Japan panics about the rise of "herbivores"—young men who shun sex, don't spend money, and like taking walks.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 15 2009 2:04 PM

The Herbivore's Dilemma

Japan panics about the rise of "grass-eating men," who shun sex, don't spend money, and like taking walks.

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But it was the bursting of Japan's bubble in the early 1990s, coupled with this shift in the social landscape, that made the old model of Japanese manhood unsustainable. Before the bubble collapsed, Japanese companies offered jobs for life. Salarymen who knew exactly where their next paycheck was coming from were more confident buying a Tiffany necklace or an expensive French dinner for their girlfriend. Now, nearly 40 percent of Japanese work in nonstaff positions with much less job security.

"When the economy was good, Japanese men had only one lifestyle choice: They joined a company after they graduated from college, got married, bought a car, and regularly replaced it with a new one," says Fukasawa. "Men today simply can't live that stereotypical 'happy' life."

Yoto Hosho, a 22-year-old college dropout who considers himself and most of his friends herbivores, believes the term describes a diverse group of men who have no desire to live up to traditional social expectations in their relationships with women, their jobs, or anything else. "We don't care at all what people think about how we live," he says.

Many of Hosho's friends spend so much time playing computer games that they prefer the company of cyber women to the real thing. And the Internet, he says, has helped make alternative lifestyles more acceptable. Hosho believes that the lines between men and women in his generation have blurred. He points to the popularity of "boys love," a genre of manga and novels written for women about romantic relationships between men that has spawned its own line of videos, computer games, magazines, and cafes where women dress as men.

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Fukasawa contends that while some grass-eating men may be gay, many are not. Nor are they metrosexuals. Rather, their behavior reflects a rejection of both the traditional Japanese definition of masculinity and what she calls the West's "commercialization" of relationships, under which men needed to be macho and purchase products to win a woman's affection. Some Western concepts, like going to dinner parties as a couple, never fit easily into Japanese culture, she says. Others never even made it into the language—the term "ladies first," for instance, is usually said in English in Japan. During Japan's bubble economy, "Japanese people had to live according to both Western standards and Japanese standards," says Fukasawa. "That trend has run its course."

Japanese women are not taking the herbivores' indifference lightly. In response to the herbivorous boys' tepidity, "carnivorous girls" are taking matters into their own hands, pursuing men more aggressively. Also known as "hunters," these women could be seen as Japan's version of America's cougars.

While many Japanese women might disagree, Fukasawa sees grass-eating boys as a positive development for Japanese society. She notes that before World War II, herbivores were more common: Novelists such as Osamu Dazai and Soseki Natsume would have been considered grass-eating boys. But in the postwar economic boom, men became increasingly macho, increasingly hungry for products to mark their personal economic progress. Young Japanese men today are choosing to have less to prove.

Alexandra Harney is an associate fellow at the Asia Society and the author of The China Price.