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JAPAN: Women’s Increased Buying Power a Boost to Economy

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jun 17 2010 (IPS) - Asako Nakano, 52, a company employee, invested in a condominium two summers ago, settling the deal with a down payment of around 155,000 U.S. dollars from her savings.

“I decided I was not going to get married, and so I wanted to buy a place of my own. The bank was quite happy to give me a mortgage,” she says proudly.

Nakano, a university graduate, earns 60,000 dollars annually and spends her money, after her mortgage, on vacations, playing golf and relaxing with friends – a lifestyle that she says “is not something I want to change.”

The Prime Minister’s Office says the number of working women in the 35 to 45 age group has risen steadily in the past decade. In 2009, they comprised 5.45 million of Japan’s labour force, higher than in 2004, with 4.76 million.

Nakano, consumer experts say, is just one example of the expanding purchasing powers of career women who are both single and married – a trend that is finally gaining the attention of the country’s male-dominated business community.

Experts say the entry of the free-spending, affluent female consumer can be linked to the rise in female employment and changing gender landscape in Japan, which in turn has led to a growing number of single career women and double-income families as wives take temporary jobs to deal with the economic recession.

“More women, even those who are married, are working today, some of them out of necessity as the economy shrinks and salaries are cut. While single women have more money to spend, overall women have become the bigger spenders than men,” says Hiroyuki Nitta, a marketing researcher at Nomura Research Institute, a leading economic research organisation in Japan.

In a 2009 report titled ‘Women’s Economy’, Miki Tsukasa, managing director of the Tokyo office of the Boston Consulting Group, an international business consulting firm, says women in developed countries, including Japan, will continue to enter the workforce and their collective wages will rise by 5 trillion U.S. dollars in the next five years.

The ‘Asahi Shimbun’ daily, in an article published this month, quoted Tsukasa as saying that the Japanese economy would benefit if the government supported women entering the workforce, thus harnessing this sector’s consumer strength.

Businesses have begun to recognise the purchasing power of women in their 40s and 50s. For instance, since 2002 construction companies have been building condominiums designed to cater to the preference of women buyers for larger living rooms and better security standards.

SUUMO, a housing information service run by Recruit Company, a lifestyle and employment think tank, says women pay higher down payments – an average of 100,000 dollars – compared to what men generally shell out, pegged at around 20,000 dollars.

In the apparel and cosmetic industry, traditionally a female domain, efforts to attract women consumers have become more intense.

Pola Cosmetics, a leading cosmetic firm in Japan, noted in the May edition of its monthly newsletter that despite the economic crunch, women, mostly those in their 40s, do not hesitate to buy products that cost as much as 1,000 dollars apiece.

UNIQLO, a retail clothing company that produces low-priced goods, has also targeted more working women. In its recent marketing report, it expressed optimism it could raise its sales to this sector from 40 to 60 percent.

Surveys conducted by Hakuhodo Research Company, a consumer research firm, confirm a sharp rise in the spending power of women compared to men. Based on its poll conducted in February, 50 percent of the female respondents as against 45 percent of the males said they would continue to spend.

“The overall trend is, people are spending less compared to the heady days of the bubble economy era more than a decade ago. But still, as surveys show, there is a tendency for women to spend more than men,” says Akemi Natsuyama, a senior researcher Hakuhodo.

Domestic spending in Japan comprises 60 percent of its gross domestic product amounting to 5.4 trillion U.S. dollars, according to ‘Nikkei Business Daily’, Japan’s leading financial newspaper.

Nitta of the Nomura Research Institute says that while women consumers are now seen as key to market recovery, it is also important to understand their special needs, because these have an impact on the market.

“Japanese women invest based on their own or family needs. Thus their priority is to spend heavily on services such as relaxation after work or feel- good treats for themselves,” Nitta explains. “Married working women in turn look for better education for their children or for housing.”

Nitta predicts that women will continue to take the lead as consumers, given their increased purchasing power. One factor that has reinforced this trend is the emergence of the “invisible family,” which in the Japanese context means those living close to and with the grandparents, permitting wives to hold on to jobs that support double incomes and thus facilitate more spending.

Natsuyama the researcher maintains that traditionally, Japanese women have always been the spender in the family. As full-time homemakers, they are in charge of the family budget that is tied to their husbands’ incomes.

The difference today is that women are making their own money and using their incomes to spend on their own needs.

There is no doubt that the female consumer is crucial to the recovery of the Japanese market, says Nitta.

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