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

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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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Ryoma Igarashi likes going for long drives through the mountains, taking photographs of Buddhist temples and exploring old neighborhoods. He's just taken up gardening, growing radishes in a planter in his apartment. Until recently, Igarashi, a 27-year-old Japanese television presenter, would have been considered effeminate, even gay. Japanese men have long been expected to live like characters on Mad Men, chasing secretaries, drinking with the boys, and splurging on watches, golf, and new cars.

Today, Igarashi has a new identity (and plenty of company among young Japanese men) as one of the soushoku danshiliterally translated, "grass-eating boys." Named for their lack of interest in sex and their preference for quieter, less competitive lives, Japan's "herbivores" are provoking a national debate about how the country's economic stagnation since the early 1990s has altered men's behavior.

Newspapers, magazines, and television shows are newly fixated on the herbivores. "Have men gotten weaker?" was one theme of a recent TV talk show. "Herbivores Aren't So Bad" is the title of a regular column on the Japanese Web site NB Online.

In this age of bromance and metrosexuals, why all the fuss? The short answer is that grass-eating men are alarming because they are the nexus between two of the biggest challenges facing Japanese society: the declining birth rate and anemic consumption. Herbivores represent an unspoken rebellion against many of the masculine, materialist values associated with Japan's 1980s bubble economy. Media Shakers, a consulting company that is a subsidiary of Dentsu, the country's largest advertising agency, estimates that 60 percent of men in their early 20s and at least 42 percent of men aged 23 to 34 consider themselves grass-eating men. Partner Agent, a Japanese dating agency, found in a survey that 61 percent of unmarried men in their 30s identified themselves as herbivores. Of the 1,000 single men in their 20s and 30s polled by Lifenet, a Japanese life-insurance company, 75 percent described themselves as grass-eating men.

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Japanese companies are worried that herbivorous boys aren't the status-conscious consumers their parents once were. They love to putter around the house. According to Media Shakers' research, they are more likely to want to spend time by themselves or with close friends, more likely to shop for things to decorate their homes, and more likely to buy little luxuries than big-ticket items. They prefer vacationing in Japan to venturing abroad. They're often close to their mothers and have female friends, but they're in no rush to get married themselves, according to Maki Fukasawa, the Japanese editor and columnist who coined the term in NB Online in 2006.

Grass-eating boys' commitment phobia is not the only thing that's worrying Japanese women. Unlike earlier generations of Japanese men, they prefer not to make the first move, they like to split the bill, and they're not particularly motivated by sex. "I spent the night at one guy's house, and nothing happened—we just went to sleep!" moaned one incredulous woman on a TV program devoted to herbivores. "It's like something's missing with them," said Yoko Yatsu, a 34-year-old housewife, in an interview. "If they were more normal, they'd be more interested in women. They'd at least want to talk to women."

Shigeru Sakai of Media Shakers suggests that grass-eating men don't pursue women because they are bad at expressing themselves. He attributes their poor communication skills to the fact that many grew up without siblings in households where both parents worked. "Because they had TVs, stereos and game consoles in their bedrooms, it became more common for them to shut themselves in their rooms when they got home and communicate less with their families, which left them with poor communication skills," he wrote in an e-mail. (Japan has rarely needed its men to have sex as much as it does now. Low birth rates, combined with a lack of immigration, have caused the country's population to shrink every year since 2005.)

It may be that Japan's efforts to make the workplace more egalitarian planted the seeds for the grass-eating boys, says Fukasawa. In the wake of Japan's 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law, women assumed greater responsibility at work, and the balance of power between the sexes began to shift. Though there are still significant barriers to career advancement for women, a new breed of female executive who could party almost as hard as her male colleagues emerged. Office lechery, which had been socially acceptable, became stigmatized as seku hara, or sexual harassment.

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