Following a wave of Korean retail and beauty trends, Brand Japan is now also seeking growth abroad.

In recent years, Korean beauty – or K-beauty – brands have led the sector, pioneering trends such as sheet masks, snail creams and the make-up cushion. Now, however, it’s the turn of Japan and “the sleeping giant of the beauty industry, ‘J-beauty,’ has woken up,” according to the Financial Times in April 2018.

Buoyed by a resurgence of global interest in the characteristic pared-down Japanese aesthetic, and driven by a shrinking domestic market, a handful of Japanese retail brands – in cosmetics and beyond – are rapidly expanding abroad.

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Muji Hotel Shenzen
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Muji, well known for its affordable, understated quality clothing and homeware, now has more stores abroad than in its home country and has opened its first hotel in Shenzhen, with other launches scheduled for Beijing this summer and Tokyo in 2019. All the venues feature Muji products and services, designed to “restore mind and body.”

This month, Muji announced it will open a flagship online store on JD.com, the giant Chinese online marketplace, and it will promote the online store in 231 of its bricks-and-mortar stores in China. “Known worldwide for its simple aesthetic and well-designed products, Muji has garnered a loyal fanbase of quality-conscious consumers,” says Lijun Xin, president of JD Home and Life. “With our commitment to delivering authentic products with world-class service, JD is the perfect forum for Muji’s premium wares.” In addition, Muji operator Ryohin Keikaku now has more than 450 stores abroad, slightly more than it has in Japan.

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Muji

“Japan is revamping its traditional values of essentialism, which have become so popular internationally, as a new lifestyle – with Muji, Uniqlo and [decluttering guru] Marie Kondo espousing a simple but pleasant life,” says Florence Bernardin, Paris-based founder of Asian cosmetics and culture consultancy Information & Inspiration.

Japanese brands, riding on patented fabric technology and fresh ideas from young designers, are enjoying record profits boosted by overseas growth and e-commerce. “The Age of Asia is finally here,” Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo and GU, told the Nikkei Asian Review in April. “It really strikes me that our products are accepted worldwide.”

Uniqlo’s patented HeatTech range, for example, which offers thin yet warm winter innerwear, is selling well in China. The Japanese apparel brand has 2,000 stores around the world, with plans for 160 more, including 100 in China, at a time when US counterparts such as Gap are struggling.

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Shiseido Posme Play Color Chip

Earlier this year, Shiseido recruited high-school girls to design make-up products, in an innovative project called Posme. Its first item, launched earlier this year, is the multi-use Play Color Chip, which can be applied to lips, cheeks, eyelids or eyebrows. For Playlist, another of Shiseido’s sub-brands, make-up artists designed a range of products packaged in tubes, to resemble a box of oil paints.

Natural skincare and beauty brand Three, started by New York-based Japanese make-up artist Rie Omoto, has opened stores in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and is also sold at the Lotte department store in Seoul’s must-visit beauty destination, Myeongdong.

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Three cosmetics
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It makes sense for Japanese retailers to focus on overseas expansion. Japan’s population is shrinking, with a current figure of 126.3 million expected to fall to 86.7 million by 2060, according to a projection by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. While fewer babies are also being born in other industrialized countries, this drop in numbers has been balanced by immigration, which relatively homogeneous Japan appears reluctant to embrace.

With Tokyo hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, the accompanying tourism boom is likely to keep the spotlight on Japanese brands for the foreseeable future.