Saturday, January 23, 2010

Herbivores: Can this new wave of manhood take root in the U.S.?

Each year, Japanese publishing company, Jiyukokumin-Sha, helps sponsor the New Word and Buzzword of The Year Grand Prix. The competition highlights Japanese words or phrases that have had significant cultural impact that year. The winners are voted for by readers. In 2009, a phrase that created a lot of buzz, making the Top 10 List, was Soshoku Danshi, or "Herbivore Boys." This is the newest label given to men in their 20's and early 30's who are collectively debunking the status quo of gender roles and behavior in modern Japan. Since the term was coined in 2006 by Japanese columnist and Editor Maki Fukasawa, a good deal of attention has been given to this group of men. 2009 saw the ranks of the Herbivores increase.

Who are the Herbivores? They aren't necessarily vegetarians. However, their habits are in stark contrast to those typically associated with men in Japan, particularly Nikushoku Danshi (Carnivore Boys) or "salary men" who are infamous for putting in long hours at the office and then eating, drinking, and chasing after women with their peers, before returning home late in the evening or in the early hours of the morning. Herbivores are more homebody than busybody, preferring the comforts of home over loud, flashy bars. Instead of all night benders with work buddies, the Herbivore might stay in, create a classic cocktail using only fresh ingredients, and listen to a rare jazz record on his antique player.

A Herbivore is less likely to procrastinate on or ignore a little housework. He may also enjoy cooking and trying out new dishes. He is a man who takes care of himself physically: eating healthy, staying well groomed, and dressing smartly. But, do not get him confused with the metrosexual of the early 2000's. The Herbivore's priorities are not based solely upon his looks, but are based on an overall sense of well-being and sense of self. He prefers regular or even flexible hours at work that allow him more time to focus on his passions with less concern on climbing the corporate ladder and staying late at the office. He is not afraid to show a more sensitive side and could be found reading "Shojo" comics (those with a humanistic and romantic emphasis) or joining a "dessert club." As a self-proclaimed Herbivore has stated, "We don't care at all what people think about how we live." And the Herbivore can live with or without women. The newest breed of Japanese men are making it harder for Japanese women to find dates due to their passive and sometimes resistant attitude towards dating. Many have decided to forgo any romantic relationships with women altogether. They see dating as too expensive or time consuming. Others want to avoid losing the simplicity and ease of their lifestyle by getting wrapped up in the often time complicated world of traditional relationships. Whatever the case, with "toys" and the internet, there are a number of alternative means of gratification Herbivores have at their disposal.

Japan's Herbivores are not interested in participating in acts of overt machismo like those associated with businessmen during the boom of the 80's. They are not spending money on big ticket items or status symbols like cars, expensive watches, or luxury condos. Herbivores take pride in keeping strict budgets and saving money by searching for the best deals and lowest prices. Thrifty habits like growing their own food or making their own clothing are not doing much to help stimulate Japan's sagging economy.   A recent New York Times article noted that Japan's unemployment rate reached a record high of 5.7 (10/09) and that the nation's economic decline could accelerate as China captures many of its export markets. The recent election of the Japanese House of Representatives resulted in the Democratic Party of Japan winning in a landslide against the long time ruling Liberal Democratic Party. In fact, this event spawned the number one Japanese buzzword of 2009, Seiken Kotai (Regime Change). The new party won, in part, by vowing to turn the Japanese economy around. Best efforts to do so will most likely have to include economic stimulation of Japanese domestic spending, but the Herbivore's prudent nature could create some obstacles for the new government to overcome.

Finding a way to change some of the financial habits of Herbivore's may become part of a new Japanese economic plan. However, concurrently, Japan's economic climate may itself be a contributing factor in the growth of this new segment of its society. Income inequality and poverty are on the rise and "lifetime" positions at Japanese companies are quickly becoming a thing of the past. A report provided by The Japan Institute For Labour Policy and Training shows that nearly 40 percent of the Japanese workforce are working in non-regular staff positions The development of the habits and lifestyle preferences of Herbivores are likely results of young men looking for ways to cope with this economic shift. With fading incentives for putting work first, Japan's Herbivores are finding it easier and more personally rewarding to explore and engage in aspects of life that have been ignored by previous generations of men. A 2009 survey by the Lifenet Seimei Life Insurance Company of 500 Japanese men in their 20's and 30's saw 75 percent respond that they identify more as "Herbivore" than "Carnivore." The number of men who identify as "Herbivore" may continue to grow as men look to find fulfillment and happiness in places other than work and careers.

If the economic climate in Japan has contributed to the emergence of Herbivores amongst its men, it is also possible that the condition of the economy in the U.S. could do the same. According to a recent survey conducted for The Conference Board by TNS, only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. This is the lowest level in two decades. And with U.S. unemployment rates reaching record highs, many out of work individuals are finding new ways to pass the time and are reining in their personal budgets. American optimism is slowly being replaced by a growing sense of realism as people are becoming more often exposed to the fragility of personal wealth and the overall national economy. Habits associated with Herbivores could very well become assets as we enter the next decade. Would be "American Herbivores" may be wise to take cues from their Japanese counterparts.

Is it possible that the U.S. will see its own version of the Herbivore? Will there be or is there already an American Herbivore? The U.S. and Japan have very different histories. While the U.S. has waged several, and is currently engaged in two, wars since 1945, Japan has remained a mostly peaceful nation. Some scholars, like Masahiro Morioka, professor of philosophy at Osaka Prefecture University who was featured in an article on Herbivores in the Japan Times, believe that Japan's non-confrontational past 6 decades may be contributing to the rise of Japanese men who find it less necessary to display "manly" traits. Aggression and toughness are slowly giving way to a quieter sensitivity. The U.S. has been more actively engaged in world conflict. It is home to a higher number of veterans who have taken part in arduous and tough warfare. Perhaps this fact makes it less likely that the U.S. will see large numbers of men who are willing to identify as "Herbivore" crop up in the short-term. But this may soon change.

Despite the differences in cultural and social histories, the U.S. and Japan have had one major theme in common for sometime: Both nations have been the leading economic powerhouses for decades. With the rise of China, Americans, like the Japanese, could soon see their nation's standing on the global market take significant shifts downward in the decades to come. The ripple effects could be staggering, giving rise to an environment in which American Herbivores and aspects of the Herbivore lifestyle grow to be more prevalent. Emphasis on prudent behavior, health, pursuit of passions, and creating a happier balance between work life and home life could very well be ideals that American men grow to accept more openly. The American Herbivore may not turn out to be exactly like its Japanese counterpart, but just as we have had our Beats and Hippies in the past, Herbivores may soon take root in American Culture.

*Image from SLATE

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