You’d think a grey, cold bunker in downtown Tokyo would be the opposite of inviting. Wedged between ramen shops and beneath a train line - where trains go rattling past at positively, well, Japanese speeds - the room is the headquarters of a branch of Yakult ladies. Each morning, they meet here and bustle about, filling their trolleys with probiotic drinks and yoghurts. Every one of them smiles to greet us, every one of them is unfailingly polite. And they’re loud; as loud as Japanese women ever are, I suspect (they’re a famously quiet people, just one of the reasons I love being in Japan). Everyone is talking rapidly, happily. They’re excited to be here; they’re ready to begin the day.
In Japan, the home of Yakult (the probiotic drink that was huge in the ‘90s and is now enjoying something of a resurgence now that we all know how important gut health is), there are just over 37,000 Yakult ladies. Like Avon ladies, they go door-to-door selling their wares, only their wares are fermented milk products, not shower gel.
I find the idea of Yakult ladies fascinating (declaration: I’m in Japan as a guest of Yakult). Who are these women, who walk all day selling yoghurt? The ladies are “cherished as the face of the company,” I’m told, and beloved by their customers, to whom they return weekly and sometimes even daily. They go to office buildings, they go to private homes. They walk the streets with their trolleys and are frequently stopped by people wanting to buy a juice or yoghurt. Everyone knows the Yakult ladies, it seems.
We head out with our Yakult lady, Hinata*, to accompany her on her daily rounds. She loads up her trolley and starts walking briskly (though stopping to see if a pregnant reporter with us is OK with the pace). For a woman in her 60s (the average age for Yakult ladies is 43), she sure sets a fiery pace. I’m having trouble keeping up. “Are you always so fast?” I ask. She nods. “I have a lot to do, a lot to sell.”
She’s right: most YLs are out the door no later than 8.30am and they return around 3pm. Because of this, it’s a popular job amongst mums. There are so many mothers on the job, in fact, that the company established 1208 daycare facilities in the 2487 sales centres across the country.
Hinata, who is always, always smiling, even when she’s comically mopping sweat from her brow, works in the CBD, mainly selling to office workers. They know her by name, and she knows their order by heart. Outside one office, she waits patiently for someone to let her in. When the man finally opens the door, he shouts excitedly and calls back to his co-workers. On our way back, a man on the street calls out to Hinata - at first, I think he might be homeless; he looks dishevelled and a little disoriented. But Hinata knows who he is. She grabs his preferred drink - of course, she knows it by heart - and hands it over, and he pays. Later, she tells us that she sees this man every single morning. Does he live around here? I ask. No - in fact, he lives an hour away. But each morning, he wakes up early to catch the train here, travelling for 45 minutes and then waiting for Hinata to roll by with her cart. Why? I ask. Surely he could buy a bottle of Yakult a little closer to home? Hinata shrugs. Through an interpreter, she tells me that “this is the way he likes it” and keeps walking.
Being a Yakult lady is serious business; they’re trained for three months before they’re allowed to go out on their own, and new employees will get refresher training at six, nine and twelve month intervals. Still, the only criteria for getting the gig is that you’re available five days a week… and a woman. There’ve never been any “Yakult gentlemen”, I’m told, though it’s not strictly prohibited. I ask whether Yakult ladies ever make it to the head office of the company, in different roles. The question seems to cause some confusion before someone eventually answers, “Yakult ladies can be promoted to head Yakult ladies”.
When Yakult launched in Australia in 1994 (the first English-speaking country to produce and sell the product), a Yakult lady system was trialled. After ten years, it was disbanded - Australians weren’t comfortable with the idea of a strange woman selling them fermented milk, it seemed.
But in Japan, there’s no such trouble (nor in Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, India, Brazil or Mexico, where Yakult ladies are thriving). Though the pay isn’t great (the women work on commission only, and on average, pull in around $1700 a month), there is honour in being a Yakult lady. I ask Hinata what she likes best about her job. She smiles and gestures expansively to her cart, and the city streets beyond. “All of this,” she says.
* "Hinata" preferred not to use her real name for this article.