Businesses court women who like spending time alone

by Mie Sakamoto

After shying away from eating in restaurants and staying at hotels by themselves, Japanese women are beginning to seek more time alone.

Japanese businesses are setting out the welcome mat for this group of savvy consumers with money to burn.

“I don’t mind spending my money on services that satisfy me,” said Mayuko Shimoda, a 31-year-old woman who manages a Web design firm. She does not hesitate to open her wallet as long as she gets what she wants.

Shimoda often dines out alone or treats herself to massages to relieve stress.

“Of course, I often go out with my friends and boyfriend,” she said. “But I always feel the need to have some time to spend by myself and not be bothered by anyone.”

Women who prefer to spend time alone regardless of their marital status are known in Japan as “ohitorisama,” a polite word that refers to a single customer.

The late journalist Kumiko Iwashita gave a new meaning to the old term by defining ohitorisama as “an independent woman who knows how to spend time by herself.”

Iwashita set up a group in 1999 to support ohitorisama.

The number of women who joined the group via its Web site, which introduces ohitorisama-friendly businesses, has reached about 2,000 since its launch in 2002, group representative Kaori Haishi said.

“The number of women who find dining and staying at a hotel alone enjoyable has increased as many of them started working and earning money,” Haishi said. “They can freshen up their bodies and spirits by placing themselves in a special environment at such places as restaurants and bars.”

The Seifu Meigetsu wine and dining bar values ohitorisama as well as other customers. Females often visit the bar, which opened last year in Tokyo’s Ginza district, alone after work.

“I feel that my female customers who come here by themselves are looking for a place with a special atmosphere,” bar manager Junichi Kiyosawa said.

He said such women often tell him that they are looking for somewhere they can comfortably eat and drink even if they are alone.

Other business sectors are also courting ohitorisama.

An average 6.1 percent of women aged 25 to 39 told a Japan Travel Bureau Foundation survey that they had traveled alone between 2000 and 2002, up from 3.9 percent in the previous three-year period.

Mihoko Kubota, a researcher at the foundation, attributed the rise to a change in attitude at accommodation facilities.

“In the past, many Japanese-style hotels refused to accept a woman who sought to stay there without a companion because they thought it was unprofitable and were afraid that she might commit suicide,” she said.

“But they have started to drop that kind of thinking.”

The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo started offering a “For Myself” plan last year to meet the growing demand from women who want a single room.

The hotel has been offering arrangements for women who want to stay in groups of two or three for some time. It launched the new plan after realizing that about a third of women who booked such group plans were staying at the hotel by themselves, a hotel spokeswoman said.

The hotel offers up to 10 rooms per day for women wanting to book the plan, which costs 27,000 yen per stay. It has received favorable reviews from customers.

The spokeswoman said the rooms are often taken by women who want to rejuvenate themselves or stay for business trips.

The hotel allows customers to pick either a spacious room or a room with a good view, and provides services such as discounts for beauty treatments.

Haishi said this shows that more women are moving away from materialism and seeking personal fulfillment.

“Companies started to recognize that women will pay for services that satisfy them,” Haishi said. “Although it tends to be thought that (they are) less profitable than groups, businesses will benefit from ohitorisama in the long term as women have potential to provide free advertising via word of mouth.”