Japan’s
Masculinity
in Motion:
From Samurai to
Herbivore

The Japanese salaryman has moved over for its new incarnation, the herbivore man.

Better known as “grass-eating men”, Herbivore men do not desire to live up to traditional social expectations of them, with regards to both careers and romance. Instead, they are known to potter around the house, vacationing in Japan instead of overseas, and spending time with their mothers and female friends. We can contrast this to the earlier forms of masculinity that are tied to the form of economy Japan was experiencing:

Samurai: in the age of feudal kingdoms, samurais were warrior nobles that embodied the ideal of Japanese “knighthood”. They held virtues such as duty, loyalty, self-sacrifice and mental and physical endurance.

Salaryman: office workers who brought Samurai virtues into the workplace as loyal “corporate warriors”. They continued displaying traditional notions of patriarchy and masculinity within a system of long-term employment.

© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

The Herbivore man, in contrast, emerged as a response to the economic downturn of the 1990s and the changing job structure in Japan. It is a direct resistance to the earlier notions of being an “ideal man” and the masculine responsibilities that follow within a structured and strict culture. It is a shift from “sacrifice” to “self-indulgence”.

It turns traditional values eschewed by the Samurai and Salaryman cultures on its head, and escapes by embracing all that isn’t traditionally masculine.

An important reason for this shift is possibly a shifting locus of control for Japanese men. In a slow-growing economy where it is difficult to accumulate accoutrements of traditional masculine success such as automobiles, houses, shoes (and national success), Herbivore men are choosing to turn inward to control one’s beauty and body.

A slender and muscular body, smooth skin, and styled hair have become the new markers of this masculine identity — a veritable display of power and control over a smaller and more personal domain.

This resistance to the machinery of the salaryman culture is also one that reveals a deep desire to express the self in individualised ways. This impulse is already consistently seen in Japan’s famous sub-cultures that continuously emerge on the fringes of mainstream society. What is different now is that the emergence of the Herbivore man might have begun as a process of resistance, but is now slowly becoming the mainstream with 20 percent of 20 to 30-year-old males identifying as such.

It is thus no surprise that a result of this resistance and rise of the Herbivore man, the luxury boom in Japan created by the now-declining office lady (OL) culture is giving way to strong metrosexual-related consumer sub-segments such as male cosmetics and patterned underwear.

It remains to be seen how masculinity will continue to be redefined by Herbivore men as the Japanese economy improves. Will the next evolutionary step be to balance inherited responsibilities with personal pursuits of passion? Will it result in a balancing out of gendered roles in the home and workplace? Or will it be to increasingly move towards an amoeba-like notion of masculinity, and into hermitage?

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