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Sunday, June 15, 2003


Shades of good sense

Staff writer

Parasols are peculiar things. Meaning "to ward off the sun" in Latin-based languages, these lightweight umbrellas were long ago the height of coquettish fashion in Europe. Until recently though, in Japan they were the preserve of its distinctly uncoquettish obasan.

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Parasols are becoming as trendy as a tan.

But now, these once seriously uncool sunshades are must-have summer accessories for millions of Japanese women of all ages who, until just a year or two ago, would have blanched at the very notion.

However, it's not just the fickle finger of fashion that has pointed them to the parasol racks in pursuit of porcelain complexions. Instead, many women are increasingly concerned about health risks from ultraviolet rays at a time when holes in the Earth's UV-blocking ozone layer have become common knowledge.

"Using suntan lotion is not sufficient to protect my skin," said 31-year-old Tokyo office worker Minako Tahira. "In order to avoid the dangers of direct sunlight, a parasol is the best solution."

In Tahira's case, though, it's not just a parasol -- because as she spoke while walking through Aoyama last week, she had just spent 6,000 yen on a second one specially treated to cope with the sudden showers of the rainy season. "It is good to have one of these," she said, "because even in rainy weather, we can't escape UV rays pouring down from the sky."

Whether driven by fashion or health concerns, or both, although information on the size or value of Japan's parasol market is not available, umbrella manufacturers all opened up just enough to confirm that it has been expanding dramatically, and is now worth around 20 billion yen a year. Tokyo-based Moonbat Co., the country's leading umbrella company, even went so far as to say that parasol sales have risen 20 percent each year for the last 10 years.

"This is largely due to the introduction of parasols with UV protection," said Yuzo Mizusawa, manager of Moonbat's parasol section, which first put the anti-UV variety on the market in 1990.

"Before that, our sales breakdown of umbrellas and parasols was 9-to-1," Mizusawa said. "But last year was epoch-making. Our parasol sales surpassed umbrellas sales for the first time."

It was around 1988 when the company first began developing anti-UV parasols. "At that time, a variety of UV-blocking products were being introduced, and I thought we could jump on the UV-care bandwagon," recalled Koji Ohara, general manager of Moonbat's umbrella department.

Development of the new product, however, was not an easy process, Ohara said. To provide UV protection, the parasol material had to be coated with a UV-absorbing chemical, but the company found that this sometimes caused a reaction that affected the color. Indeed, Obara said the development costs were so high that they pushed up the price of anti-UV parasols by as much as 1,000 yen each.

"We wondered if consumers would be willing to pay extra for the new feature," Obara said. "And due to various problems, only a few people in the company were in favor of the project."

Such concerns, however, proved groundless. The anti-UV parasols became an instant hit in sunny Kyushu, then gradually caught on all over the country. "Now, all our parasols are anti-UV products," Ohara said.

To reassure consumers that the anti-UV feature was no mere gimmick, and so reinforce these parasols' health-care appeal, the Japan Umbrella Promotion Association requires that they block 90 percent of UV rays hitting them from passing through. However, Mizusawa of Moonbat openly admitted it is difficult to measure the shielding rate precisely. "The rate fluctuates depending on the type of material, the design and color, and in addition we have to realize that UV is also reflected off the ground, and that parasols can only block UV rays showered from the sky."

In order to guarantee the parasols' performance and so bolster consumer confidence by distinguishing them from cheaper, inferior copies, Mizusawa said it is necessary to establish a common standard, just like SPF (sun protection factor) for cosmetics.

Meanwhile, back in the realm of fashion, a notable feature of the parasol market in recent years has been the brisk sales of black parasols. "Two years ago, we were running out of black parasols, and last year we set a new record for parasol sales -- and more than 50 percent were black," said Masadai Yabumoto, manager of the umbrella department of Aurora Co.

"This is apparently due to the belief that dark material blocks UV rays better," he said. "But as black materials also absorb heat more than light-colored ones, some users complain it is hot even under the parasol," he said.

To solve this problem, Aurora developed a new type of fabric by teaming up with Kuraray Co., the leading maker of synthetic fibers. The fabric, called ESMO, is designed to block out more than 90 percent of UV rays while maintaining lower temperatures below the parasol.

According to Kuraray, ESMO -- which is treated with a special ceramic compound -- reflects visible solar rays to produce its insulating effect. Indeed, the company's test results show that regular polyester gets as hot as 58 degrees when it is exposed to the midsummer sun for 15 minutes, while ESMO hovers around a noticably cooler 52 degrees.

"After UV care, cooling is the next keyword," said Aurora's Yabumoto. "We want to provide products with more added value to differentiate them from others."

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The way it was in Shibuya a few years ago when ganguro ruled the sidewalks.

These parasols' popularity has provided a welcome boost to department store sales.

At the Shinjuku outlet of Takashimaya Co., for instance, officials reported parasol sales in May 2003 were 30 percent up on the same month last year, while Okasa-based Hankyu Department Store said that though their sales in May were about the same year-on-year, May 2002 was a record high.

In response to the upsurge in purchases, parasols have come out of the shadows of the umbrella displays where they were usually found. Now, all the major department stores operate special parasol sections from March to September where a moving throng of customers from teens to seniors can generally be found checking out the latest fashions and features.

Young women especially regard parasols partly as fashion items, and they are very fussy about the brand, material, shape, color, design and weight," said Hankyu's PR official. "So they often have several parasols to suit different outfits and moods."

Since they debuted last year, shorter parasols less than 60 cm long have been gaining in popularity. With retractable handles reducing the length to 55 cm, their appeal is their easy portability.

At Takashimaya, these shorter models now account for a third of all parasol sales. "Consumers prefer a parasol that can be carried in a big bag without the fuss of folding it," said Yuko Douuchi, assistant manager at Takashimaya's PR department. She also noted that beside the shorter models, this year buyers are keen on colors and shapes, with a trend toward more parasols in lighter colors or with frills.

"Although black ones were popular last year, this year lighter-colored ones with high sun-protection factors are much sought-after," she said.

Seizing on the sun-protection vogue, as a summer sales gimmick Isetan Department Store has gone a step further than just displaying parasols separately. They now offer three-item sets of sunglasses, a sun hat and parasol.

Such fashionable fear of the sun's rays doesn't come cheap, though, even in deflationary Japan. Parasol prices are holding their own from last year, with most customers spending 10,000 yen to 15,000 yen on one as a gift, and between 7,000 yen and 10,000 yen on one for their own use.

Who said, "Life's a beach?"

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