Parasols are peculiar things. Meaning "to ward off the sun" in Latin-based languages, these lightweight umbrellas were long ago the height of coquettish fashion in Europe. Until recently though, in Japan they were the preserve of its distinctly uncoquettish obasan.

But now, these once seriously uncool sunshades are must-have summer accessories for millions of Japanese women of all ages who, until just a year or two ago, would have blanched at the very notion.

However, it's not just the fickle finger of fashion that has pointed them to the parasol racks in pursuit of porcelain complexions. Instead, many women are increasingly concerned about health risks from ultraviolet rays at a time when holes in the Earth's UV-blocking ozone layer have become common knowledge.