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

TOKYO — The cosmetics section of the luxury department store Isetan offered a retail experience last month that undoubtedly prompted a double take from Tokyo shoppers: a pop-up store with a sprawling display of colorful menstrual cups, vibrators, Kegel balls and vintage underwear.

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

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

Sugimoto is part of a group of female entrepreneurs who are revolutionizing the reproductive and sexual wellness space in Japan to address needs shared by half the population but often overlooked. They join a growing cohort of women in the Asia-Pacific region creating products and services for women underserved by traditional businesses, male-led governments and patriarchal societies.

These women are also charting career paths outside of Japanese companies, where it is notoriously difficult for women to thrive and rise to leadership levels. They are creating businesses where women and men work towards greater social awareness of reproductive care, and they have recruited young male politicians to push for policy change regulating women’s health products.

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

These companies cater to a variety of female biological needs, including menstruation, pregnancy, contraception, and menopause. In many Asian countries, especially in Southeast Asia, their services and products are essential for women and girls who lack adequate access to menstrual hygiene products and education, according to Nikkei Asia.

In Japan, these companies encourage the use of oral contraceptives. Japan adopted the birth control pill in 1999, becoming the last industrialized country to do so. Just a few years ago, however, less than 3% of Japanese women used the pill, according to a 2019 United Nations study. contraceptive use report and estimates from the Japanese Planned Parenthood Association. This low percentage has been 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 discussion and research of birth control and fertility options. At the time, she was undergoing another round of infertility treatment after years of trying to have a baby, and she wanted her business to help women who lacked information and a support network during the process.

A Japanese government investigation in 2021 found that more and more people felt that infertility treatment was hard to access and hard to afford. Since April 1, infertility treatments are covered under national health insurance with the aim of increasing the birth rate.

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

“I started the company hoping that more people will become conscious and aware and have access to it,” she said. “Femtech is starting to get more notice, but talking about pills and menstruation is still taboo.”

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

When femtech companies emerged in Japan in 2019, government laws and regulations for sanitary products defined them as “white in color” and usually disposable i.e. only white pads and tampons and not newer solutions. Companies like Fermata couldn’t advertise the purpose of period underwear and cups.

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

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“I show them menstrual cups and menstrual underwear and say, ‘Pads and tampons have been replaced with these – which one do you prefer? “, She said. Each time, the decision makers chose menstrual cups or menstrual underwear. The strategy was more effective, she said, than simply complaining to them about what women are going through and expecting them to understand.

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

Fermata is now working with a government group to secure exemptions for individual products from decades-old regulations.

Japan consistently ranks low among advanced countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Analysis, which examines how nations fare on equality in politics, economics, education and health. These startup founders are helping to bridge that gap, raising awareness about gender equality issues, LGBTQ rights, and the experiences of non-binary people.

A key goal is to create communities and events that can challenge social norms and educate audiences beyond cities like Tokyo. The founders of Fermata traveled to rural Japan to showcase feminine care products and start 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 created a line of gender-neutral sanitary boxers to provide alternatives for women who have only used sanitary pads, as well as those looking for less feminine options for period underwear.

“Our company was born from the idea that society should not define what is normal. I think society is full of expectations and demands of how women should be, how athletes should be,” said Shimoyamada, 27, a footballer.

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

“When I came out, I was overwhelmed by the response I received and realized there were a lot of things I could do on my own to change society, like raising my voice and create products and services,” Shimoyamada said. “So my job is really a way to bring me closer to a society that I want.”

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