The Return Of The Japanese Brands

After years of ceding the limelight to K-beauty, Nihon makeup and skincare are flexing their muscle and making their presence felt once again on the global stage.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Like the people, brands from Japan tend to be low-key. Unobtrusive. Measured in their approach and polite to a fault. So when K-beauty exploded onto the scene with its snail extracts, addictive cushions, snazzy makeup and wallet-friendly sheet masks, it was no surprise that J-beauty took a little step back.

Eventually, however, the rise of K-culture became a wake-up call. Japanese brands could not remain as insular as before. In order to keep pace with competitors, Korean or otherwise, they had to be inclusive and adopt a global outlook as opposed to focusing on just the domestic market.

Which is why more and more are now reasserting themselves and reminding consumers that they were the original beauty virtuosos of Asia.

Figures from Japan’s Cosmetic Industry Association show robust year on-year growth of 28.8 per cent in beauty exports. And according to the Financial Times, exports are expected to hit more than US$2.75 billion (S$3.8 billion) this year.

Sachi Kimura, a research analyst at Euromonitor International, says: “As the market in Japan is mature and the population decreasing, many manufacturers realise there is little room left to expand locally. They are making global expansion their top priority, to increase their presence.”

Mariko Endo, international division general manager of Japanese luxury holistic brand Three, feels there is an upside to all the attention K-beauty has been grabbing. “K-beauty has been a trendsetter in the international cosmetic industry for the past few years. The Korean brands’ quick manufacturing speed and efficiency in bringing cuttingedge trends to the market led to high interest in Asian beauty brands, including Japanese ones,” she says.

It’s a view echoed by Kimura, who says the global K-beauty phenomenon may actually have helped to focus attention on Japanese companies. “K-beauty established a trend of looking at beauty products by location, where a brand’s country of origin is part of its identity. 

“Consumers are now seeking authenticity and trying to understand the differences and attributes of each country’s brands,” she explains. 

Among the traits frequently associated with Japanese brands are quality and dependability. Whether it’s a drugstore buy or high-end splurge, the benchmark for Japan-made beauty products is perceived to be high.

“Japanese brands place importance on developing products with proven efficacy and high functionality after intensive research,” says Kimura. “The local market is very competitive. Many manufacturers, big and small, are developing products to meet the needs of mature Japanese consumers with high expectations, so they have to be highly effective. Such an environment has helped to build the Japanese brand identity and works as an advantage when competing on the global stage.”

This belief in product quality has certainly given some Japanese brands a confidence boost. Case in point: Inoue Olive, a niche olive-based skincare brand from the island of Shodoshima. Previously only available in Japan, it opened its first overseas outlet in Singapore in 2016 after more than  40 years as an exclusively domestic label.

What spurred them to do that? “We’re farmers first and foremost, so we know that the olives used in our skincare are top-grade, and our production methods are sound. We feel our products have the quality needed to compete,” says the brand’s manager, Kosuke Otsubo.

With the Japanese economy looking up, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics creating buzz, and a desire among consumers for simple, well-thought-out beauty products that don’t involve 10-step routines, glassy skin or ever-changing fads, the J-beauty renaissance may be just beginning.


When it was established: In 1887, as a cotton trading company in Tokyo. Entered the cosmetics industry in 1937.

Known for: Anti-ageing skincare. Its May Young Cream, launched in 1960, was one of the first antiageing products in the country and ignited demand for such skincare. In 2006, with almost 70 years of beauty knowledge behind it, Kanebo Cosmetics created Impress, which became the brand’s best-selling antiageing range. It comprises Impress IC, Impress, and Impress Granmula – for women in their 20s, 40s and 60s respectively.

What’s different now: In 2016, Kanebo Cosmetics launched Kanebo, the brand (not to be confused with the parent company). The aim: to reinforce a more modern, trendy image among a younger generation of consumers.

Kanebo, as a brand, champions the notion of “lifetime skincare” – luxury products you use throughout your life, from millennial to mature – and will gradually replace all of Impress. Impress IC has already been discontinued.

Look out for: Kanebo’s The Exceptional range, which has just three products – The Lotion (toner), The Emulsion (serum), and The Cream (moisturiser). The range has its roots in a “skin-tuning” cosmeceutical concept that Kanebo Cosmetics developed decades ago, called Chrono Beauty. An example of Chrono Beauty: When your skin is more exposed to the sun and higher temperatures on warmer days, it needs more protection from harmful UV rays, as well as products that can cool and calm.

The Exceptional products are made using the best ingredients and formulas, covering every complexion concern, across any age: dullness, dehydration, signs of ageing, congestion, and so on. Used in tandem, the products make for a streamlined, minimalist, but concentrated skincare routine for busy women.

"What makes The Exceptional exceptional: the Clear Botanical Complex (which has pear juice, watercress and geranium extract) smooths the skin and keeps it feeling firm and looking bright."

1 The Emulsion, $550. 2 The Lotion, $350. 3 The Cream, $1,800.
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When it was established: In 2009, by Yasushi Ishibashi, a beauty industry veteran. That year also saw the collapse of Lehman Brothers, then in 2011 came the earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku. The global economy was slow and the brand had a hard time taking off in its infancy. To cope with the economic situation, the brand lowered its prices but maintained the standards of its formulas and ingredients. Strong word of mouth and a reputation for delivering value for money turned its fortunes around.

Known for: Holistic luxury products that make natural skincare look chic. Four essential oils figure heavily in its skin, hair and body products: bergamot, green tea seed, frankincense and marjoram. In addition, naturally derived ingredients make up a high percentage of its formulas – on average, 92 per cent for skincare, and 80 per cent for base makeup.

Three now has more than 130 outlets in Japan and 50 outlets internationally. Its first flagship store opened in Tokyo’s stylish, upscale Aoyama district in 2013 and consists of retail, dining and spa sections so that customers can experience the brand using all five senses.

Look out for: Its best selling line, the Balancing skincare range, which helps to restore the proper ratio of moisture and oil in skin. The AC line of body care, comprising body wash, moisturisers and massage oils, is specifically made to counter the drying effects of going from the hot outdoors to the cool indoors.

1 Full Body Wash AC, $46. 2 Cleansing Oil, $68. 3 Clearing Foam, $58. 4 Hand & Arm Cream AC, $48.
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Watch for them

One is a makeup-artist brand returning to its roots. The other, Japan’s most popular and ubiquitous drugstore label, which made its way to Singapore late last year.

Kose Cosmeport

It’s Japan’s No. 1 drugstore brand, known for its effective, quality skincare and haircare at wallet friendly prices. Though its sheet masks and facial cleansers have been ruling the sales charts in Japan for years, it wasn’t until late 2017 that the brand made its entrance here. The company has many sub-brands, so you have to look out for the Kose Cosmeport logo on the product packaging (usually near the bottom or at the corners) to know it’s part of the family. And it’s a big family indeed, boasting the mask expert Clear Turn, cleansing specialist Softymo, silicone-free hair series Je L’aime, sensitive skintargeting Moisture Mild and more.
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Shu Uemura

Its eponymous founder was an iconic makeup artist known for his exquisite skill, avant garde works and innovative products such as his makeup cleansing oil and an Asian-friendly eyelash curler. And it’s those parts of its DNA that the brand now wants to focus on. Shu Uemura is taking steps towards makeup designed to flatter all Asian skin tones, and limited-edition collaborations that fall in line with its ultra-modern chic aesthetic. First up: La Maison du Chocolat, a holiday collection of eye, lip and cheek makeup inspired by the Paris chocolatier’s indulgent confections.
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When it was established: In 1873.

Known for: Being the grand doyen of Japanese beauty. It has a stellar track record for high-quality, heavily-researched skincare – products are never launched until they’ve been fine-tuned to lofty standards – and inventive, pleasing textures ranging from weightless sunscreens to luxe, cocooning creams.

Its makeup is of similarly high calibre. Among Shiseido’s biggest hits are its near-legendary eyelash curler, made to fit Asian eyes more comfortably, and its base makeup collection, which boasts foundations, powders and concealers with incredible wear and finishes.

Some quintessentially Japanese traits are also inherent in Shiseido’s DNA. An understated, cautious approach, for instance – no big promises or incredible claims that aren’t backed up by solid results. And a deep respect for its Japanese heritage and culture that manifests in things like facials incorporating ancient therapies, and skincare inspired by traditional foods.

What’s different now: Though the stringent QC and standards remain, Shiseido is establishing itself as global player, looking beyond the Japanese market to offer products that will appeal to and can be easily used by anyone, anywhere.

The first step in this new direction: a shake-up of its entire point makeup collection. Gone are the different ranges and sublines. Instead, the products – everything from lippies and eyeliners to shadows and blushers – are categorised into four textures: Powder, Gel, Ink and Dew.

Look out for: Makeup with soft, smooth, gliding textures designed to elicit oohs and aahs; all are light on feel, strong on colour. The Essentialist Eye Palettes, for instance, feature cream-powder eyeshadows in shades that anyone (never mind age or skin tone) can wear, while the Archliner Ink finally makes liquid eyeliner something even amateurs can handle.

1 Essentialist Eye Palette, $60. 2 Innerglow Cheekpowder, $56. 3 Archliner Ink, $45. 4 Aura Dew, $38. 5 Visionairy Gel Lipstick, $36.
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When it was established: In 1946, as Inoue Seikoen, an olive and citrus farm on the lush, picturesque island of Shodoshima. Its first skincare product, Beauty Olive Oil, was created in the late 1970s using the farm’s own produce.

Known for: Skincare derived from high-quality Japanese olives and citrus fruit. To this day, Inoue Olive remains the cosmetics line of a small, family-owned agricultural outfit. In 2013, it made its first foray overseas with the opening of a counter in Singapore’s Takashimaya, later relocating to Tangs in Orchard Road. The brand has also set up web stores for customers in Japan and Singapore.

Look out for: The Mild Peeling Gel, Inoue Olive’s top seller, which uses citrus extracts to exfoliate, bringing about a clearer, smoother complexion with pores that look more refined. Another popular pick is the Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which is 100 per cent made from fully ripened olives that are picked by hand (to minimise scarring on the fruit that causes it to oxidise) and cold-pressed. The product can be used as a facial oil, an alternative to night cream, or a treatment for wrinkles, especially around the eyes and mouth.

1 Beauty Olive Oil, $61. 2 Mild Peeling Gel, $57. 3 Neck Massage Oil, $75. 4 Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $104.