Heat-Not-Burn Across the Globe: Japan
In part 1 of this 3-part series, we looked at the Heat-Not-Burn industry in Canada. Today we’re going to be looking at the Heat-Not-Burn industry in Japan.
Now as you already know, HnB is incredibly popular in Asia. Most of the devices originate there and the best HeatStick flavors are almost always from there. George, the creator of Heat180, was first introduced to HnB while on a business trip to Japan and over time he’s watched as HnB products have become stronger and more profitable contenders in the Japanese tobacco market. HnB’s success in the Japanese market makes us hopeful that one day it can become a viable harm reduction option for people around the globe. So we chose to go to Japan to see just how visible HnB actually is.
Is Heat-Not-Burn Popular in Japan?
Short answer? Yes! Absolutely!
While on this trip I traveled from Osaka, to Hiroshima, to Kyoto, and finally to Tokyo and I found HnB in every city!
My first day in Japan was in Osaka. I left my hotel with the intention of going to the IQOS store in Shinsaibashi Shopping District. To get there I had to walk a couple blocks to reach a subway station. I didn’t expect to see anything related to HnB before reaching the store, but all of the sudden I looked up and saw a billboard on the side of a building advertising IQOS! Outside of the store there were 4 or 5 vending machines that also sold IQOS, as well as other HnB products (good luck reading the instructions though if your not fluent in Japanese).
I soon discovered that this is not an uncommon sight in Japan. There are advertisements for IQOS, GLO, and Ploom everywhere. Vending machines that accept credit card are pretty populous (check out our vending machine gallery below) and many retailers (convenience stores, department stores, duty free, tobacconists, etc.) sell both HeatSticks and HnB kits. That’s not to mention, that there are actual retail locations for some of the bigger HnB brands like IQOS and GLO.
It seems like HnB brands are pretty evenly represented in Japan. The ads and vending machines tend to be in little clusters, so if you find an IQOS ad, you’ll probably find a GLO ad and a Ploom ad beside it. The one big thing I noticed though is that this applies only to big tobacco HnB products. Smaller brands like JOUZ and Koken (both of which are manufactured in Japan) are often not visible.
This is likely a result of HnB having primarily been introduced by big tobacco. Companies like Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, and Japan Tobacco are established names in the industry. They already have huge consumer bases which help to fund their advertisements, vending machines, and retail locations. And the more of these things they offer, the more convenient it becomes for consumers to keep buying big tobacco products. Your device’s blade broke during your morning commute and you only have ten minutes left to get to work? Run into that 7/11 on the corner and buy an IQOS. Ran out of HeatSticks unexpectedly and can’t wait to ship new ones? There’s a Ploom vending machine a block away. It probably doesn’t help that most smaller companies use branded HeatSticks in their devices anyways. When we visited various retail locations for the big name tobacco brands, we noticed that alot of people do one-stop shopping. At least that way you don’t have to wait for shipping.
After taking some pictures, I continued on my way to the Shinsaibashi IQOS store. Shinsaibashi is kind of like a mall, but it’s open-air, meaning that there is a long corridor of stores with a walkway running through the middle. The IQOS store was about half-way through the corridor, and was pretty minimal looking with a silver design on the front. I was surprised to see that unlike in Canada (where the IQOS stores are called Q-Lab’), the store had a sign saying ‘IQOS.’ Also unlike Canada, there were representatives standing at the front door asking to see ID. In Canada, you are asked upon entering the store, but there is no one guarding the door. This may be because Shinsaibashi is such a busy district with ALOT of foot traffic into the store (it took me around 20 tries to get this picture because so many people were there and they kept walking in front of me).
The store itself, doesn’t look that different from what you see in Canada. The inside has a sleek, modern, and clean design. There are numerous display cases with IQOS devices and accessories. The store is quite tiny. Tinier than even the Canadian store we visited, but it seems like it’s efficient. There were alot of people in the store with quite a few buying things.
If you don’t want to brave the crowds that you get in stores, but need a more personalized experience than what a vending machine can give, going to a convenience store is another option. Now let me explain something about Japan. In Japan, convenience stores are a way of life. You ever heard those jokes about there being a 7/11 on every block in Asia? True. At least in Japan it is. And the convenience stores are so much better there. Anyway, convenience stores are a great place to buy HnB products. I found that most convenience stores sold devices and HeatSticks from the big three HnB brands (IQOS, GLO, and Ploom). I only purchased at 7/11 because I found they had the widest selection of products and were most consistent in what they sold, meaning that as I traveled from Osaka to Kyoto to Tokyo, no matter what city I was in, if I went to a 7/11 I could always find the exact same products that I had found in other cities.
I also found that convenience stores offered new products just as quickly as the official branded stores. When I was in Japan, the Marlboro Tropical Menthol HeatSticks had just been released and GLO was just about to release new devices. There were alot of displays for both.
Having HnB in convenience stores, makes it so… for lack of a better word, convenient for users! I think this easy accessibility is part of the reason that HnB is so successful in Japan.
There are alot of other stores that sell HnB products as well. We don’t have a name for these types of stores in North America, because we don’t really have them. The closest thing I can compare them to is Big Lots or Giant Tiger. A discount store that sells everything; food, cosmetics, luggage, household goods, seasonal decor, and tobacco/nicotine products.
The store I went to had about 8 floors on it, and the 8th floor was dedicated solely to tobacco/nicotine products, including traditional cigarettes, vapes, and HnB. Even though this was a discount store, there wasn’t a huge difference in price for the items from what you’d pay in other retail locations. Usually you would save the tax, but even that had limitations, like having to spend a certain amount first. For IQOS HeatSticks, which seemed to be one of the most popular HnB items, there was, at most, a $5USD savings if you bought them at the discount store vs. at an official IQOS store.
Even in the discount store there were attendants there to assist customers with anything they needed. The store I went to, which was in Ikebukuro, Tokyo had bilingual employees available, for those that don’t speak Japanese.
In fact, almost all retail locations we went to offered knowledgeable attendants. After visiting the discount store I went to a tobacconist in Ginza, Tokyo to see what products they offer. The tobacconist I went to offered IQOS, GLO, and Ploom devices. No one in the store spoke English, but they had many English promotional pamphlets from the manufacturers to explain the different types of devices, HeatStick flavors, accessories, etc. (check them out below). The attendants tried their best despite the language barrier and judging on how they interacted with other customers, it seemed like they were very well-versed in HnB products. The prices were, once again, the same as what I could find elsewhere.
Lastly, I decided I would check out a few official HnB stores. My first stop was at the GLO store near Ginza. This was the first GLO store I had ever visited since we don’t have GLO retail locations in Canada. The store was quite tiny. Tinier than any of the IQOS stores I had been in, and smaller than most of the tobacconists as well. The store was cube shaped, with a desk and cash register behind which about 4-5 brand representatives stood, some display cases, and a small seating area for consultations or device maintenance. The store was sleek but bright and very happy feeling.
There was only one other person in the store when I arrived so the attendants quickly came over to me and asked how they could assist. Strangely, unlike the previous HnB stores I had been to, no one asked to see my ID at GLO. There was a bilingual brand representative on staff so she took me through the store to show me the displays, new items, and the HeatStick selection. There wasn’t a huge selection of items, but there were some limited edition device colors as well as some GLO accessories I had never seen available before. The reps were great at answering all my questions. It was obvious they were very knowledgeable about the products they were selling.
One thing I was glad to see was that the store offered a free trial of the GLO HeatSticks (NeoStiks) flavor of your choosing, just like IQOS does. This was for existing GLO users as well as prospective users. Overall, the GLO store was cool to see and did offer a positive experience. It’s definitely not as personalized, nor as posh, as the IQOS store experience, but at least there are GLO stores in Japan, unlike most other countries, where IQOS is the only HnB brand with physical retail locations. As I browsed through the store, more and more customers arrived. This showed me that GLO is indeed popular and a store is a good way to draw in, as well as keep customers.
And that brings us to the last destination I visited, the Ginza, Tokyo IQOS store. This place was a pain to find, but once I got there it was well worth the trouble. This is by far the grandest HnB store I’ve ever seen! The building is two floors with the first floor being for sales and the second floor having a member cafe, lounge, and technical repair centre. There’s a very natural feel to the store design as there are plants and greenery walls scattered throughout the store.
Since the store was much bigger than the two IQOS stores I had visited previously visited, the sales floor layout was a bit different. There were the usual display cases but there were also learning centres and an accessory station.
When I first arrived to the store there were numerous brand representatives available to help immediately. The first rep who approached me did not speak English and I do not speak Japanese, but soon after another rep, who was bilingual, was directed towards me. He gave me a general tour of the store and answered my many questions.
Firstly, we looked at the device display cases, then at the accessory station. The accessory station is such a fun addition that I haven’t yet seen in a HnB manufacturer store. It’s a little area where you can mix and match different colored accessories with your personal device so that you can design a customized look that works for you.
Then we moved on to the learning centres. The learning centres were areas that explained what the purpose of HnB is, how it works, and demonstrates the difference between it and traditional smoking. There was even a device that burns a traditional cigarette next to an IQOS and compares the output of both. It is a physical demonstration of how much cleaner HnB products are.
This reminded me of those videos on YouTube that compare smoking and vaping by channeling smoke/vapor into a chamber that has cotton balls in it, then comparing the output of the cigarette vs. the vape. We’ve attached a video below. As you can see, the vapor chamber from the traditional cigarette contains a yellow vapor, whereas the vapor chamber from the IQOS device contains white vapor. The round circle is a cotton pad. The one attached to the traditional cigarette turns yellow, whereas the one attached to IQOS remains white.
After the demonstration, the representative began a tour of the second floor cafe, lounge, and technical repair centre. The technical repair centre isn’t much different from other IQOS stores, but the lounge is unlike anything I had seen before.
The cafe/lounge is an open area where IQOS members can come to relax or chat with other HnB users. Membership, which is free to all residents of Japan, gets you one free drink per day at the cafe, an extension on the 6 month warranty which raises it to a 12 month warranty, free HEETS in the lounge, free device cleanings, and free wifi, as well as updates on all the latest IQOS news and promotions.
As I was travelling through Japan, I kept thinking, why bother going to the official IQOS stores, when you could just go to 7/11 for all your IQOS needs? IQOS stores sell the same products as what you can get elsewhere, for the same prices, and the stores themselves, while more numerous than Canada, are not on every corner. I quickly learned why people still go to the IQOS stores; it’s the ~experience~. When you visit an IQOS store, especially when you are an IQOS member, you are a VIP. This is what differentiates IQOS in the HnB market. Great experience! I would recommend visit if you’re ever in the Tokyo area.
So, as I left the IQOS store my search for HnB in Japan was winding down. I did keep stumbling across HnB even as I was preparing to leave Japan. I often saw people using HnB devices in restaurants, on the street, and even found huge retail displays in Tokyo Haneda Airport Duty Free. HnB truely is alive and well in Japan.
Japan is HnB paradise, no question! The industry is thriving in the Japanese market and many people seem to support it. While travelling I saw people using IQOS, GLO, Ploom, and other devices. In fact, I would say I saw just as many people using HnB products as people I saw using traditional cigarettes.
I’ve heard that smoking was quite a widespread action in Japan historically. While the number of smokers in Japan is decreasing, just like the rest of the world, it still seems like Japan has a bit of a different approach to it. I did see alot of ‘No Smoking/ No Electronic Cigarettes’ signs while touring, but I also saw alot of smoking/electronic smoking areas, alot of people smoking, and even people being allowed to smoke inside. This is a big difference from how smoking is viewed in Canada. Moreover, I did not see a single person vaping. It’s not for certain but our team has hypothesized that maybe HnB took off so well in Japan because;
- There were alot of smokers historically – many people were used to the feeling of smoking traditional cigarettes.
- The attitude towards smoking is changing – Smoking is no longer allowed everywhere and is often restricted to smoking zones. This makes us wonder if maybe the mindset regarding smoking is changing too, making it more appealing to switch to a harm reduction device.
- Vaping never really took off in Japan – due to a long economic and socio-cultural history with China and so if left a gap in the market that HnB filled.
- Manufactures who offer HnB products in the Japanese market offer premium products, advertise them well, and make them easy to obtain.
Our team theorizes that these factors combined created the perfect environment for HnB to thrive.
Something I really liked about HnB in Japan is that it seems like HnB products are accessible to everyone. You can find them in these discount everything stores but you can also find them in high-end department stores. There is no barrier between who uses the devices. Here in North America, I very much find that brands like IQOS, are high-end and exclusive. Even though the prices are not that different between Canada and Japan, I did not find that that limited who used the branded HnB devices in Japan.
However, it does make me a bit sad that there are so few HnB devices from smaller manufacturing companies. Out of all the people I saw using the devices, I only saw one person using a brand that was not big tobacco. As we’ve discovered through our reviews, there are alot of good devices out there on the market that come from small manufacturing companies. Often they cost less and some even outperform the big brand names. Maybe as the industry keeps growing more people will begin branching out, but for now, at least people are enjoying HnB. And for those who are already using big tobacco products, it becomes 10x easier in Japan.
Japan is a beacon of hope that HnB could become more popular elsewhere in the world, if promoted and regulated correctly. There are definitely plenty of smokers globally who could benefit from this kind of harm reduction technology!
Do you live in Japan? Have you traveled there? What are your experiences? Let us know in the comment section below!