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The country’s 60 billion yen condom industry has taken the offensive lately in a withering market, promoting a batch of new products designed to woo youths who are increasingly sexually active but reluctant to use protection.

Expecting competition to intensify further, major condom manufacturers are infusing their products with playful elements, a trend helped by a perception the health ministry has eased regulations.

In late March, Okamoto Industries Inc. started marketing “a new sensation condom” that features bumps on the surface and menthol-laced jelly.

While such condoms have been peddled by small-scale vendors as novelty items, the dominant industry leader’s move marked the first attempt to bring such products into the mainstream.

It was part of the company’s campaign to encourage young people to use condoms by appealing to their curiosity, said Toshiaki Ishii, manager of the company’s general planning section.

“Preaching won’t make young people use condoms,” Ishii said.

Since peaking at 5.12 million gross in fiscal 1980, domestic shipments have dropped off steadily, hitting 3.42 million gross in 2000, or about 8.1 percent of the 42 million gross worldwide, according to health ministry statistics. One gross equals 144 condoms.

While the decline in the number of sexually mature people is one reason for the dwindling market, the drop is steeper than the demographic change, prompting industry officials to point accusing fingers at insufficient sex education in schools.

“Rather than telling them to use condoms, we decided to tackle the reasons youths don’t use them, one by one, based on the results of consumer surveys,” Ishii said.

One of the products that came out of such efforts is Gokuatsu, literally meaning Ultra-thick, released in July 2000. Breaking with the industry assumption that thinner is better, it features 0.1-mm-thick rubber — twice that of regular condoms on the domestic market.

Targeting those suffering from premature ejaculation, Gokuatsu has turned out to be popular among young people, Ishii said.

For those who see using condoms as troublesome, the firm also offers the No Touch condom, released in January 2000. Touted as the world’s first condom that can be put on without touching it, it works like the pull-off wrappers on rice balls sold at convenience stores.

“You can put it on in one second after you get the knack of it,” Ishii said. “It can also prevent scratching from fingernails and getting hands sticky with jells.”

Fuji Latex Co. has formulated a marketing strategy around Japanese consumers’ weakness for famous brand names by featuring condom packaging adorned with the logos of designer powerhouses such as Michiko London, Kansai Yamamoto and Enrico Coveri.

“These brand designer products enjoy much better images than nondescript ones,” said company spokesman Shinya Yabe.

The company is also a pioneer in enlisting an army of fancy and cute characters for selling condoms, signing a license contract with Sanrio, the country’s largest manufacturer of character goods.

Yet, to the chagrin of Fuji Latex, Sanrio would not let its star character Hello Kitty appear on condom packages. “If we could use Kitty-chan for our condoms, we could sell big,” said company spokesman Shinya Yabe. “We would even print her on condoms themselves — we have the technological sophistication to do that.”

The company is scheduled to release a series of new products targeting youth this summer.

Playfulness is key, Yabe said, but citing trade secrecy he declined to elaborate on the products.

“We have to appeal in areas beyond the boundaries of condoms,” he said.

According to Yabe, condoms, once an embarrassment hidden in the shady corners of drug stores, came to have an enhanced commercial-product status around 10 years ago with the emergence of nationwide drug store chains like Matsumoto Kiyoshi.

These drug store chains, the sheer product variety of which draws customers, offer larger marketing venues for condoms, prompting the manufacturers to hustle to stand out among rivals.

The industrywide quest for novelty has been helped by increasingly tolerant regulation by the health ministry, which used to be strict about marketing “medical products,” industry sources said. The health ministry, however, denies there has been any change in its approval policies.

Yet one condom company official gave an account of when his firm sought approval for scented condoms. “They were like, ‘Why do we need to scent condoms? To enhance the mood? That’s none of your business.’ “

At the same time, however, condom manufacturers voice a common problem facing them: how to innovate design of a rubber sack. The last major advance came with the development of latex material some 80 years ago.

Against this backdrop, Sagami Rubber Industries is trying to position itself above the downward price pressure by distinguishing its product with different materials.

Released in February 2000, the 30-micron Sagami Original is a polyurethane condom boasting three times the strength and half the thickness of a regular latex condom.

“We are in the process of applying for a Guinness World Record as the world’s thinnest condom,” said Yujiro Konishi, company spokesman.

Urethane condoms have an advantage in that they can be used by those who are allergic to latex, Konishi said.

They are also smoother and free of the smell unique to proteins in rubber. “We are aiming for 10 percent domestic market share with this product,” he said.

The company aggressively relaunched the product in February 2000, two years after a disastrous debut.

Two months into its highly successful initial launch, the company decided to recall all products from store shelves — estimated at some 7 million in the market at the time — following the discovery of defective lots.

It was later found that the unstable electric supply situation in Malaysia had caused pinhole testers to malfunction at its factory there.

With the re-release in 2000, the company spared no effort in assuaging consumers’ concerns by conducting double checks on every product — a water-leak test as well as regular electricity checks — although such procedures reduced production capacity by up to 50 percent, according to Konishi.

Like other industry sources interviewed, he expects the competition in the market to intensify in the near future.

“There are other contraceptives and measures to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, such as pills and female condoms, on the market nowadays,” he said. “The condom suppliers are facing the challenge of how to survive this increasingly competitive situation.”

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