Some things are supposed to be only whispered about in Japan.
But startups are about breaking taboos and pushing boundaries, and making the world a bit better when they do it.
Today’s we sit down with Amina Sugimoto of Fermata, and we talk about how quickly and radically the FemTech movement is changing Japan’s conversations, attitudes, and even public policy around women’s health.
It turns out things are both much worse and much better than you probably imagine.
It’s a great conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
- Why VCs have been hesitant to invest in FemTech
- How FemTech is defined in Japan, and what makes a “FemTech product”
- FemTech as a B2B business in Japan
- Japanese enterprise’s, hesitant moves into FemTech
- Discussing sexual pleasure with Isetan’s conservative management and customers
- How the FemTech label is opening up a new conversation about women’s health in Japan
- FemTech as a national movement
- Why it is hard to get FemTech devices approved in Japan
- The future of FemTech in Japan
- What we need in addition to FemTech to really make a difference
Links from the Founders
- Everything you wanted to know about Fermata
Welcome to Disrupting Japan. Straight Talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.
I love it when a conversation takes me by surprise. I usually already know the guests I’m interviewing and I do my research ahead of time. So, I generally know what to expect from these conversations.
But every once in a while things head off in a completely different direction and the facts on the ground take me by surprise. Today is one of those conversations.
Today we sit down with an Amina Sugimoto, the founder of Japanese FemTech powerhouse Fermata, and we talk about how Japanese attitudes towards women’s health are changing and how the FemTech movement is a driving force behind that change.
Fermata speaks directly and candidly about topics that Japanese society has always preferred to whisper about. She’s worked with industry, government, and consumers to change laws and attitudes and is seeing real progress.
Amina and I talk about how to get laws changed in Japan, what happens when women start frank conversations about their health and sexual needs. And what she learned by selling vibrators to Isetan department stores super conservative shoppers.
But you know, Amina tells that story much better than I can. So, let’s get right to the interview.
Tim: So, I’m sitting here with Amina Sugimoto of Fermata, one of the leaders of consumer FemTech in Japan.
Amina: Thank you.
Tim: And thanks for sitting down with me.
Amina: Of course, of course. It’s my pleasure.
Tim: I gave a really brief explanation of what Fermata is and I’m sure you can do a much better job than I can. So, what is Fermata?
Amina: So, we initially started as a research group within the Venture Capital.
Tim: Mistletoe, right?
Amina: Yeah. Ran by . There is this one company that came across two things that I found out. One is not many venture capitalists were interested in this emerging new technology, our women’s health. And then two, there are not many companies that instead of actually focusing on how to actually create industry brand a product,
Tim: So, at Mistletoe were you trying to get them to invest in these FemTech companies? And
Amina: So initially, yes. I still remember today that we were sitting around in the table and there’s one company from the US that’s actually called Modern Fertility. Now, what they did is they brought in existing technology of measuring AMA’s hormone, which basically we can measure how much eggs we’ve got left. This technology is available at clinics in the name of marriage checks in Japan. So, basically before you get married, you get the test. And if you can’t get pregnant anymore, oftentimes that marriage just no longer.
Tim: Wow, that’s kind of dark.
Amina: But what they did is that bring that technology to the hands of women. And what if we get to find out how long are we going to be pregnant at the age of, I don’t know, 25, 30? Maybe then we can decide our own career. And that information doesn’t have to be shared by anyone. I thought that that product was amazing. Unfortunately not many who were sitting at the table found it interesting. So initially, Mistletoe, who was running the fund at the time and came up to me and said, if you think there’s a potential for this market, why don’t you create a research group that focus around FemTech to let people learn more about FemTech?
Tim: That seems like kind of a strange move for a VC. If you have an interesting market, an interesting product, a company that is seeking investment, a venture partner who’s excited about the investment, why form a research group?
Amina: Well, the problem is exactly that. I mean, only 5% of the global level investors are female. And oftentimes the question I get asked is that what’s the problem that company is trying to solve? Or what’s the business model? How is it going to make money? The things that for women is so obvious that there is need.
Tim: Well, actually let’s take a step back just so our whole audience understands what exactly is FemTech? Where do you draw the lines around what FemTech?
Amina: So, FemTech is a term that came around in 2012, and that person who created this term is called Miss Ida Tin, started her company in Germany called Clue. This is the app and it tracks menstruation. And when she tried to get fundraising, she struggled quite a bit because not many investors understood why it’s so useful to have an app tracking period and how that would make money. Exactly the same problem that I had at Mistletoe. It’s just that there’s an obvious need, but it’s not obvious for certain people.
Tim: Sure, sure.
Amina: So, what she did was she came up with this term FemTech and just by creating this term is all of a sudden become some sort of a new industry, a blue ocean, and an investor slowly started to getting interested instead of actually saying, oh, this is a product for menstruation. It’s easier to say it’s Femtech.
Tim: She created a category.
Amina: Exactly, exactly
Tim: Category. So, what is considered, what’s inside that FemTech box?
Amina: Good question. So, a lot of different definitions are out there and in Japan now, the way people use FemTechs, they’re focusing on menstrual cups, underwear, not so much tech, but the way Fermata defines it is a product that basically solves women only or diseases that exist in men, but women have slightly different prevalence rate or different symptoms. So, for example, women’s specific will be fertility and menstruation and menopause, but also osteoporosis, dementia, we don’t really know why, but the previous rate among women is higher.
Tim: So, broadly speaking, it’s not just the technology or the products, it is the whole research ecosystem.
Amina: Yeah, yeah. A lot of these product now are B2C but also B2B infertility clinics and treatments using AI and so forth. So, it’s really varies depending on from which angle you look at.
Tim: Well, I guess all of the investment categories are kind of like that, right. So, that makes sense. Now before the interview I had a great tour of your store downstairs. It’s fascinating. So, Fermata specifically…
Amina: So, we started in 2019. We initially started off trying to build a product, but then we quickly realize that this is an area where even if you come up with a really good product, difficult to sell because there’s no market. Women ourselves don’t even notice what sort of unmet needs that we have. So, what we do, we have two businesses that we are running simultaneously, B2B business and B2C business B2C. We deliver products to these consumers will help them identify their own unmet needs. We collect data from these consumers.
Tim: So, what kind of products?
Amina: So, FemTech products.
Tim: Kind of going in a circle with that? No, I mean, can you give like, just specific examples of like some of the products you’re selling and…
Amina: So for example, this is a product called pelvic trainer from the UK. You basically apply this little device into the slightly vagina and we can actually control our pelvic muscle. And there is an app that you can download and in the app there are different games that you can actually play to strengthen your pelvic muscle. And as a result it basically prevent incontinence.
Tim: That makes perfect sense. And it also makes sense why it’d be hard to get most male VCs to invest in it. No, I mean, there’s no discrimination per see. It’s just one of the cardinal rules of investing is you invest in what you know.
Amina: Yeah, exactly. So, I’m totally again, sort of saying, it’s not a…
Tim: I can see why it’s so difficult to get funding for a lot of these companies and why the FemTech category is a huge help for that.
Amina: So, like women don’t even know, like quite often, like we ask women, do you know what happens if we don’t train our pelvic muscle after a certain age? They’re like, no idea. And we didn’t really get taught. How much do we bleed during menstruation? We don’t even get taught. But anyway we have a consumer business, but also we have B2B business and that’s our 80% of our sales come from that. What we do is we help companies in Japan develop products in this area. They have technologies that they can apply to new field. They just don’t know how, or they don’t have an idea.
Tim: So, what kind of companies are interested in developing these kind of products? Are they electronics companies? Are they…?
Amina: I can’t companies say the details, but yes. Electronic companies, supplement companies, food companies, and I think there’s a social as well as global pressure for especially Japanese big public companies to do something around this field.
Tim: It is interesting and when we were talking before we were both joking that a few years ago we’re dismissing FemTech as a niche market. When it’s half the population. So yeah, it makes sense that large enterprises are also interested in addressing that. So, on the B2C side, tell me about your customers. Who are they? Are they younger women or middle-aged or the whole range?
Amina: Yeah, so we sell product online as well as at our store. We have a store Nagasaki, Tokyo, but also in Osaka. They usually women working in thirties and forties. But then when we do pop-ups at department stores, that sort of profile change big time. When we sell products at Isetan, Mitsukoshi-mae. Women the age of like 50, 60 come and I think it’s another thing that we’re still trying to discover, like it should be applied to all generation, but then because it’s a new market, we don’t even know how these products are being sold.
Tim: It’s the exact opposite of niche market is such a huge demographic that I imagine you would have to target teens and women in their twenties and women in their sixties completely differently.
Amina: Right, right, right, right. Yeah,
Tim: Actually let’s talk a bit about that. So, you mentioned the pop-up store in Isetan. That’s particularly interesting to me because Isetan is an extremely conservative, traditional Japanese department store. So, what was the reaction?
Amina: I think we’re very lucky because we started Fermata just around the time Covid started. So, department stores were struggling big time. And one of my very important strategies, we need to gain trust from customers. So, if we sell these at for example at Don Quixote, it could be seen as many of other toys. Whereas if you sell it at Isetan, which is has hundred years of history, people just assume that everything that gets sold in that department store has passed through like tons of tests and then high quality.
Tim: Did you get any pushback from the department stores themselves? Because I’ve noticed like women’s health products, I guess all over the world, but especially in Japan, they’re marketed in such a way that they don’t really say what it is or what it’s for, what it does, and your marketing is just very clear and very direct and just completely different. And what was the reaction from these conservative department stores with that kind of positioning?
Amina: So, I guess as I said we were very lucky that they needed to have some sort of new solution, get customers attract and attention. So, they wanted to do this. I don’t remember them hesitating. In fact we had no problem selling female vibrators at the store.
Tim: I find that surprising and incredibly encouraging.
Amina: See, the funny story is, when we did our Mitsukoshi-mae pop up is this next to like a bedding section, we had a Fermata store in, those in like seventies and eighties come and they see these products and they get surprised at first they’re like, what is this? So, we have like incontinence related products to sexual wellness, female vibrator too. And these are like all imported products that cost quite, you know, $300, $100. And these are the people, they’re not worried about money. But they also are interested, but they could never access this product. So, they come and they pick up, they’re like, oh, is this a female vibrator? We’ll buy it. They were like, I never thought that we can buy this at Isetan. So, Fermata is the first company that actually sold female vibrator at Isetan apparently with the entire history that they had.
Tim: And that’s amazing. So, both the store management and the customers were just very accepting and like…
Amina: I work with Miss Noda Seiko who’s a politician and there’s one time we were having a conversation and something had happened, Japan in the last three or four years, maybe Covid helped. But when we started this, there’s no conversation around menstruation or the TV person could never mention it like on the TV. But now in the last three years, something has changed and a lot of TV shows is focusing on menstruation problems and menopause and so forth. So, I was talking to Noda-Sensei and she mentioned something really interesting. In the last three, four years, new generations started to sort of be on a leadership position in many different sectors that include political world, business world. And these women start to notice that these products and industry is very important and they’re now taking risks to bringing this product, creating a market together. So, one good example is when I was in doing Popup in Fukuoka down Kyushu, which is a very conservative area in Japan. And one TV producer, a female TV producer came up to us to our story and said, can I please borrow some of the incontinence related product, the ones that you actually insert inside vagina? And then train your pelvic muscle. And I was like, what are you going to do with this? She was like, I really would like to bring this back to the studio and have all this male commentator to learn how to use it on the show. And I was like, are you serious? Like, you might get fired for that. And then she then said to me, I think it’s really important that I do this now that I can, and if I get fired for this, I take the risk. And she did it. And then the show was amazing. She didn’t get fired, but Miss Noda-Sensei said that there are a lot of women like that who is taking risk to sort of trying to bring this product into the market. So, I think we’re very lucky when it comes to timing.
Tim: I mean, like I say, surprising and encouraging, but Japan traditionally, historically has been very slow to respond to women’s health needs. So, I think like birth control wasn’t even available until like 2000 or 1999 or something like that. And I think like sanitary napkins were approved like 40 years or…
Amina: After US. Yeah.
Tim: It’s been like this heading 40 year lag for the last hundred years. Is this just a blip? Has something changed?
Amina: Its funny how like the term FemTech. Well I think Japan is the only countries that it’s became like sort of a movement in the trend. And if you remember like maybe 10 years ago there was a me too movement around the world. And I was in London at the time. There was a big woman’s march in and what happened in the West that was a huge movement. But that didn’t really reach Japan. When it comes to human rights, women’s rights conversation, it’s not really well taken here. So, I think when FemTech a word sort of arrive in Japan, when we start using for marketing, people start to associate that not as a product, but more like a movement, it’s okay to get to know about our body. It’s actually a cool trend that is in the west, in New York. FemTech is a thing, it’s a movement. So, people start to take it differently. Like in the US FemTech is an industry in Japan, it’s a movement.
Tim: That makes a lot of sense. It’s actually something that it’s in some ways almost an excuse.
Amina: Exactly. Exactly.
Tim: To investigate and to try something new and to look into something new and to talk about it.
Amina: So, if you look at Japanese fashion magazines, I would say probably most all of it have used the term FemTech in the last two, three years. They’re just using it as a way to educate part of segregation maybe by introducing these products.
Tim: So, is this something that is a big city thing? I mean, is this something that people are talking about in Tokyo and Osaka and Fukuoka or do you have a lot of business for rural Japan as well?
Amina: It’s slowly happening there. As I said, we work with companies, big companies in Japan. First of a hit Tokyo, big cities and is now gradually soon moved towards e to the countryside. And for example, Miyazaki-shi recently got donation from one of the largest public company called Ichigo Kabushiki-Kaisya, which is the real estate company in Japan. They donated about Nisen-Man yen. So, how much in dollars?
Amina: As a donation or for the use of FemTech.
Tim: What does that mean for use in FemTech? How would they be spending?
Amina: Yeah, I would like to know that, but well that’s…
Tim: That’s the challenge with government programs. You’re never quite sure how the money gets spent.
Amina: But again, at least you know now there is people started to think that we actually have to spend money in women’s health. How they’re still learning, but at least they’re using this term. I think it became a lot easier to do something about women’s health by using this term FemTech.
Tim: That makes sense. So, much of it depends on that creation of this brand new category.
Amina: Right. But for us, we always say with a chain, like we envisioned a future where we don’t no longer have to use the term FemTech. These products should exist without really having a specific category. We’re using it now because we want to create a market around it. But hopefully eventually in about 10, 20 years’ time, what Fermata wants to do is to create a market, bring in more options that are available for future girls in 10, 20 years’ time.
Tim: It just becomes healthcare.
Amina: They’ve got the healthcare.
Tim: No, I mean that’s the end goal for sure.
Amina: But the store downstairs, the way when we created our theme was future convenient in the store. So, we have women’s health products there and next to it there is like a food or drinks. There should be oldest female health style should be considered. It shouldn’t be hidden. Because still in pharmacies in Japan menstruation product, pads and tampons are put in a corner very at the back. And when you tried to buy it, they put in paperback so you can’t see inside. And I was like, why? But so the idea is normalize it. It’s okay to have this product next to drinks and food and clothes and earrings and stuff so there are stores that are designed that way.
Tim: So, it’s a combination of developing a lifestyle brand and just getting people used to seeing and talking about FemTech products and women’s health.
Amina: Right, right. So yeah, initially we wanted to make a product, but then we realized that there’s no market. So, I think the last three years what we were doing is we’re trying to sort of cultivate the market by working with consumer, by working with business sector, bring in consumer needs, heeding consumer needs to business side, create a product, deliver the product to consumer, get a feedback, more needs, heeding needs, creating this like a cycle of FemTech creation.
Tim: Like a virtuous cycle.
Amina: Right, right.
Tim: Well, what about Government support because the Japanese government seems to be very supportive of FemTech. A number of politicians civil service have come out in support of it. They’ve talked about it, but at the embassy reception last month, you mentioned that you’d had some challenges getting devices approved in Japan.
Amina: Yeah, yeah. So, when I first started, about three or four years ago, I went to the Ministry of Health, had all this product, IOT product from abroad in a bag. And because I used to work in policy, had huge contacts, I went to the medical device department and asked them, I’m trying to get this product out in the market in Japan because of the regulation, I can’t, is there any way? And they told me unfortunately, no please come back when there’s a market. And I was thinking like, well it’s how the population, but in a way I do understand them because their role is to protect the health of people. So, they can’t just like bring in random products and bring the market approved as a medical device. So, that was a challenge. So, the existing pharmaceutical law especially, I think it’s the same in the US everywhere too, but they rely on the past cases. And if there’s no past product or like, devices being approved, no one knows how to prove this product as a medical device.
Tim: And they can’t use cases from overseas.
Amina: Not so much, but it’s getting better but not so much. So, one of the challenges that we had is all this product that we have, there’s no categories and the pharmaceutical available that we can register products under. So for example, again pelvic floor training for those who gave birth or post-menopause, people suffer for incontinence problem. Now if you train pelvic muscle, you can prevent that. This is a well-known fact for medical students, but that is not applied in pharmaceutical at all. So, there’s no category to be able to register this product as a medical device. We can sell this product as a training pelvic muscle training device, but we can never say it’s for preventing incontinence. In order to do that, it have to be registered as a medical device, but there’s no category to register in this product under.
Tim: So, how did you get around that?
Amina: Right, so the first category need to be created before the product get registered. I have to update up the law first. Then I had a contact with Mr. Noda Seiko who is leading female politician. I went up to her and I told her these are the reality, I show her the products and she got really interested. So, through the help of LDP and Ms. Noda Seiko, we created FemGiren, which is kind of like studying group with politicians and ministry people to discuss about a certain topic and identify problem. They come up with a solution kind of.
Tim: So, it was just both sides were interested enough and committed enough to take the time to find a solution.
Amina: Yeah. So, first we created Giren, which is like a study group with Noda-Sensei and Fermata helped to design the contents of the study group. Study group is a series of basically meetings. And basically based on what being discussed at meeting, we create policy recommendation we submitted to ministry economy, health and all this high level people. And based on that, a few outcome that we actually managed to get. So, one is do you know what Honebuto is? It’s like a budgeting document for Japanese government instead of whatever written on the Honebuto document, that means the government actually budget for. We manage to put FemTech on that document first. That means ministry of Economy health can actually use their people to do something around.
Tim: Also studying at a revising laws or making recommendations.
Amina: So, that was the first step we did based on the Giren’s sessions.
Tim: So, how long did it take to get to that point?
Amina: Maybe a year. That was pretty quick and about a year. And then based on that, the administrative economy started this program giving subsidies to FemTech startups as a trial to see how the industry would go. They also hired a proper consultant to calculate the market size for Japan, which also help for a lot of companies, I mean VC to invest as well. Because there’s an actual official figure for the Ministry of Economy because before we didn’t have that. And the third thing we did is we created a working group with the Ministry of Health to identify what are the flows or what are the missing point within the existing pharmaceutical law. So, what needs to be created so that tomorrow this product can be put in the market. So yeah, a lot of lobbying activities. But for the past three, four years, that’s the main thing that I’ve been doing.
Tim: It sounds like very successful lobbying activities.
Amina: I again like back to the first story, like I think we’re very lucky when it comes to timing because Noda-Sensei is one person. There are a few other, this one lady from Minister of Health was really passionate about. So, she basically let the whole movement within the Minister of Health, within the Minister of economy there are few ladies who they thinking like we have to do something about. And they brought in money, put a budget together to start doing this like subsidies program for startups. So, individuals in different sectors that not just women, men as well. Like these needs to be more explored, discussed, creating into a market for a lot of social problems the Japan face.
Tim: So, are we on the track to getting these products approved as medical devices?
Amina: Yeah. For example, this product is American product called Cat. It’s a podcast so the audience can’t see…
Tim: It’s still audio only, but…
Amina: So, how would you describe this?
Tim: I’m not sure.
Amina: Otamajakushi, what is that in English?
Tim: Tad pole.
Amina: Yeah, yeah,
Tim: Yeah. Kind of like a tad pole like in a U shape.
Amina: So, the head bit goes into vagina, so mean quite a lot of these product goes in vagina. So, what it does, it basically takes the measurements of a stickiness of vaginal fluid. And what we can do is it can predict your ovulation as well as monitor the quality of vaginal environment. Currently in Japan, the only way to find out whether if you’re ovulating or not is go to clinic, get echo or go to pharmacy, buy a stick, pee on it and then find out if you’re ovulating or not. And you have to call your partner and I’m ovulating today. And then it for both parties becomes like a job and not even like romantic anymore. Oftentimes when women’s having infertility problem, the cycle is really off track. So, using like a menstrual cycle app, it’s not also working. With this one you can actually precisely predict. 99% of the time we did a study in Tokyo University when your ovulation is months come, so you can actually plan like a hot spring trip with your partner, but also like you can actually track how your vagina is good condition or not to get pregnant.
Tim: One common theme from all of these products that you’re showing me seems to be that women can have a better understanding of their own bodies on their own terms not having to go to doctors.
Amina: Exactly, exactly right. So, this product, we actually invested in this when I was in Mistletoe for three years. The government did not know whether they go on a medical device or not. But we work with them for three years and now finally we create a new category again so that this one can get medical device. So, hopefully this year we can release this.
Tim: That’s amazing. Congratulations. So, its taken three years or so to get here.
Amina: Three years I guess a very slow start, but slowly it’s happening.
Tim: Change the law is always a slow start, I mean it seems like FemTech is coming late to Japan. But it seems that it’s being accepted very quickly. So, looking into the future, do you think that FemTech or women’s health in general is going to play out in Japan the same way it has in Europe and the US or do you see things developing differently here?
Amina: I think we’ll be different in Japan, not so much startups, but probably a lot of big companies will jump in. Medical devices, startups are not so — because we have public health insurance.
Tim: Well, that’s one of the challenges. There’s basically one buyer all of Japan for medical products.
Amina: But also we can get predict high quality healthcare for almost nothing compared to the US. So, if you look at the consumer sort of mindset, it’s cheaper for us to go to clinics than buy these devices where it’s different in the US. So, that’s why all these like LT products and wearables are a lot more, there are a lot of startups in this area in the US and not so much in Japan. Whereas the difference here is woman’s health area is out of pocket in Japan. A lot of its prevention related services only clinical ones are covered in Japan by insurance.
Tim: Plus and a lot of it’s just the women being able to know on their own.
Amina: Exactly. But then because all this startup scene is not well developed all these big companies have more resources, technologies to come up with products in these areas. So, far not so many startups, but more big companies are getting more insights through for getting insight from what’s happening in abroad, get all these ideas.
Tim: That couldn’t have be a really great opportunity for FemTech startups in Japan. If large companies are looking to get into the market and they’re trying to learn about the market, that would seem to be an ideal time for FemTech startups to be experimenting and trying new things and building a customer base.
Amina: I think for that to happen, that’s a really good point. For that to happen we need more resources, human resources, human capital resources in this industry. If you look at the west, a lot of these companies that are actually doing FemTech, the founders half of them are female, half them male and all of them are engineers or have medical background or professionals. If you look at startups, FemTech startups in Japan, not so many actually have professional background, some of them are just graduated from university. All these professionals, unfortunately are especially female, are still in big companies. And they’re not engineers, they’re not many female engineers. In order to make this product, we need to have female in the team. Male is also important. Men is also important, but like females is definitely needed to understand the users.
Tim: You’ve got to know your customers. So upside Japan, is it fairly common to have men starting FemTech startups?
Amina: Yes. And also PhD doctors. It’s been treated as just like health tech.
Tim: As it should be.
Amina: Yeah. So, but those areas are mainly like Silicon Valley, Israel, London, like again, like very open-minded advanced cities is not everywhere though.
Tim: That is interesting. And I think it’s a symptom of a larger problem. I mean Japan has one of the lowest percentage of women founders in the developed world or even in Asia. So, I guess that hits the FemTech sector particularly hard.
Amina: Right. Definitely. Definitely.
Tim: Well, actually that brings me another question. Do you think that like the rapid acceptance of FemTech is incredibly reassuring and optimistic? I’m really glad to hear that. I was actually expecting to hear a very different story. And I’m so happy I didn’t. But there’s still a lot of problems that need to be solved and I’m curious, do you think that some of the issues related to women’s health mean deeper solutions? Maybe the way that education happens in schools? Is there a deeper societal issue that needs to be addressed?
Amina: Definitely, I think there are a lot of organization now in Japan that’s trying to sort of change the way we’ve been taught, like sex education at schools. Still quite a lot of schools are separate men and women. So, the way I see is that though like these problems, it’s difficult to just solve one by one. But if this industry expands maybe as a side effects other problem will gradually get solved too. So, what FemTech is within the healthcare area, so FemTech basically symbolizes area within healthcare that for long being neglected. And that is not just women’s health, a men’s sexual wellness, AATPQ. There’s so many areas within healthcare that for societal, cultural, religious region, like there are definite hidden needs that people struggle with. But we just don’t really try to address.
Tim: I think one of the great things that you and the FemTech movement here have done is it’s given people an excuse to talk about it openly. And that is hugely important.
Amina: So, thank you. Going back to story, one of the things that I was surprised the most is how parents who have a disabled kid (mentally or physically) have to deal with periods or even sexual pleasure. If you can’t move your body as you like, then even changing pads every time is very difficult, if you can’t mentally understand your needs for sexual pleasures and all that. Like children get older if they need to somehow get it out of their system, but there’s no service or products around. So, when we are doing Isetan popup, there were quite a lot of mothers come to our store and just like stand there and talk to us. Is there any product that help my daughter to take care of her period? Or my son had need to get support on releasing his sexual needs but there’s no other product around that. And I think gradually in the US I’ve seen a few products for people like that. But I guess creating an area like a shop or a space and welcoming these people to say it’s okay to come and talk about it. Like well listen and we talk.
Tim: Yeah, that’s incredibly important. Listen Amina, before I let you go, I want to ask you what I call my magic wand question. And that is, if I gave you a magic wand and I told you that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all the education system, the way people think about women’s issues or health issues, anything at all to make it better for startups and innovation in Japan, what would you change?
Amina: I will increase the gender ratio of politicians and age as well. More women, younger politician.
Tim: How would that change things?
Amina: Well, I mean for example the last month, you know how low fertility is a challenge that is a big social issue in Japan. Lower than was it one. So, last month LDP politician came up with an idea and it was actually quite public. So, he said for those who are receiving scholarship for university, if you go back to your countryside and get married there, they would reduce the amount of payback. If you get pregnant and then give a birth there, you don’t have to pay back anymore. That mindset. So, there was a lot of things on Twitter and there was a hashtag we’re not salmon because salmon won’t go back.
Tim: We’re not salmon.
Amina: I thought it was quite funny.
Tim: I love that.
Amina: But I think these comments, policies only come because they’re not really understanding the core issue or what young people are going through or what women are going through. Like why do we have to go back countryside and give birth? To get our scholarship sort of.
Tim: Yeah. Yeah. It’s solving the wrong problem.
Amina: Exactly. And I don’t understand why that will even like get passed the LDP and then put on public like how come no one even thought that is wrong?
Tim: You think someone would’ve told him.
Amina: Right, I think that’s been a really funny example.
Tim: So, have most of the supporters and people you’ve been working with as it been driven by younger politicians and women politician?
Amina: I would say one or two. One female powerful politician, Miss Noda, and then one young male politician from Mr. Miyaji. He was actually at the embassy too.
Tim: Oh I met him. I spoke with him.
Amina: Yes. I think we need more gender diversity in the political system also in the government system too and the younger generation to be a part of that. If we talk about FemTech, fertility, women’s health, just with men, and if they’re above the age of 60, like we’re not really having anyone involved in a conversation.
Tim: It’s interesting because also I work with the ministries and the LDP on the startup side and there’s also some really energetic, younger, passionate people from the LDP working on startups. So, it seems like even though the numbers are relatively small, the younger generation is exerting a lot of influence. Slowly.
Amina: Maybe. Yeah. I guess the mindset is also very important. I think Kishida-San came up with this policy of a drastic policy on infertility. And in that document, in the summary of that, it says for everyone to have a choice of like having babies, but base of that is everyone has to get married before having a baby and then marriage has to be heterosexual marriage. So, that mindset is there, but the policy is based on that mindset. And I think younger generation don’t really agree with that anymore. So, there’s a huge gap. The policy of let’s have more, more babies to policy of let’s have more women out in the workplace, those who are not connecting and there’s nothing to sort of connect those two policies.
Tim: And there’s too many people that see those as conflicting with each other when they don’t have to.
Amina: They don’t have to. I think FemTech should be very supportive, cool working women who wants to conceive you because they actually predict.
Tim: But it sounds like you’ve gotten a lot of conversation started. You’ve gotten a lot of people talking. That’s a great thing.
Amina: Thank you.
Tim: Well, listen Amina, thank you so much for sitting down.
Amina: Thank you. Thank you.
And we’re back.
It’s really impressive how much Amina and the team at Fermata have accomplished in such a short time. Now, yes, three years sounds like a long time in the startup world. And it is. But in the world of public policy and public opinion, this is lightning speed.
And after listening to the conversation with Amina, you understand that Fermata is much more than just a startup and that FemTech in Japan is much, much more than just an investment category.
FemTech has become a way to talk about old problems as if they were something new. Presenting women’s issues in their solutions as FemTech prevents the condescending dismissals asserting that these problems don’t exist or the claims that they don’t need to be discussed because they’ve already been solved. And the speed at which this has been taken up by politicians, the media and the general public throughout Japan shows just how badly these conversations need to happen and just how ready the Japanese public is to have them.
Of course, things are still in an early stage and Japanese women have a long way to go. In almost all areas of life, the gender gap in Japan is one of the worst in the developed world. But things are changing from new laws and regulations being issued to LDP study sessions, to direct enthusiastic conversations about women’s sexual pleasure with the incredibly conservative customers and management of the Isaten Department store.
Things are changing and people like Amina give me a lot of hope.
If you want to talk about FemTech and sexual equality in Japan, Amina, and I would love to hear from you. So, come by disrupting japan.com/show205 and let’s talk about it. And hey, if you enjoy disrupting Japan, share a link online or just tell people about it. Disrupting Japan is free forever and letting people know about it is the absolute best way you can support the show.
But most of all, thanks for listening and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.
I’m Tim Romero, and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.