Japan's herbivorous ladylike men leaving macho ways behind


TOKYO LETTER:Younger Japanese men love their mothers, cultivate platonic relationships with women and prefer desserts to hard work, writes DAVID McNEILL

IN JAPAN they call them herbivores, and on Saturday nights they come out to graze: a perfumed army of preening masculinity. Groomed and primped, hair teased to peacock-like attention, their habitat is the crowded city where they live in fear of commitment and the odd carnivorous female who preys on them.

For much of this decade, the older men who drove this country to the top of the economic league tables have looked on in bewilderment at the foppish antics of the generation below.

Japan’s 20- and 30-something males seem uninterested in careers and apathetic about the rituals of dating, sex and marriage. They spend almost as much on cosmetics and clothes as women, live with their mothers and sit down to pee.

“What is happening to the nation’s manhood?” asks social critic Takuro Morinaga.

Now they have their answer: Japanese males are transforming into grass-eaters.

The term soshoku-danshi (herbivorous male) has become one of those buzzwords that hijacks the Japanese media every couple of years. It was popularised in a bestselling book called The Herbivorous Ladylike Men (who) are Changing Japan by Megumi Ushikubo, president of Tokyo marketing firm Infinity.

Her company claims that roughly two-thirds of all Japanese men aged 20 to 34 are now partial or total grass-eaters, and a long way from the classic twin stereotypes of 20th-century Japanese masculinity: the fierce, unyielding warrior and the workaholic salaryman.

“I noticed these major changes taking place from my father’s generation, the 58- to 63-year-olds who are retiring now, and the under 35s,” she explains. “This is just a very different breed.”

Ushikubo (41) believes the postwar corporate samurai is increasingly a carnivorous dinosaur, whose legendary dedication to the company – at the expense of family – is as much a relic as dawn callisthenics on the factory floor.

“Grass-eaters” by contrast, are uncompetitive and uncommitted to work, a symptom of their epic disillusionment with Japan’s troubled economy. “People who grew up in the bubble era [of the 1980s] really feel like they were let down. They worked so hard and it all came to nothing,” says Ushikubo. “So the men who came after them have changed.”

Like many all-encompassing buzzwords, “herbivorous male” can be laughably imprecise. Among his other qualities, the herbivore is close to his mother, has a liking for desserts and leans towards platonic relationships with the opposite sex. He will happily share a night with a woman without laying a hand on her. But the term resonates with a generation struggling to make sense of profound social disruption rooted in economic changes.

Wealth disparities are corroding Japan’s meritocracy: a 2007 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report showed that relative poverty in Japan is the second worst in the developed world, after the US. More than two- thirds of 35-year-olds live on an annual income of two million yen (€16,300) – a key poverty benchmark. About a third of the workforce is casual or part time.

For many young men, the postwar dream of lifetime employment, home and family is fading. In response, some have turned their energies toward the once feminised sphere of consumption – or away from life altogether.

Ushikubo hails the rise of the ojyo-man, or ladylike men. “My generation expected that sort of traditional man to pay for everything, to get the good job and support us,” she recalls.

“But the idea that they had to carry the burden by themselves is fading and I think we’re seeing more equal relationships.”

While sociologists debate its merits, the herbivore phenomenon has become popular media fodder. The blurring of gender boundaries has been highlighted by stories appearing to demonstrate that once-proud alpha-males are being symbolically castrated. Toilet- maker Matsushita Electric Works reported a survey last year suggesting that more than 40 per cent of adult men in Japan sit on the toilet when they urinate.

Marketing experts like Ushikubo have been quick to learn the lessons of the new herbivorous world. Men are now leading purchasers of hair products, make-up, fashion accessories and manicures. A Tokyo-based company called WishRoom is even selling men’s bras to middle-aged salarymen.

True carnivores sigh in disgust, but could the grass-eaters be merely the latest flowering of an old tradition? Japanese culture has long had a strong element of androgyny: during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), men played women and women dressed as men for the theatre, while erotic art celebrated bisexualism and transgender role-playing.

The common element between the Tokugawa era and today, says Osaka-based philosopher Masahiro Morioka, is peace. “Japan has been free from any form of conflict since World War II, and that has liberated men from the need to be manly.”

Not that he or anyone else is advocating a return to war to give men back their symbolic cojones. “I think the changes among men are mostly healthy and are here to stay,” says Ushikubo. “Men are nicer to the women in their lives and happier with themselves.”

What can be bad about that?