Walk into any pharmacy in Tokyo, marvel at the array of products lining the shelves, and it comes as little surprise to learn that Japan is the second-biggest cosmetics market in the world.
The success European companies have had penetrating the Japanese market now means that household domestic names such as Kao and Shiseido compete with familiar foreign brands such as Lush and LVMH.
For the past two years, European companies aiming to seize a bigger share of a market valued at ¥2.33 trillion in 2014 have been able to add a key ethical element to their marketing campaigns, and one that is beginning to resonate with Japanese consumers.
After two decades of pressure, cosmetics companies in European Union member states went completely “cruelty-free” in March 2013, bringing to an end an incremental process that began several years earlier.
According to the two-part ban, no cosmetic can be tested on animals in the EU, while the sale of imported products that have been tested on animals — or, crucially, which contain individual ingredients that have been tested in that way — are also banned.
Ensuring that Japanese products are held to the same ethical standards has sparked an energetic industry campaign targeting firms that continue to make cosmetics and quasi-drugs (substances that provide mild treatment and contain active ingredients) that involve testing on animals — and consumers who use such products.
Although Japanese law does not require most ordinary cosmetics to undergo animal testing, neither are there regulations that prohibit such trials. Instead, companies are granted carte blanche to carry out safety analysis of ingredients and finished products in any way they see fit.
Having reportedly won an agreement from Japanese officials who signalled they were ready to abolish the current notification system — a much-derided piece of red tape — for importers of cosmetics and quasi-drugs, European firms now hope a comprehensive agreement on animal testing will form part of a free trade agreement between the EU and Japan.
In its 2014 white paper, the EBC in Japan included a demand for validated alternatives to animal testing, noting that official recognition of data acquired through non-animal methods remained low among Japanese authorities. The EBC also called on Japan to honour its international commitment to animal welfare and the environment.
Official pressure has spawned a local grassroots Be Cruelty-Free campaign, led by the Humane Society International (HSI). In March this year, campaigners and firms took their message to the Diet, treating politicians to samples of cruelty-free products from Europe as well as Japan.
“For many Diet members, this was the first time trying out cruelty-free cosmetics and talking with cruelty-free companies about the ethical and safety advantages of making beauty products without animal testing,” said Be Cruelty-Free spokeswoman Sakiko Yamazaki, in a statement.
Claire Mansfield, Be Cruelty-Free’s director from the research and toxicology department at the HSI in London, says, ultimately, animal testing should be removed entirely from the whole supply chain, from individual ingredients through to the finished product.
“Analysis of testing taking place throughout the supply chain is crucial in analysing any company’s claim to be animal testing-free: just because a company isn’t conducting the testing themselves doesn’t mean they aren’t purchasing or using newly animal-tested ingredients,” she says.
The success of the EU cosmetics industry following the ban is proof that animal testing can be avoided without harming business interests, and while providing rigorous consumer protection, adds Mansfield.
The EU ban has spurred research and investment in the development of non-animal alternative methods. The global in-vitro testing market, worth $4 billion in 2011, is expected to grow to almost $10 billion in 2017. Not surprisingly, Europe commands the largest share of the overall market.
The ban in Europe had an immediate knock-on effect in Japan. Shiseido, the country’s largest cosmetics firm, became the first to follow Europe’s lead, although an exception is made for exports to China, which insists that final products be tested on animals before going on sale there.
Other well-known Japanese brands, such as Kao and Mandom — along with smaller firms including Miss Apricot, D-fit and Seikatsu no Ki — have adopted similar prohibitions.
The kind of public pressure that altered attitudes at European cosmetics companies has yet to take hold in Japan, but early indications are that consumers wish to see domestic firms adopt new testing regimes that do not involve animals.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Japanese unit of the British firm Lush, only 30% of respondents were aware of the controversy over animal testing. But 85% said they did not want manufacturers to use cosmetics ingredients the safety of which could not be determined unless they were tested on animals.
In a reflection of that view, European firms in Japan appear to have little trouble selling their cruelty-free products to the country’s famously discerning consumers.
Along with the likes of Lush and The Body Shop, Pierre Fabre — a French pharmaceuticals group that also sells dermatological cosmetics — has come to regard Japan as a key market in its global strategy, since it launched here 30 years ago.
“As a pharmaceutical company, Pierre Fabre has always set very high standards in terms of product quality and evaluation,” says Audrey Irigoyen, quality and regulatory manager at Pierre Fabre’s Asian Innovation Centre.
“We carefully select our raw materials according to European standards. Then, in order to check the safety and the efficacy of our products, we systematically conduct in-vitro tests and clinical studies under dermatological control. Most of the time, these clinical studies are conducted with Japanese panellists, via a test agency,” she says.
“When they are planned to be launched on the Japanese market, the products are additionally, specifically tested on Japanese consumers to ensure that they match the very high expectations of the local market.”
But that kind of progressive thinking is not universal. Animal testing persists in part because, for all the misery it causes, it is still viewed by some as the most reliable way to ensure that cosmetics and quasi-drugs will not harm their human users.
But the idea that animal testing is integral to the production of safe cosmetics is a myth, according to Mansfield. “Animal testing is not a prerequisite for cosmetics development. Actually, some cosmetics makers have never conducted animal testing at any time in their history, including The Body Shop and Lush,” she says.
It could only be a matter of time before Japan becomes part of the global community of countries that have implemented full-testing and marketing bans along the lines of those in the EU. That group now includes Norway and India, while New Zealand has imposed a testing ban. And there are moves towards bans in the US, Canada, Australia and other countries.
Any failure to take similar action in Japan will inevitably harm domestic cosmetics firms, which will find their export options dramatically curtailed.
“The reality is that Japan could pass a ban on cosmetics animal testing and the marketing of newly animal-tested cosmetics tomorrow,” says Mansfield.
“Cruelty-free cosmetics companies operate very successfully in Japan, and Japanese brands are already complying with [the] no-animal-testing requirements. As with all countries, though, there’s both an educational process, and a legislative and regulatory process that will need to be seen through to the end.”
Justin McCurry is the Tokyo correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers in London. He also reports on Japan for GlobalPost and contributes to The Lancet medical journal and several other publications in Japan and the UK.© Japan Today