Products by women for women in spotlight

PHOTO: Japan News/ANN

Products made by women and aimed at the same gender have been enjoying success recently. Product development of this kind is nothing new, but the latest efforts are particularly noteworthy as they cater to normally neglected women working in such fields as agriculture and public works projects - leading to a smaller burden and a better working environment.

Light grass trimmer

In late September at the Sanbafarm vegetable farm in Sanmu, Chiba Prefecture, Sayuri Matsushita was trying out a prerelease model of a grass trimmer. "It's light and easy on my body. This will help me in my work," she said.

The trimmer is the first one that Maruyama Mfg. Co., a Tokyo-based farming equipment manufacturer, developed for women. It was developed by "L project," a team of 13 female employees of the Maruyama Mfg. group.

"I'm delighted as it looks like the trimmer will help female agricultural workers," said Keiko Ui, the 57-year-old leader of the team.

The L project was spurred by the idea that roughly half of the people involved in agriculture are women, meaning there must be needs that are specific to women. A grass trimmer was decided as their first product since it is used by many farmers, and the team gathered feedback from women involved in agriculture. They found that women had difficulty using heavy grass trimmers designed for men.

Maruyama Mfg.'s new grass trimmer called Karuno, expected to go on sale in November, weighs just 3.9 kilograms - much lighter than traditional models. The shoulder strap was also changed to an eight-centimeter-wide strap like those used in backpacks for mountain climbing, so the load could be divided between the shoulder and hips.

"The employees involved in sales and development were all men," said Yoshizumi Ide, manager of retail store sales at Maruyama Mfg. "None of them thought of women working in the agricultural field when developing new products."

Comfy portable toilets

Last year, Osaka-based Sekisui House Ltd. brought to the market a portable toilet designed for women named Orihime Toilet. The product is based on feedback from construction site supervisors and female employees in Miyagi Prefecture who had experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The women were dissatisfied with ordinary portable toilets, complaining that they were cramped, dark, creepy and hard to use. Sekisui House's new toilet touts roughly twice as much space as traditional models, including features like a shelf for baggage and a crime-alert buzzer.

"It became something that women and children can safely use with peace of mind," said Shoko Mori, 33, who was in charge of the toilet's development.

When Orihime toilets were placed at a number of Sekisui House's construction sites, female employees at the sites were reportedly pleased.

"Conventional portable toilets were unisex and cramped, so I was using toilets at places like convenience stores," said 48-year-old Sumie Akiyama, who works at Sekisui House's Kanagawa Chuo branch. "I realised that when women work outside, having a toilet that one can use with peace of mind can make the job easier."

Waseda University Prof. Mami Taniguchi, who is well informed on the ways companies get women involved, said companies began putting together research and development teams made up of women in the 1980s - but male bosses provided the teams with instructions for development that contained vague ideas, such as "use female sensibilities when you plan." Many of these efforts failed.

However, recent "proposal-based products" to tackle problems faced by working women are becoming more evident.

"Women with the knowledge and experience necessary to do development are now taking part, and women's needs are starting to be understood with greater specificity," Taniguchi said. "I expect that products of this type will begin to appear on a number of fronts."

Broad government support

The government has also set out to encourage the development of products that encourage women to be more active.

In 2013, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry launched the "Nogyojoshi project" (agricultural women's project) to introduce women in the agricultural field to businesses, with the aim of putting the knowledge and needs of women to use in new products and services.

Nationwide, 359 agricultural women and 21 companies are taking part - and the project has led to the commercialization of products such as trucks and washing machines.

Likewise, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry in its budget request for fiscal 2016 included ¥80 million (S$930,000) for measures to promote activity by "Kensetsu-Komachi," meaning women who work in the construction industry. The ministry's intention is to provide opportunities for companies to hear the opinions of such women.

For its part, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has since fiscal 2012 been promoting - via its Diversity Management Selection 100 project - successful examples of women being involved in the development of goods and services targeted at women.Speech

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