Japan’s condom market, which has remained virgin territory for outsiders for a long time, may be in for an Earth-moving change with the recent entry of the world’s largest brand.

Durex products, sold in more than 140 countries and thought to enjoy the top market share in more than 40 countries, started appearing on drugstore shelves last month.

Deploying aggressive mass-marketing strategies hitherto unseen here, the British brand hopes to crack the promising Japanese market by wooing the nation’s sexually active youth.

“The characteristics of the Japanese market is that there are so many brands, but there is no single dominant brand,” said Naomi Ogiso, marketing director of SSL Healthcare Japan Ltd., a Japanese unit of the British company that sells Durex.

“Consumers’ brand loyalty is low; they pick up condoms, not a particular brand they favor.”

Three types of Durex condoms are now available here: the tropical condom, featuring the smell of tropical fruits; the fetherlite condom, which is ultra-thin; and the excite condom, whose shape is said to enhance stimulation.

The firm aims to achieve 1 billion yen in sales, which would account for nearly 5 percent of the Japanese market, in the first 12 months of operations, Ogiso said.

The British firm conducted a yearlong marketing trial through the summer in Shizuoka Prefecture, where it captured a 5.3 percent share of drugstore condom sales.

Upon the nationwide release of Durex products, the company launched TV commercials in mid-October, a practice rarely undertaken by domestic brands in Japan, with TV stations here only allowing condom commercials to be aired at late hours.

In promoting Durex here, the company has used the same brand marketing policy as the rest of the world: to encourage condom use by making sex a topic of dinner-table conversation.

Durex’s Sperm men characters have also been enlisted for the Japan initiative.

It is, however, a challenging task.

“Compared with Western countries, sex is treated as a taboo,” Ogiso said. “We are trying to change that, by saying sex is a fun thing, not to be hidden.”

The Japanese condom market is a promising one for the company, given the high percentage of condom use in the country.

According to an SSL survey conducted on 400 men and women aged 16 and 55 in September, three out of five followed the practice of using condoms.

“But HIV infection is on the rise here, and awareness of sexually transmitted diseases among youngsters is low,” Ogiso said.

Meanwhile, the country’s largest condom maker, Okamoto Industries Inc., claimed it is not particularly concerned about the global giant’s entry into the market.

Okamoto said it hopes the move will stimulate interest in condoms among the nation’s youth.

The company’s weapon is its razer-thin condom, a product of its long-term devotion to creating products designed to maximize sensation.

Okamoto announced recently it will launch one of the thinnest condoms in the world this month.

Dubbed 003, the condom boasts a thickness of just 0.03 mm. The Durex fetherlite meanwhile has a thickness of 0.055 mm, according to an SSL catalog.

“Our basic concept since the establishment of the company is that the condom is the only contraceptive used by men, but they prefer not to use them,” said Toshiaki Ishii, general manager of Okamoto’s planning department.

“So, we have been working to produce thinner and softer condoms to coax men to wear them.”

Ishi said he has yet to fathom the impact of Durex’s entry into the Japanese market, where Okamoto products account for more than 40 percent. He said, however, that the accompanying media and public attention may help expand the shrinking condom market.

“We have a technological edge,” he said. “We will counter the foreign brands with our technological prowess.”

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