Fragrance to the forefront: What’s happening in Japan’s household goods market?

May 12, 2013


With their sense of mild body odor, Japanese generally frown at the idea of splashing themselves with strong fragrances.

In recent years, however, scented fabric softeners have taken off in a big way.

The surge in sales suggests that consumers increasingly regard scented fabric softener as a replacement for perfume; some are even blending softeners to come up their own original scents.

The product that triggered the trend was Downy, which is manufactured by Proctor & Gamble (P&G).

Sales of household products that leave a pleasant fragrance or freshness on clothing after washing began to soar at foreign-affiliated supermarkets and other outlets from around the mid-2000s,

In 2008, P&G released Lenor Happiness, a softener touted as having a strong fragrance. Since then, the market has been inundated with fabric softeners that are sweeter, more intense and have longer-lasting aromas.

In 2010, Lion Corp., a leading Japanese manufacture of personal care products and housecleaning materials, released Soflan Aroma Rich, a line of softeners and aroma sprays that uses bright red and purple colors in its packaging design.

“If we don’t drastically change the appearance and content we won’t be able to win over consumers,” said brand manager Rika Kato, 47. Juliette, which was released the following year in black packaging, is the line’s most popular scent.

Among fabric softeners offered by Lion, products emphasizing aroma saw sales in 2012 close to three times greater than those of 2005. Japan’s overall market for softeners grew from 62.6 billion yen ($644 million) in 2008 to 78.7 billion yen in 2012 according to market researcher Intage Inc.

Indoor air fresheners, insect repellents, cleaning products, kitchen detergents and other housecleaning items are also highlighting scent.

Under the concept of “Fragrant Housework” last year, Kao Corp., a major player in the Japanese consumer products market, pitched the idea of homemakers actually enjoying housework with the use of soothing fragrances. It started releasing rose-scented cleaners and other fragrant household products.

“Cleaning and washing is tedious. However, soothing fragrances can help motive people,” said brand manager Junji Shiratsuchi, 49.

Shigeru Kashima, a scholar of French literature who translated Alain Corbin’s “The Foul and the Fragrant,” noted there are instances in other countries of people preferring scent-free environments after a period of concealing offensive odors with fragrant smells.

Yet, he said the time eventually comes when people feel a need to start using fragrances as a means to stand out.

Still, why do people in Japan prefer scented fabric softener over perfume?

Kashima, trying to come to grips with the idea, came up with the following notion: “Japanese men seek immaturity and childishness in women rather than sexiness associated with maturity. As such, people probably prefer the cleanliness emphasized by fabric softener over the sexiness linked to perfume.”


“The smell of the trees and greenery allowed me to sense the natural environment of Earth and it made me happy,” said astronaut Naoko Yamazaki upon her to return to Earth from a Space Shuttle flight in 2010. Due to the lack of earthly odors in space, astronauts are thought to be especially appreciative of Earth’s fragrances.

The seasons bring with them distinctive smells and fragrances: the scent of plum blossoms, daffodils and peach blossoms signal the coming of spring; the smell of hot, heavy air laden with humidity tells us its summer; in autumn we detect the odor of fallen leaves and open fires; and the aroma of simmering pots of stew and steaming cups of coffee indicate winter has arrived. The fragrances of the seasons and the smells of the city are derived from volatile “odor molecules” emitted by flowers, foods, exhaust gases and other scent sources.

According to Kyutaro Kishimoto, a senior researcher at the Institute of Floricultural Science, “The combination of odor molecules creating a scent are complex and there are many things we don’t know even about the fragrance of a rose.”

Incidentally, it would appear that the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting 400 kilometers above Earth is a rather smelly environment. Apparently the station’s dust filters cannot remove odor molecules. Additionally, because the flow of air through the structure is so gentle, odor, such as that from bottom burp, is not dispersed, clumping in a gaseous cloud instead.

Astronauts passing through such areas of “dense smell” are said to cringe in agony.

Supposedly it takes about three days to get used to the station’s smells. According to Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency director Yoshiya Fukuda, a doctor who opened the hatch of a spacecraft and entered after its return to Earth said, “Words cannot describe the foulness of the odor.”

(This article was written by Noriko Akiyama, The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE, and Ryoko Takeishi, Opinion Poll Research Center)

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P&G perfumer Masae Nogami (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)

P&G perfumer Masae Nogami (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)

  • P&G perfumer Masae Nogami (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)
  • Imported fabric softener Downy started gaining popularity in the mid-2000s.
  • Fabric softener Soflan Aroma Rich Juliette was released by Lion Corp. in 2011.
  • P&G’s Lenor Happiness–Aroma Jewel, a scent booster that can be added to one’s wash, was released in 2012.
  • International Space Station (Photo courtesy of NASA)

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