In recent years, “FemTech” has attracted a lot of attention and the international market for sexual wellness products has grown continuously. However, sex is still considered a taboo subject by many. The extensive challenges that the Japanese sexual wellness company TENGA faces in its daily work clearly reflect these social prejudices. In our current Deep Dive interview, we talked to Satoshi Chatani, the President of TENGA Europe GmbH, the European branch of the company that shipped a total of over 100 million products at the end of last year. From the foundation of the company, the comparison between the Japanese and German markets to the future – Chatani openly shared his challenges and thoughts with us.
J-BIG: Mr. Chatani, can you please introduce your company? For those who don’t know TENGA yet.
Satoshi Chatani: Our business consists of two main pillars: First, we develop, produce and sell sexual wellness and health products. Secondly, we educate people about sex and disease prevention. We offer a wide range of products that are safe, hygienic and functional while looking stylish. In doing so, we are careful to design products that are clearly different from conventional sex toys so that they can be placed visibly in rooms, either matching the interior design or looking like decoration.
This innovative design is one reason for the outstanding awareness in Japan: 85.7 percent of men and 63.4 percent of women know our brand. The company name itself is derived from the Japanese word “Tenga”, which means “elegant and refined”. The name represents our commitment to quality and our ambition to modernise the industry image.
Our vision has not changed since the founding. We want to make the topic of sex more visible and something that everyone can enjoy – with the aim that we can all talk about it openly. To this end, we are also committed as a company to being at the forefront and taking the initiative to spread the right information. Our headquarters are located Azabu Juban, a district of Tokyo with quite a glamorous image. Our European office in Düsseldorf is located on Immermannstraße, a very lively district also known as “Little Tokyo”. Our CEO places very high value on the location of the company.
J-BIG: What is the founding history of TENGA?
Satoshi Chatani: Before our CEO Koichi Matsumoto founded TENGA, he worked as a mechanic for supercars and classic cars. For a while, he was also a seller of used cars. However, he could not suppress his longing for “monozukuri (creation)” and decided to leave his former company in his early 30s. Our CEO is a creative person with great creative power who reminds me of greats like Picasso or Van Gogh. He is a leader with great vision. I can still remember the story of him visiting different shops such as electronics, stationery and DIY stores to gather ideas for new products when he started his own business. While doing so, he thought to himself: “Myself and all my friends around me like to masturbate, so why are we so resistant to products made for that purpose? ” From then on he started researching products for masturbation, developed prototypes and founded the company TENGA in March 2005. Today, we continue to develop products to create a feeling of satisfaction that people have never experienced before – we are currently pursuing this goal with around 200 employees working for the entire global group.
J-BIG: Please tell us more about TENGA’s products.
Satoshi Chatani: We aim to provide products and services for all kinds of people, regardless of gender, age (where appropriate), sexuality, ethnicity or bodily ability, as well as products for solo and coupled use. We also sell clothes, energy drinks and condoms in Japan. Although the customer base is primarily young people in their twenties and thirties, we are basically targeting seniors in the same way. In fact, 60 percent of people over 60 we have surveyed, report high levels of sexual appetite. So there is also a lot of demand in this age group.
For men, we offer two types of products: Disposable or reusable. The best-known product is the “Original Vacuum Cup”, a disposable product. In July of the founding year, it was launched as our debut and was a hit, with a total of 1 million units shipped in just one year. The reusable, multi-use products that came later are hygienic as they can be easily washed with water and dried. Many of them are highly functional, so you can control suction or temperature, for example. Through licensing agreements, we also sell products that feature designs by artists such as Keith Haring. For people with physical limitations who, for example, have weak grip strength and cannot masturbate, we have also developed self-help devices that allow them to handle our products even with their lower grip strength.
The “iroha” product series for women is developed and designed by our female employees under the theme “Japanese modernity”. The Japanese word “iroha” is synonymous with the letter sequence “abc” in the alphabet. As far as visitors to erotic shops are concerned, in Europe 80 per cent of the products offered there are for women, while in Japan the ratio is reversed and most products are for men. The brand name for the female product line was chosen to reflect the desire to make masturbation products as accessible and familiar as possible to women in Japan. The products are kind on skin-contact with a smooth silicone exterior, and provide a soft, cushiony touch with our unique “pudding gel” material, that both combine to provide a sensation that is more intimate for the user. The recently launched disposable “iroha petit” is made from environmentally friendly materials such as water and agar. The products can be used for a long period of time by recharging or replacing the batteries.
In Japan, we also develop health products that are used in the medical and social sectors. For example, our training products such as the “Men’s Training Cup”, a training tool for people suffering from premature or delayed ejaculation that can be caused by issues such as improper masturbation, the “Timing Trainer”, which strengthens control over sexual physical functions, and the “Men’s Loupe” – a product for use with smartphones with an accompanying app, that lets men observe their sperm, and check their own fertility. In addition, we launched a sexuality education website “Seicil” in 2019 to provide information to middle and high school students.
Sex is still considered a taboo subject at the moment. I think this is a general problem in Japan and Europe. If we can talk openly about sexual topics, it can also lead to early detection of testicular cancer and diseases of the sensitive area – so we realise how important it is to create opportunities to share information. Our products are already being used in sexual rehabilitation. They help patients regain a sense of stimulation after strokes or other incidents. That’s why we also conduct research every year in collaboration with universities and hospitals in Germany and other countries like Spain and Belgium.
J-BIG: Are all Japanese products also sold abroad?
Satoshi Chatani: Yes, almost all of them. Basically, we import and sell the same products from Japan worldwide. In total, we have 205 products in Japan and 154 in Europe, and the sales ratio between Japan and abroad is almost 50:50. Among the foreign markets, the US and China are the biggest markets, with our disposable products selling the best. In Europe, however, many people choose our reusable products and those made of more environmentally friendly materials, due to higher consciousness around the environment.
J-BIG: How has your business developed in Germany?
Satoshi Chatani: In 2018, TENGA Europe GmbH was founded in Düsseldorf. We currently have 10 employees, including field sales, and supply 35 countries from our European location. Before opening the office, sales activities were outsourced to sales agents for 10 years. Fortunately, our business grew and the number of our sales representatives increased to 19. Over time, however, managing our distribution channels became more difficult, so we came to the realisation that we needed our own company here on site. Even then, the distributors covered several countries and the challenge was, for example, that the products were sold at different prices, which required a certain degree of price uniformity. Eliminating these differences was my first task when I joined the company.
Currently, we continue to sell to adult shops through a few distributors, while expanding sales directly to Amazon and other online retailers, drugstores, petrol stations, department stores, clinics and other general distribution channels. Annual sales in Germany account for about a quarter of our European total sales.
J-BIG: Do you feel that Europe is open to sex issues?
Satoshi Chatani: I have the impression that people in Spain and France are particularly open in Europe. Germany, which is known for opening Beate Uhse, the first erotic shop in the world, after the Second World War, is of course also a pioneer in this area. However, there is still a conservative mood not only in Germany but also in other countries. We have experienced, for example, that we were refused to sponsor a well-known event and we had great difficulties in renting real estate.
J-BIG: Why did you decide to set up an office in Germany as your European headquarters?
Satoshi Chatani: When we first came to Europe, we considered Berlin, London, Amsterdam and Paris, but had high hurdles to overcome everywhere to be able to sign a lease. In the end, we chose Düsseldorf because I myself have lived in Germany for more than 30 years and could use the network of my previous employer. Another important factor was the fact that the city is located almost in the middle of Europe and is considered very convenient for transport. Fortunately, I also got help from friends. We were allowed to move in because TENGA has a stylish approach; not only in the office décor, but in the overall branding. For example, we don’t show naked bodies.
J-BIG: How do you work with Japan?
Satoshi Chatani: Europe’s role is basically to report on sales activities and market research, but the scope of our work has gradually expanded with the growth of overseas sales. Before the Corona crisis, I used to travel to Japan twice a year to attend management and strategy meetings, but this has changed in recent years. We have also introduced home office for some employees in the German branch.
In March this year, I was finally able to return to Japan. I was lucky that I entered the day after the quarantine restrictions for people entering from Germany were lifted.
J-BIG: Have other things changed because of the Corona crisis, apart from not being able to return to Japan for a long time?
Satoshi Chatani: As the time we spend at home has grown during the pandemic, we are often told that the sex toy industry is stable. In fact, our bottom line has grown steadily, albeit without big jumps. But while sales in online adult shops and on e-commerce sites like Amazon have increased dramatically, there have also been some shocking events, such as the closure of sex shops around the world or the death of a business partner who supported us for many years.
J-BIG: What are your visions and plans for the future?
Satoshi Chatani: First of all, we urgently need to further expand our mainstream distribution channels. We don’t yet have a TENGA Store in Europe like the one in Hankyu Men’s Department Store in Yurakucho, Tokyo, but we have noticed that there is demand especially in the UK, Spain and Denmark, so we are planning to develop pop-up stores, concept stores and aroma wellness stores.
In addition, we will continue to develop products that give people a ‘wow’ experience, surprise and delight. To achieve this, we will always be ready to take on challenges, act professionally and respect the unique personalities of our employees, customers and all other stakeholders with joy. Only with passion we are capable of changing society. In this spirit, we are committed to enriching the sexual lives of people around the world and creating “a world overflowing with love and freedom”.