TOKYO, Apr 17: Makoto Ishitoko strutted, pirouetted and posed in a room surrounded by mirrors. ''My wife says it's not embarrassing any more to walk together,'' the 41-year-old office worker said proudly after taking a walking lesson with a group of other men and women.
''My life has turned around completely ... I have confidence in myself now.'' Ishitoko is one of a growing number of Japanese men investing time and money to improve their appearance. For them, applying facial lotion and wearing nice clothes just aren't enough.
Many are trying things once the preserve of women.
Manicures, spa treatments and even underwear that enhances the body shape are gaining popularity.
''It's a new era, and Japanese men are pursuing a new kind of manliness,'' said Yumi Komura, representative director of Sparklers, the firm that offers the walking class as part of a workshop called Total Men's Revolution.
A full series of the workshop, including communication and table-manner lessons in a one-on-one setting, costs 550,000 yen, although group and one-time classes are also available for lower fees.
''They are hoping to become men who can escort women with great panache at restaurants and parties,'' Komura said, adding that more men, including business executives, politicians and doctors, have been knocking on the door for her class.
Males now account for about 35 percent of the participants.
According to Japan's top cosmetics maker Shiseido Co. more than half of all men think they should invest in their appearance. Even more women -- over 70 percent -- agree.
Ikuo Daibo, professor of interpersonal and social psychology at Osaka University, cited three main reasons behind the recent trend: a wealthy society, individualism and women power.
Men began investing more time in hobbies in the 1970s as Japanese society became wealthy and hard work didn't always yield success.
Their children are even keener on self-improvement.
''Improving appearance is the easiest way to create a unique, better self,'' he said. ''Also, as women gained power, men became like a pet ... Men started wanting to have good enough appearance to attract women. Women don't like authoritative men any more.''
GIRDLES AND MANICURES
In February Triumph International Japan launched a men's girdle to flatter hips.
The product, aimed at fashion-conscious men in their 30s and 40s, has been flying off the shelf, a company spokeswoman said. ''We created the girdle because the men's fashion market has been swelling in the last two or three years and because our customers have said they wanted to dress up their body,'' Triumph spokeswoman Asako Iwahashi said. ''It has been selling really well, and we've been hearing many shops are sold out of the product.'' More men are buying seamless and beige underwear, too, so that they look better in tight or white pants, she added.
Men are expected to account for just over 7 percent of Japan's 400 billion yen spa market in the year ended March 31, but the growth is much faster for the male market than for women.
While the overall market was estimated to have expanded 3.6 percent from the previous year, the men's market is expected to have grown almost 7 percent in 2005/06 according to Yano Research Institute.
Hiroko Fujikawa, director of Mars Annex Co., which runs a nail salon and spa called Mars the Salon in Tokyo's posh Aoyama area, said 40 percent of its customers were men.
''Shaking hands is the first thing to do when you meet someone, and then you give them your business card ... More men are aware that having beautiful hands and nails is an important part of doing business,'' Fujikawa said.
''Even with limited salaries, there are people who would rather spend money on their appearance than having drinks.'' Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. the world's biggest consumer electronics maker, launched home-use beauty products for men in February. The Men's Beauty Biz series includes a body-hair shaver, a pore cleaner and a facial steamer.
Kumiko Takahashi, a 20-year-old model, welcomes the recent change in Japanese men but admits she'd rather not witness their efforts to improve their appearance.
''I would be happy to see more good-looking guys in the street,'' she said. ''I might want them to work on their appearance behind the curtain, but those who care are better than those who don't care at all.''