Perfume is complex and subjective by its very nature. In Japan, the cultural state of mind around fragrance simply doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s considered culturally offensive to wear strong scents, so light, clean, dry, understated scents are the preference. One explanation for the cultural relationship with fragrance is that applying perfumes directly on skin runs counter to the purity stipulations of Shinto, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people.
Historically, the Japanese purchased fragrance for a variety of non-olfactive reasons, but there is no genuine historical, cultural, or philosophical appreciation for it. The sales experience in stores is marked by detached sterility and a focus on technical descriptions of how the scent was made and how it’s supposed to be enjoyed. For the Japanese consumer, perfume is a symbol of Western luxury that amplifies the consumer’s aspirations, or class identity. It is a mere object. When Japanese women choose to apply fragrance, they are conscious of how much perfume they apply and on which occasion.
In recent years, Japan has experienced an increased awareness of sumehara or “smell harassment”—a concept that a person’s body odor may cause distress or discomfort to others, according to Euromonitor International. While this is accelerating sales of products with fragrance claims, especially to middle-aged men, “odorless” remains the preferred “scent.” If there is no smell at all, no one will feel discomfort.
However, there are indications that the Japanese relationship with fragrance may be shifting. Euromonitor International saw a growing focus on scent among Japanese consumers, as they become more comfortable using fragrance for enjoyment and personal expression. Consumers as a whole are becoming more interested in the scent of beauty and personal care and the use of exclusive super-premium fragrances as a way to express themselves.
Photo: Walter Mario Stein via Unsplash