A Few Good Men: The Japanese “Herbivore”

Posted by manori.ravindran & filed under Fashion, Identity, Pop Culture, Sex & Relationships.

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They are called “herbivore men.”

Gentle and cautious, these Japanese men prefer being friends with women, reject 70-hour work weeks and like spending time with their families. A recent Washington Post article described them as participating in dessert clubs, buying presents for their mothers and wearing flannel-patterned shirts.

They’re also throwing a wrench in Japan’s social landscape.

A 2009 survey by a market research firm showed that almost half of Japanese men aged 20 to 34 now identify as herbivores. Maki Fukasawa, a pop culture writer who coined the term, says, “The people of the older generation would buy things, consume things, even fall in love for status. However, these young people have no desire for status….”

The fathers of herbivores were the backbone of Japan’s golden years. Working long hours, they rarely saw their families and worked for the same company their entire lives. Unlike their offspring, these “salarymen” cared about status and social standing. After all, times were good and Japan was coming out on top.

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These days, things have changed. Japan’s dwindling economy is the same size as it was in 1992 and an aging population has resulted in pressure falling on youth to steer the country into a brighter future. The only problem is a growing distaste for old-world ideals and a pursuit of alternative lifestyles.

Fukasawa, who first wrote about the changing Japanese male identities in 2006, says herbivores symbolize a shift towards a more “sustainable model,” one that has young men seeking family time over finances.

But does the herbivore-lifestyle stem from frugal necessity? After all, as the Washington Post reported, “Only 3.5 percent of men ages 25 to 34 make more than the average workers’ household income of about 6 million yen (or $73,600) per year, according to National Tax Agency.”

Whether out of fiscal responsibility or a genuine rejection of their parents’ values, the Japanese herbivores are pulling a gender bender for the ages.

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Yasuhito Sekine, a self-described herbivore, recently told NPR.org, “Back [in the 1980s], Japanese men had to be passionate and aggressive, but now those characteristics are disliked. Our members have very mild personalities. They simply enjoy what they like without prejudice. They are not limited by expectations.”

Though they are receiving their share of heat from bewildered elders, the herbivore men are challenging notions of masculinity in Japan. Rather than aspiring to the 70-hour work weeks of their parents, these men are happy to work fewer hours and focus on the sweeter things in life.

Besides, when it comes to saving Japan’s struggling economy, it seems that women are stepping up to the plate. In October, the government released an unprecedented report showing that single women under 30 were earning more on average than their male counterparts.

One thing is for sure: Japan’s herbivore men are contributing to a complete overhaul of a patriarchal system. They seem non-nonchalant whether society thinks they are avoiding male responsibilities or not. In what seems like a permanent Freaky Friday, Japanese gender roles are shifting and notions of manhood are quietly disassembling. As they look for alternative lifestyles that balance work and play, Japan’s mild-mannered herbivore men are smelling the roses along the way.

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