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The Monozukuri of beauty

Interview - August 24, 2018

The Worldfolio speaks with Masaumi Asanuma, president of the Asanuma Corporation, a cosmetics manufacturer that provides a full range of make-up and cosmetic products in Japan and overseas. Mr. Asanuma gives some insight into the history of the company, discusses the high quality of Japanese cosmetics products, and explains Asanuma’s strategy to strengthen its presence overseas by leveraging on Japan’s reputation for high quality.



Asanuma Corporation was established in 1947, could you give a general overview of the evolution of the business since inception?

Asanuma Corporation was founded in 1947 and in 1952 it became incorporated.  Before the pacific war, my father was working for a cosmetics company focused on research facilities and manufacturing. He worked there until he had to go to the war. When he came back to Japan in 1946, he launched Asanuma Corporation based on a groundbreaking idea within the cosmetics industry.

Before the war, women used to apply the ink for the eyebrows by taking them from shells recipients and using its hands or feathers as tools. When my father was at the war, he was in different locations and in every one of them there were clinics installed where they would take care of injured men. My father saw doctors using a red pencil to mark the wounds that would need medical care, for example before performing a surgery they would mark the areas to be treated. At that moment he came up with an idea, creating a new revolutionary product for eyebrows based on this red pencil and that is how the eyebrow pencils were born in Japan.  In 1952 Asanuma held 70% of sales for eyebrow pencils in Japan

After that first product, we started diversifying the business and introduced the eyeliners, lip liners, and later on we entered into the nail polish line as well.  During my father’s time the business was divided in two segments. On one hand the pencil based segment covering eyebrow pencils, eyeliner, lip liner. And secondly, the nail polish segment.

At the early stages of the business, I could witness the growth of cosmetics industry in Japan. I realized that some products were very unsteady. For example, whenever we launched a new color nail polish, we would experience a huge spike in sales. The problem was that after that we would not continue the production, it did not represent a sustainable growth for us. That is why we decided to introduce more stable products as mascaras that would be used all year. Nowadays, we are covering all segments including the pencil products and nail polish segments but also all items of make-up and skincare.


Can you tell us more about Asanuma Corporation strategy? What are the strengths of the business and how does your corporate philosophy contributes to its success?

Forty years ago, Kanebo was accounted for 90% of our sales; the rest was composed of very small companies. That scenario made us consider key points for the future of Asanuma. I considered that it was fundamental for us to have a 3-pillar structure to ensure a stable company.  In Japan there is a solid belief that 3-based projects are positive as they provide stability and you can benefit from the synergies between every pillar.

First of all, we understood how important it would be for us to do business with other big companies. We have always worked to build solid relationships with big brands by responding to our partners’ requests.

Secondly, we decided to put extra effort to provide innovative solutions as an added value to Asanuma’s expertise in the field. Technology and R&D capacity are fundamental for us. We have been working on that aspect, hiring researchers and experts to train our employees to keep innovating and responding to customers’ demands in a constantly changing market.

The third aspect that we decided to focus on is our international strategy. Exports and trading with cosmetics companies abroad have always been a priority for Asanuma Corporation in order to build strong partnerships. We proactively push for our business in Taiwan.  Also, we decided to establish sales branches overseas. First, we considered opening an office in Santa Monica in the U.S.A. As the Asian region started its expansion, we decided to open an office in China as well to respond to the market trends. We have an office in Shanghai where my son is in charge of an independent Corporation, Shanghai Asanuma Cosmetics. Our strategy is built on the idea of manufacturing locally and also distributing all within China. From the beginning we sent Japanese employees to manage the process and keep the spirit and know-how of “Made by Japan”. However, for us to be competitive and respond to demands in a fast and efficient way it is necessary to work with Chinese distributors and trade partners at a local level.


As a company actively promoting exports and partnerships with countries all around the world, what is your opinion about Internationalisation processes for Japanese companies? Can you tell us more about your international strategy? Which markets show the greatest growth potential for Asanuma Corporation?

Japan has been proactive in terms of internationalization since before the war. After the war, Japan restarted to show their presence from an economic perspective as a complete pacifist way. Nonetheless, the demographic has been declining in the last years in Japan. Experts have pointed out that by 2050, the working-age population will be reduced to 50 millions. In that sense, Japan has to face this challenge and needs to globalize. On one hand, we need to promote exports and on the other hand, we will have to welcome professional foreigners coming to work to Japan.

As I said, Japanese people have been going abroad looking for business challenges but also for education opportunities. After the war, Japan experienced an important growth in the SMEs sector.  In that sense, companies like Asanuma have been working for years to compete in the global market. As an example, last year we built 2 research laboratories as a way to keep innovating and remain competitive at an International level.

Moreover, as part of our international strategy we want to develop factories, R&D capacity and laboratories abroad instead of centralizing everything in Japan. There is no way that Japanese employees could understand trends and demands coming from foreign markets as well as understand Japanese requirements. It is more strategic hiring local employees who can understand the specificities of each market. In that sense, we are already started working to establish a laboratory in China. We have sent already experts from Asanuma Japan to train our employees and develop our own R&D but with a special focus on Chinese trends. 

Likewise, we have many partners in Europe and North America so we are looking to expand there as there as well. Not only do we want to establish an office but in the long term we aim to open a factory and laboratories as well. Very often we see Japanese companies going abroad but they tend to minimize the western facilities to reduce costs. At Asanuma we think that it is important to invest as part of our long-term strategy, our goal is to copy the process of expansion that we have applied in China. Firstly establish an office but then hire local employees and develop research facilities to be able to respond in an efficient and precise way to local trends.


What is your opinion about Japanese cosmetics industry and your forecast for the upcoming years?

On one hand, it is undeniable that Japanese cosmetics industry is not as big as others like the automotive industry, for example.

On the other hand, Japanese manufacturers are strong players both in terms of technology and quality. We are able to provide hygienic products, solutions that are safe for the skin, and we are always using the latest equipment. We are constantly thinking how to ameliorate, working to provide the perfect solutions. Those are the strengths of Japanese cosmetics industry that have allowed providing reliable products.

From a global perspective, Japanese products are well known for their high quality and that represents a good opportunity for us to expand and dominate the market in terms of exports. If we keep working in technological development and bringing innovative solutions there are endless opportunities for Japanese companies in the industry. Not only for Japanese brand but also for OEM and ODM as Asanuma Corporation provides solutions for companies all over the world and are constantly pushing for global market opportunities.

Regarding the demographic, the declining labor force represents one of the big challenges at the moment in the manufacturing industry. Moreover, as we have an elderly population, we need to remain competitive in terms of safety solutions. Not only do we have to respond to customers’ requirements but also to our own requirements to provide the safest products for them.

One of our company guidelines is inspired on the “zohkeibi” concept meaning “Creation, shape and beauty”. Some years ago I visited Procter & Gamble and they told me that Asanuma had the capacity to create products responding to those ideals. Creating products that you desire, the moment you see them you feel like you want to use them. In a department store, you should want to buy them and try them. For the past 5 years we have been working on that business model and seeking perfection for our products line.

In that sense the input of our staff is essential for us. We hire professionals who can add value to our Corporation and we promote a working environment where everybody can contribute to the growth of the firm. I don’t believe in the philosophy of a top down structure by establishing a motto just to dictate it to the rest of the staff.

At Asanuma Corporation, we really value the bottom up approach. We organize meetings regularly to share ideas and brainstorming, everybody has the chance to bring new concepts and propose new ideas. From those sessions, we select innovative solutions and escalate them to a managerial level to develop new products.