are 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 entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, offering financial help to start-up founders. She applied and was accepted and mentored by Maezawa after a year-long selection process.

When femtech companies entered the market in Japan in 2019, the government’s laws and regulations on hygiene products defined them as “White color” and generally disposable, ie only white pads and tampons and no newer solutions. Companies like Fermata couldn’t promote 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 were used, hoping to educate them on women’s experiences and gain 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 do you prefer?'” she said. Each time, policymakers chose menstrual cups or period underwear. The strategy is more effective, she said, than just complaining to them about what women are experiencing and expecting them to understand.

“I mean, I don’t understand what yours [male] Corpses go through,” Sugimoto said.

Fermata is now working with a government group to get individual product exemptions from decades-old regulations.

Japan consistently at the bottom among advanced countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Analysis, which examines how nations perform in terms of equality in politics, economics, education and health. These start-up founders are helping to bridge this gap by raising awareness of gender equality issues, LGBTQ rights and the experiences of non-binary people.

A key focus is on creating communities and events that challenge social norms and can educate the public beyond cities like Tokyo. Fermata’s founders traveled to rural Japan to showcase feminine hygiene products and engage in conversations about reproductive health.

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

“Our company was born with the idea that society should not define what is normal. I feel 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 like construction, as well as parents who want to talk to their children about menstruation. She hopes to expand her product range and conducts seminars on social equality for young female athletes.

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

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