Sportswear in Japan: functional or fashion statement?

By Melissa Francis

Tokyoesque are experts in Europe-Japan relations and provide clients with unique cultural insights that can be used to accelerate business growth across the globe. In this post, in light of the upcoming major sports events taking place in Japan (Rugby World Cup 2019 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games), we provide our insights on the Japanese sportswear market, and present where opportunities for foreign brands.

The lowdown on sports participation in Japan

It’s true that sports such as baseball have long been popular in Japan, but this has generally been more in terms of spectatorship than physical participation. With the exception of extra-curricular activities at schools, and professional teams, sports that focus on individual goals maintain their position as being most popular among everyday citizens.

A 2016 national sports participation survey released by the Sasakawa Sports Foundation found that strolling, walking, calisthenics and weight training were the most preferred activities. At first, these might seem to be one symptom of an ageing Japan, but in fact participation in these types of exercise are consistent across all age groups and genders. On the other hand, the survey tells us that teenagers are more likely to play team sports like baseball, volleyball and soccer than other demographics.

What does Japan’s sportswear market look like?

According to a survey by Yano Research, the domestic leisurewear market in Japan was valued at $4.2 billion USD in 2018, whilst the outdoor wear market was worth more than double that at $9.7 billion USD. This represents a 110% year-on-year growth from the same period in 2017. More specifically, sports apparel as a wider category was worth an estimated $5.2 billion USD in 2018.

If we explore the local sports footwear sector, we can see that it’s one third of the size of the market in South Korea, and a quarter of the size of the market in China. In value terms, sports footwear in Japan is worth around $3.5 billion USD (23% of which is for casual wear only, and the remaining 77% of which is sports shoes for taking part in sports activities).

Source: Adobe

Japanese sportswear manufacturers have been trying to increase market share by focusing on lifestyle wear instead of functional sportswear with performance-enhancing features, as sports fashion experiences an upturn in popularity among local consumers. This is markedly different from NPD Japan’s figures which look at sports shoes only. These numbers tell us that local consumers are likely to be more discerning when it comes to making decisions around footwear purchases compared with other types of sports clothing.

The Yano Research report also echoes the sentiment that Japanese enthusiasm around sports is expected to surge between 2019 and 2020, in large part owing to the international sporting events due to take place. Naturally, as we’ve seen with previous Olympic and Paralympic Games, many people will be inspired to take up or increase their participation in physical activities. Therefore, ensuring that there is wide availability to suit varying requirements and levels of professional use will be key.

What trends are we seeing in Japan’s sportswear sector?

Sports mix (スポーツミックス)

Sports mix is a style that incorporates sports apparel with other types of clothing as part of a fashion coordination. This was most popular for a few years up until around 2017. Although it can still be seen across Japan, it’s perhaps not as extensive nowadays. In terms of most attractive foreign brands, Adidas and Nike have remained firm favourites when it comes to putting together fashionable sports coordinations.

The Sports mix trend has now been replaced with, or rather morphed into, athleisure (a portmanteau of ‘athletic’ and ‘leisure’).

Athleisure (アスレジャー)

The athleisure style was originally a concept born in the US and has gained a surge of popularity having been championed by the likes of influencers such as Kendall Jenner and yoga wear brand lululemon. It is a unisex trend, but especially favoured by female demographics in Japan. Like sports mix, athleisure is laid-back and casual look, but the key difference between them is that athleisure incorporates a higher proportion of sports apparel. If the concept behind sports mix was simply to accessorise regular clothes with one or two items of sports apparel, then athleisure is the inverse and focuses on presenting more of a sporty look with more subtle undertones of regular leisurewear.

Still, if we compare the value of the athleisure market in Japan with that of China or South Korea, it remains marginal despite the increase in popularity. lululemon found success in Japan by replicating its strategy in the US and using professional athletes and yoga instructors as brand ambassadors instead of celebrities to market products. During 2018, lululemon’s operating margin was 5% higher than Nike’s at 17%.

Mama Coordination (ママコーデ)

There is a trend among Japanese mothers in their 20s and 30s in which outfits are put together with the idea of being stylish yet practical. This trend doesn’t revolve solely around sportswear, but sneakers are one of the central aspects of this concept. It certainly makes sense to choose clothing that allows for greater flexibility. Unlike sports mix and athleisure though, mama coordination focuses more on positioning sports shoes and accessories as the crux of the style, rather than gravitating towards sports-branded tops and trousers. Converse, Nike, and New Balance are three of the most popular choices so far in 2019.

Source: 39 Mag / Benesse

What are some of the notable brands in the Japanese sportswear market?

By value, Nike, Adidas and Under Armour are the top-performing brands in the Japanese market, followed by domestic brand ASICS. So, there is a clear lean towards international names, albeit those that are renowned worldwide. These brands may be dominating the market, but there are niches that foreign brands can penetrate that will encourage more people to take up new sports, or to boost their current performance.

One ranking, based on a total of 30.2 million customer reviews, positions the following brands in the top five as of May 2019:

  1. Puma
  2. Roxy
  3. Adidas
  4. The North Face
  5. Nike


NERGY Japan is a dedicated sports fashion outlet that represents an active and comfortable lifestyle. The brand’s social media posts label coordinations with hashtags like #スポーツミックス (sports mix), #ナイキ女子 (Nike Women), and #スポーツ女子 (Sports Women). The official website states, ‘the fusion of refined fashion and sport in line with the lifestyles of Japanese women is the new standard for women today.’ NERGY Japan also provides style coordination recommendations for combining their items with those of other brands, including Nike.

Source: NERGY Japan

Pearly Gates

Pearly Gates is a fashionable golf wear brand run by TSI Groove & Sports Co. It’s currently celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019. The brand also offers a selection of other visually bold designs in the leisurewear category. Golf is a fairly popular recreational sport in Japan, not only among company executives but equally among groups of young Japanese women. Pearly Gates has also found a solid consumer base in Hong Kong and China.

Source: Partee Golf

ABC Mart

Japanese shoe retailer ABC Mart announced in 2017 that it would focus on athleisure options for customers by opening fifty new dedicated stores throughout the country before 2020, which demonstrated a significant demand for athleisure stores that aren’t combined with regular sportswear ranges. The new stores are called ABC-Mart SPORTS and as of May 2019, there are a total of twenty-one locations across Japan, which puts them almost halfway towards the original goal.

Source: Itami City


Around the same time, globally renowned retailer UNIQLO opened a dedicated sports fashion store called ‘UNIQLO MOVE’ in Shibuya, Tokyo. The offering seeks to support the movements of everyday life, help people stay active and comfortable, and encourage them to ‘live more positively’.

Source: UNIQLO

Men’s running wear gets the fashion treatment

A large proportion of Japanese men purchasing clothes for running are opting for the shorts and leggings combination. There has definitely been a move towards fashionable items that are also functional. Again, Nike and Adidas are two brands that are mentioned often within this scene as they have released various leggings suitable for city running. There are a number of Japanese websites that offer specific recommendations on how to successfully coordinate a fashionable sports look. These types of step-by-step guides are often welcomed as they provide solid starting points from which to develop a unique style.

With summer almost in full swing, one thing to note is that in Japan, people tend to be averse to being exposed to even the smallest amount of UV rays, so they will often wear more layers in order to avoid tanning or sunburn. For this reason, as well as for fashion purposes, sunglasses, leggings and baseball caps remain popular sports attire.


What’s in it for international sports brands?

As with anything, in order to get a more nuanced picture of what’s going on from a cultural perspective, sportswear brands would benefit most from exploring this concept through in-depth qualitative research. Understanding what really makes this segment of Japan’s consumer market tick can make a huge difference to engagement levels.

After all, it’s the small things as well as the ability to tap into growing trends and paying attention to detail that can have the greatest impact in Japan. Given the trend towards fashionable sportswear, it would be important to place an emphasis on how clothing can enhance overall lifestyle. Which emotional benefits can you associate with your offering?

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Tokyoesque specialises in providing Japanese consumer insights to western brands who wish to enter/expand in the Japanese market. Whether you’re looking to make an initial entry into the market, revitalise your brand’s existing presence in Japan, or localise your overall strategy to resonate with Japanese consumers, Tokyoesque can work with you to realise your objectives.

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