Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Herbivores are shy and quiet. They seek the friendship of women and spurn aggressive dating. They are thrifty and abhor consumerism. They like quiet evenings in with friends rather than drinking till they vomit in the izakaya bars of Tokyo. They are the antithesis of the macho Japanese salarymen, on whose long-suffering shoulders modern Japan was built.
Early, non-Japanese descriptions of the herbivore put them in the category of freaky Japanese cultural sideshows. From the folks who brought you robot dogs and huge-bosomed manga heroines came a large group of men in their mid-twenties to early thirties who rejected the “carnivorous” ways of older Japanese men. Bravo Japan. Challenged by a low birth rate, rising suicide numbers and an economy shrinking at the fastest rate in 60 years it had produced a generation of neutered geeks.
But go deeper and you find that these “girlie men” represent something different: a quiet, social revolution for which many in Japan have been clamouring for years.
Change in Japan is glacial. But the recent general election swept away the dominant Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled Japan almost without interruption since the Second World War, and put in power the more liberal Democratic Party of Japan. The conservatism of the country, both political and social, is under threat. And the herbivores, reckoned to make up 30 to 40 per cent of men aged between 21 and 34, are staging a social revolt in which the sexes become more equal, the workplace less spiritually crushing and broken family ties are remade.
Two years ago, Megumi Ushikubo, the head of a market research firm in Tokyo, began receiving calls from panic-strickenclients in the beer and car industries. They were struggling to sell cars and beers to men in their twenties and thirties. It had once been so easy. Pitch them as a means to social status and the bars and showrooms were overrun. Not any more.
“In the 1980s, boys had to buy a car, otherwise girls would not look up to them,” says Ushikubo. “We were leaders in consumption. Suddenly companies were asking why are guys no longer interested in cars? And why are girls telling us they aren’t interested in boys who waste their money on cars?” The trauma of Japan’s bursting economic bubble, Ushikubo found, had created a generation suspicious of the cavalier spending habits of those a few years older. They were also less willing to endure the humiliations an older generation had tolerated both at work and in relationships.
“In my generation, we had a show called 101st Proposal, in which a man proposed to 100 women and was eventually accepted the 101st time,” says Ushikubo, who was born in 1962. “The important thing was that you tried and tried and showed endurance. Guys these days don’t want to go through that rejection. Instead they want to be acknowledged as people by girls. Being popular is a much lower priority.”
Yasuo Takeuchi epitomised the phenomenon. He grew up in Chiba, a dormitory town just outside Tokyo. All the fathers in town were salarymen, who took the train into Tokyo early in the morning and came home late. But his father never pressured his son to do as he did. “All the fathers in town were quite radical like this. They let the children do what they wanted with their lives. In fact, they encouraged it.” Takeuchi went to Tokyo University to study physics, where he found friends who, like him, did not accept that their fate was to suffer silently in Japan’s vast corporations and bureaucracies. They envisioned work occupying a discreet rather than overwhelming place in their lives. And they believed that family friends mattered far more than shopping or travel.
It was a change from the generations that preceded them. The Japanese who survived the Second World War were stoic in turning their bombed-out country into the second greatest economic power in the world. Next were the baby boomers and then the “bubble generation”, who came of age in the 1980s, when it seemed the Japanese were poised to take over the world. It was a time when the Japanese thronged Bond Street and bought the Rockefeller Centre and Van Gogh’s Irises for mind-blowing sums. There followed the lost decade when Japan entered a long slump and global attention shifted to growth economies such as China and India.
Takeuchi would hear constantly from older people how great Japan had been and how deprived he was to grow up in such austere times. The factors once seen as crucial to Japan’s success were now seen as failures: a rigid educational system that had produced generations of highly intelligent employees was now thwarting the individuality and creativity needed to rebuild the country; big corporations that had propelled Japanese industry to the top of the world were now ugly bureaucracies that suffocated their employees and stifled entrepreneurship; an ethnically homogenous people who had worked with a common purpose and set of values to build modern Japan were now insular and xenophobic.
“But I never bought that,” Takeuchi says. “I never felt deprived.” Nor did he feel any obligation to be a corporate samurai, battling for Japan’s economic supremacy. At work he refused to dress or behave like older employees. He was considered sloppy, and his bosses thought he did not care for work. “I just believed that at work and in life, doing OK is OK. There’s no need to show everyone how much effort you’re making.” He had no veneration for conventional models of success. “All we want to feel is that our work has a sense of purpose.”
To hear Takeuchi talk is to hear echoes of what Westerners call Generation Y, a generation in their twenties and thirties who mystify older managers. They do not believe companies will look after them. They do not respect job titles or hierarchies, only those who control resources and produce obvious outputs. They abhor office politics and do not respond to traditional motivational tools such as promotion, pay rises and the promise of job security.
The herbivores’ revolution may be one of shrugs and quiet refusals, but to take on Japan’s managerial hierarchy takes chutzpah. “People often tell me, ‘oh, you must be really confident to behave this way’,” Takeuchi says. “But I never think of myself that way. Making a big effort to be something I’m not just isn’t me. I want to be natural, just to be myself.”
This desire to be individual may seem unremarkable in San Francisco or London but was novel enough in Japan to catch the eye of Maki Fukasawa, a marketing writer who shared an office with Takeuchi. When she talked about him with friends and older managers, she found that they were horrified, that here was the future of Japan.
The herbivores, managers complained, did not regard work as the centre of their lives. When it came to the drinking sessions essential to Japanese corporate culture, the herbivores passed. They refused to debase themselves to please a boss.
“Once I recognised the phenomenon, I noticed it everywhere,” says Fukasawa. “Looking at the IT CEOS in Japan, I realised that they didn’t seem competitive in the same way as an older generation of Japanese CEOs. They didn’t need some trophy wife standing beside them or the expensive car or watch. They weren’t desperate to spend time in New York, London or Paris. Instead they wanted to be at home. They had lived their entire lives in an era when Japan was an established economic power, despite its troubles. They felt completely confident being Japanese.”
Fukasawa dubbed this new generation “herbivores”, a term she says has been poorly understood in the West. “I keep being asked if they are like the the nerdy computer game fans, or the men who buy girls’ high school costumes. They’re not. We are Buddhists and the idea of being ‘grass eating’ is that you’re more spiritual. It’s not just the opposite of carnivorous. It means they aren’t so interested in physical things or physical relationships.”
“The more you study them, the more you think that they’re actually the ones who are consistent with traditional, pre-war Japan,” says Fukasawa. “It was the generation of the rising economy who were ultra-competitive who were maybe the strange ones.”
In every Japanese convenience store are special sections devoted to men’s cosmetics, eyebrow shapers, packets of disposable wipes for dealing with sweat and body odor, skin whitener. The herbivores may not buy beer and cars but they spend on keeping themselves odourless, hairless and pale. Their clothes come from cheap, fashionable chains such as Uniqlo. This week, Shinya Yamaguchi, 23, a fashion designer, launches his latest collection of skirts and lacy tops — all aimed at men. Many of Japan’s younger male celebrities, bands such as Arashi and actors like Eita, Teppei Koike and Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, project an effeminate, herbivorous look.
“It’s non-man, non-woman at the same time,” says Fukasawa. “Sexually neutral.” This neutrality, both Fukasawa and Ushikubo believe, is a response to the changing nature of Japanese marriage. During the 30 years up to 2005, the percentage of unmarried men between 30 and 34 rose from 14 per cent to 47 per cent and the number of unmarried women from 8 to 32 per cent.
Financial insecurity among men and the social expectations imposed on married women, to have children and forego work, have made marriage less attractive. Traditional matchmaking by families and employers has also dwindled. The hunt for partners became less aggressive on both sides, to the point where businesses saw an opportunity in organising “konkatsu” or marriage activity, social activities designed to bring singles together.
When herbivores do marry, it is with little hoopla and low expectations. Yasuo Takeuchi recently married in a small, private ceremony, and he is saving for a honeymoon in the future.
The herbivores’ views, style and choices can be seen as a very positive story, about a generation of young Japanese discovering their individuality. But they also say a lot about the tensions within Japan.
“After the Second World War, we were all told that Western education was best and that Asian culture and philosophy was bad,” says Fukasawa. “The herbivores are finding their own solution to the problem of resolving Western and Confucian values. They are a function of their time. They are dealing with the change in the economy and I think they are closer to the original Japanese character of being non-competitive, of not trying to win other people over. And as a silent majority, they have the power to change the culture.”