When Chiho Higo started teaching stock trading at a Tokyo night school in 2008, there were often no female attendees. Now there are 50. One mother said she bought shares in a toymaker instead of toys for her child.

“If there was a woman, she usually looked like she’d wound up there by accident,” Higo, a 36-year-old lecturer, said in an interview in her classroom at Tokyo’s Financial Academy. “Now in some lessons, it’s like a girls’ night out.”

That’s welcome news to Japanese institutions that have struggled to entice women to invest in stocks, no easy task in a market that has returned 1 percent a year for three decades.

Now, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hoping share appreciation will help revive the economy and the Topix index coming off its best annual rally since 1999, the Tokyo Stock Exchange and its members are pushing everything from gifts to free cake to spread the gospel.

“Women are key to the long-term sustainability of the Japanese stock market,” said Kazuhiko Yoshimatsu, head of investor and media relations at Japan Exchange Group Inc., which operates the bourse. “We’re seeing more working women in Japan, so I’d expect an increase in their financial planning needs as well.”

They’re already investing more. Female clients held 24 percent of online accounts at Matsui Securities Co. at the end of March, an all-time high, and opened 31 percent of new ones in the fiscal year ended that month. Of the new accounts created, 46 percent of those held by women were used to make trades, compared with 43 percent of accounts held by men.

The exchange’s campaign coincides with efforts by Abe to boost female employment as well as the number of women in leadership roles at companies and in politics. The rewards for success could be huge: while the bourse does not have data on female buying of shares, in a poll it commissioned last year, just one in five women in their 30s or 40s said they knew the first thing about stocks.

Getting women interested in equities hasn’t been easy in Japan, where inducements that would risk alienating investors elsewhere are becoming standard practice.

For instance, the exchange says offering gifts helps attract women to equities. Star Mica Co., a Tokyo-based real estate investor, gives cosmetics to its shareholders. Hokkaido Gas Co., which the prefecture from its headquarters in Sapporo, provides 2 kilograms of rice with its shares.

Such perks, spanning everything from discount coupons to toilet paper, are known as “yutai” in Japanese, and were used by a record 30 percent of the 3,788 listed companies in the country as of the end of April, according to Nomura Investor Relations Co., a unit of the nation’s largest brokerage.

Yoshimatsu at the bourse says many women in Japan invest with a view to getting dividends and free products or discounts, rather than capital gains. Women, who do the supermarket shopping in most households, can be swayed by free rice and shampoo, he said.

Kazuko Onami, a 61-year-old housewife who is a fan of the approach, said that she buy stocks of “companies that are reasonably priced and give out products and discounts with their shares.”

She also uses coupons from a restaurant chain she invested in to eat at a steakhouse with her brother, she said.

Yoshiko Sato, the chief research fellow at Japan Investor Relations Association and author of books on IR strategies, said such approaches can be effective in getting women interested.

“Companies find it easier to predict the characteristics of women than men when it comes to attracting individual investors,” Sato said. “Generally speaking, more women than men in Japan prefer to shop and do leisure activities, so you can predict they’re going to react more to yutai.”

Among more recent initiatives, the TSE named an equity seminar “Nadeshiko Investing for Women,” borrowing the nickname of Japan’s 2011 World Cup-winning women’s soccer team. It has held at least five similar events since the start of 2013, attracting about 500 attendees after advertising with pink pamphlets in women’s business magazines and offering cakes and cookies to anyone who showed up.

The exchange is seeking a more committed investor base in a market where foreigners account for most of the trading. Its timing may be right. More women have cash at hand after their numbers in the workforce increased to record numbers last year, and keeping that money in banks is becoming less attractive as the Bank of Japan’s attempts to spur inflation start to work.

Women may be investing more “because the media is focusing more on the stock market due to ‘Abenomics,’ ” said Ryo Matsui, a spokesman for Matsui Securities, Japan’s third-biggest online brokerage.

The Topix surged 51 percent last year as Abe and the BOJ added stimulus to the economy to beat deflation.

Even though they’re increasing, women remain a minority within a minority among owners of Japanese stocks. Local individual investors of both genders made up 24 percent of share trading by value in Japan last month, with foreigners accounting for 67 percent, TSE data show.

In a poll of 10,000 individual investors commissioned by the Tokyo bourse last year, just 22 percent of women in their 30s and 40s said they knew anything about equities, less than half the number for men.

Women expressing no interest in shares said market jargon put them off, as well as a sense that investing in stocks equated to day-trading and could bring big losses.

Women have a smaller pot of investable income. In a survey commissioned by the Japan Securities Dealers Association in November on individual buyers of Japanese stocks, investment trusts and public bonds, 76 percent of women said they earned less than ¥3 million a year, compared with just 25 percent of men. The average woman’s wage in Japan was ¥2.7 million in 2012, compared with ¥5 million for men, according to the National Tax Agency.

The Topix is still about 58 percent below the 1989 peak reached before an asset bubble burst. Memories linger of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the technology crash at the turn of the century and a plunge in smaller Japanese companies after a 2006 raid on Internet service provider Livedoor Co. for suspected violation of securities regulations.

The Financial Academy’s Higo isn’t buying the bourse’s theories that women care less about investment returns and trail men in knowledge about stocks.

“Women want capital gains, dividends and the extra products that come with holding shares,” she said. “They don’t know any less than men. It used to be seen as bad manners for women to talk about money. Now they see it as a tool and are using it.”

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