Tenga Seeks to ‘Change the Conversation Around Masturbation’
The Japanese adult toy brand creates products that aren’t embarrassing to buy.
Back in the early 2000s, Koichi Matsumoto had a problem with the adult toy market in Japan: safe, reliable products were few and far between, while the topic of sex was shrouded in shame and secrecy. He quit his job selling used cars to launch Tenga, a sex-positive line of disposable masturbation aids for men. The brand has since expanded into vibrators, reusable items, and couples’ toys, and launched a line of products designed specifically for women. We talked to Tina Carter, who manages Tenga’s global marketing, about building a lifestyle brand, promoting sexual health and awareness, and innovating novel solutions.
Koichi Matsumoto founded Tenga in 2005. What led him to the sex toy industry?
President Matsumoto found himself in the sex toy industry quite by chance! While walking through a variety shop in Japan, passing through the adult section of the store, he was struck by the lewdness of the items around him—purchasing any of them would be something that customers would want to hide. He felt this wasn’t right, since masturbation is such a natural part of life. He wanted to create something that shoppers could confidently buy, without shame or embarrassment. He had already been looking for what he could make that the world didn’t have yet, and within 15 minutes he had decided. The next day, he quit his job as a used car salesman and threw himself full-force into planning and creating what would become Tenga.
How did Matsumoto launch Tenga?
Tenga launched with the original lineup of five red cups. The original prototypes were handmade by President Matsumoto with household materials. When they launched, they were a massive success—at the time in Japan, a toy was considered a reasonable success if it sold 50,000 units in its lifetime. Tenga sold 1 million units of the cups in the first year alone!
Describe the state of the sex toy industry when Tenga started. How did Tenga introduce something different?
Tenga views sexuality and desire as a basic human need, just like the need for food, water, and sleep. There are plenty of outlets that help people to satisfy their hunger, thirst, and tiredness—so why is sexuality seen as so taboo? For an act as natural as masturbation, there should be a reliable brand that provides a sense of quality, security, and confidence.
Before the launch of Tenga, there was no reliable manufacturer of quality adult toys for men in Japan. While many items did exist, they were designed for niche markets, had names that were too obscene to say aloud in public, had no websites or company contact information, or were simply embarrassing to purchase.
Tenga introduced safe, high quality, and fashionable products. In seeking to shatter the stigmas surrounding sex toys, Tenga first had to change the concept of what an “adult” item is—this is the thought process behind the name “Tenga,” which is a Japanese word meaning “correct and elegant.” In Japan, Tenga is not just a sex toy manufacturer—it is becoming a lifestyle brand.
Tenga launched with a collection of masturbation cups. When and how did the brand expand into other categories like vibrators and lubricants?
After Tenga launched the original cup series, we expanded with firmer and softer versions in response to consumer demand. The Egg, one of our best-known products, was developed because one of our designers wanted a product that allowed for more direct control than the hard-cased cups. Once the company started looking to expand globally, reusable options were developed, like the Flip series and 3D series. Reusable items need lubricant, so we developed lotions that are specifically formulated to interact well with Tenga’s elastomer, prevent stickiness and easily wash away with water.
One of Tenga’s basic concepts is that everyone should be free to use our products as they wish, with no shame. Whether it is in masturbation or in partnered play, Tenga wants to support people in enjoying their own sexuality and having fun—that is the origin of our items aimed at couples, like the SVR and the ΔDelta.
Tenga’s brand of women’s items, iroha, was launched in 2013 based on the company goal of creating things for everyone to enjoy. Pleasure is not exclusive to certain groups. With iroha, we wanted to make a brand that was more approachable for beginners, as well as for people from cultures that still carry a taboo around female masturbation.
Tenga actively promotes sexual health and education by partnering with medical professionals and conducting global surveys. How does this work impact the demographics you target?
Tenga started out catering to men aged 20-49, but as a company we have always thought that sexuality is something that everyone should be free to enjoy. With the launch of the iroha brand, Tenga now produces items for women, men, couples, and everyone in between.
Tenga’s goal has always been to help people enjoy their sexuality. With the addition of Tenga Healthcare (currently in Japan only), we’ve expanded to include a support system for people who are struggling with their own sexuality—be it due to fertility issues, erectile difficulty or physical disability.
What inspires new products?
One of our approaches is to look at our own product lineup, and identify any gaps—where is there an empty space, and how can we produce something to fulfill that need?
Generally speaking, our strategy is not to look at the existing market, but instead to focus on developing our own innovations. While we do listen to consumer feedback, and it’s certainly wise to keep an eye on the market, Tenga as a manufacturer (and President Matsumoto in particular) focuses on innovation—not only improving on existing things, but creating things that did not exist previously.
What's next for Tenga?
In the 13 years since its launch, Tenga has become more than just a pleasure brand—while we continue to innovate in pleasure products, we are now also working to develop ways that we can help in terms of sexual health and wellness. A first step in making this happen is our launch of products for pregnancy planning with Tenga Healthcare in Japan, which we hope to expand globally in the future. In the west, we are working hard to change the conversation around masturbation—to elevate masturbation from a punchline to a main topic that is taken seriously and given the importance it deserves. This includes our work with our global surveys, like the 2018 Self-Pleasure Report. In partnership with research firm PSB, we surveyed more than 13,000 men and women aged 18–74 across 18 countries that make up 57% of the world’s population about their habits and views toward self-pleasure, sex, gender dynamics and sex toy usage. There are three specialized reports—for the USA, the UK, and Germany—plus a global report showing data from all 18 of the surveyed countries. You can read all about it at feelmore.global!
Frances Thomas is a writer based in New York City. She recently graduated from NYU.