LGBT market finally out in the open

Jun 14

Japan has always been accepting of the LGBT community, although, as in the West, the more conservative avoid any public debate. A more liberal society and greater internationalisation in general mean more and more companies are openly targeting this market, which a recent report suggests has a value of close to ¥6 trillion.

Japanese firms have long taken an indirect approach to the LGBT market. On the surface Japan seems to treat homosexuality as a non-issue and most in the LGBT community prefer to keep their private lives private – just as any self-respecting salaryman or woman would prefer not to stick out in the workplace – but the market itself is no less important in Japan as anywhere else.

Knowing a good business opportunity when they see one, Japanese firms have long targeted the LGBT market, both at home and overseas. In the 1990s, Subaru famously ran ads targeting its cars at the LGBT market in the USA, for a short time gaining a reputation as the ‘gay car’ without ever hurting its bottom line. Other car companies, drinks brands and fashion brands have all used LGBT imagery and cues in their adverts, even in the domestic market – although it is doubtful that mainstream consumers ever realised the subtle meanings involved.

Marketing to LGBTs is finally becoming more open as the market becomes even more prominent. The influx of LGBT tourists from overseas, some of whom look specifically for products and services targeting the community, is just the latest part of this overall trend. The entry of major international corporations in all sectors has also inevitably added to the growing levels of diversity. Some brands such as IKEA, which is famously popular with LGBT consumers almost everywhere it goes, expect this new level of openness to bring a direct benefit.

A recent Dentsu report, based on a survey of almost 70,000 people carried out in April this year, suggests that the LGBT market has a value of ¥5.94 trillion – a figure that undoubtedly errs on the conservative side. Dentsu first carried out a large sample survey into sexual minorities back in 2012, finding that 5.2% of respondents saw themselves as part of the LGBT community. In the latest survey, however, this had risen to 7.6%, again suggesting increased openness.

In the same survey, Dentsu estimated market value by major consumption categories. In terms of overall balance across categories, Dentsu’s estimates suggest that the LGBT market is not all that different from consumers in general. The largest category of spending by far is for food at home, which combined with drinks accounts for more than 42% of the entire market. The figures also suggest relatively little interest in games, international travel and gardening, although not proportionately that different from general consumers. The low ¥31 billion market for education is, however, a surprisingly small figure given that LGBT markets in other countries often spend proportionately significantly more on this category.

One area that is under the spotlight is the entirely new LGBT targeted wedding market. Koyuki and Hiroko Higashi set a precedent by tying the knot at Tokyo Disneyland in 2013, and breaking many remaining taboos about same-sex weddings. Well known Tokyo wedding planner and garden venue, Happo-en, which each year runs more than 2,000 couples through its doors, recently organised its first gay marriage ceremony. It is now working with Letibee (letibee.com), a specialist wedding service planner targeting the LGBT market, which has generated huge press over recent months. Letibee CEO Yuta Toyama says most wedding venues he speaks to are entirely happy to cater to LGBT couples.

Japan doesn’t currently recognise gay marriages, but it doesn’t disbar them either. Lack of formal recognition can throw up all kinds of problems for LGBT couples in terms of inheritance, insurance, tax benefits and so on. Japan does allow people to be adopted into their partner’s family, so this is one way for two people of the same-sex to become legally related, but there is no clear data as to how often this happens or what attitude is taken by local authorities. However, Shibuya-ku issued its first same-sex partnership certificate in April this year, allowing a same-sex couple to provide proof of partnership to banks and insurance companies. Other authorities around the country, such as Setagaya-ku in Tokyo and Takarazuka in Hyogo, are currently finalising plans for similar systems.

In addition to wedding ceremonies, more and more businesses are taking steps to become aware of the LGBT market and treat all customers as equals – arguably this is easier in Japan than in some countries with stronger religious or ideological barriers. One recent example is Hotel Granvia Kyoto, which has benefitted from becoming a member of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association back in 2006. Around 30% of the hotel’s visitors are from overseas of which it estimates 10% are LGBT. More Japanese firms are following suit, not only for the business, but also to reaffirm a clear lack of prejudice.

Interest in the market is also growing. Dentsu’s research suggests that 53% of people would actively support companies with LGBT services and products. During Golden Week, this year’s annual Tokyo Rainbow Pride event for sexual minorities attracted some 55,000 visitors over two days to its 70 booths and the traditional parade, four times more than last year. Sponsors included DHC cosmetics, Alfa Romeo, Lifeguard drinks and Gap Japan.

Similar organisations, such as Nijiro Diversity (www.nijiirodiversity.jp) in Osaka, are springing up around the country, both promoting the market to companies, and providing support services to people in the LGBT community.

Compared to more austere societies around the world, Japan has quietly accepted the LGBT community. Now, with more openness emerging both in Japan and around the world, companies have finally woken up to the opportunity to expand with specially targeted services.

Get a concise monthly update on Japanese Consumer Markets – and a FREE copy of our monthly report.