Meet the Herbivores

by | Yokohama, Japan

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

tags: asia, consumer culture, culture, emergence

Gender relations have emerged in Japan as a topic of heated debate, not least due to the emergence of what have come to be referred to as the ‘herbivores’: a generation of young men who shirk traditional notions of masculinity in favour of a softer, more gender neutral perspective on life. If media polls are anything to go by, up to 75% of all males aged 20-35 identify with the “herbivore” mentality.

A fiercely patriarchal society, the traditional Japanese masculine archetype is physically and emotionally strong, fiercely competitive, decisive and hardworking. A man’s path in life is to provide for his family and stay loyal to his employer, making the social and financial ambitions of both his society and his company his own. The aspirational man is to study hard, enter university, find employment at a well established Japanese company and slog it out until he is either retired or dead (in more than a few cases, from overwork). Women are objects to be wooed and wined with lavish lack of restraint, the extravagance of the chase being a measure of the man’s success and masculine prowess.

Enter the herbivore. Products of the economic turmoil of the post-bubble era, employment was never a given for them and a university degree could just as easily be a ticket to NEET-dom as a door to financial stability. With the demise of corporate infallibility the Way carved out for them by their fathers has come to appear increasingly precarious and in the relatively comfortable society that is modern Japan, suddenly the sacrifices entailed pose an unattractive risk. Coinciding with this shift has been the emergence of the imported notion of gender equality, which has seen an explosion in female ‘career women’ stealing coveted corporate posts and slowly diluting the long established male egoistic culture with the aid of a fresh new batch of sexual harassment laws. A lot has changed in a short space of time and true to the nature of humanity, so too has man.

Today’s herbivore no longer craves the protein of the corporate pay packet nor the status that derives from it. He shuns both the flirtatious hunt for female flesh and the desire to lurk amidst the smoky veil of late night gentlemen’s club dens. A ‘grass-eater’, he is more cool and casual on many fronts and much less apt to go gung-ho on pretty much anything at all.

Over and above this though, the exact perimeters of herbivore-hood are equivocal and there are as many definitions are there are subjects. Some typically observed characteristics include:

Lack of sexual aggression: AXE deodorants found 22% of a sample of 20yr old Japanese males to have never had girlfriends. Other surveys claim to have found 73% to have never had sex. Women’s magazines are alive with frustrated war stories of ‘fruitless’ rendezvous and Tenga’s Egg series of adult toys are breaking all sales records as they proffer a new culture of solitary pleasure

High risk aversion: in a society where risk no longer brings surefire return, both personal and financial risk is avoided wherever possible. You won’t see the herbivore taking on a hefty loan for a sexy new sports car, or wanting to drive it fast even if he did

Domestic focus: travel is less about exotic destinations and more about chilling in one’s own backyard. Family takes priority to the company or economy, the herbivore opting to head home after work while his father stays back late drinking with clients and colleagues

Keen hobbyists: traditionally female pursuits are no longer out of bounds — Saturday night may be spent cooking up a storm rather than spending up big at the hottest spots downtown

‘No sweat’ mindset: the herbivore is more cooperative than competitive. Ambition is aggressive, sweat is smelly and exertion is uncool

A distinct sense of health and hygiene: heavy smoking and drinking is out, cosmetics and self care are in. Fragrance and freshness take on a newly heightened importance as salons emerge as the new dark smoky room.

So is masculinity dead in Japan? Perhaps. But more likely it’s just hit an extreme spot in a process of long-term social adjustment. The rigidity of the masculine archetype has felt stale for decades now and despite the frustrations of parents and female counterparts, change in this case is probably not necessarily such a bad thing. Herbivores are certainly welcome to cook for me anytime.

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