We in the United States live amidst a “sex recession,” likely due to the increase of more independent methods of pleasure, helicopter parents and inhibition. According to Time magazine, millennials are not only having way less sex than their parents, but they are also twice as likely to be virgins. Other studies suggest that the reason can be attributed to the increase in people working too hard. Furthermore, options such as Tinder and Grindr make it easy to meet people, but can also make it much harder to create genuine connections over time. The idea of starting a family and settling down is also becoming more obsolete as Americans learn more and more about bettering their own lives through excessive individualism. Across the Pacific Ocean, there lies the evidence of one possible effect of such a recession. In Japan, the land of the rising sun, there exists an entirely new kind of being — and no, not an animal that looks scaringly similar to a Pokemon. No, this creature is actually a new brand of human, a kind of creature that has recently flooded the streets of urban Japan. This creature is known as the herbivore man.
Now, despite its namesake, the herbivore man (草食(系)男子, translated literally to “Herbivorous man”) is not a vegetarian grazing through Japanese rice fields. Sociologist Maki Fukasawa coined the term in 2006 to describe males who had next to no interest in marriage or romantic relationships, but who are not asexual either. Ever since the phrase was conceived, over 60 percent of Japanese men have self-identified as herbivore men. The origin of the peculiar term stems from Japanese, where the word for “sex” is directly translated to “relationship in flesh.” That’s why Fukasawa started referring to these men as herbivores, the exact opposite of a “relationship in flesh.” Certain experts have also associated the term with Japan’s sinking birthrate. Even the government uses the term to categorize over 60 percent of young men who aren’t having kids, as well as the high rate of male and female virgins throughout the country. Japanese gender studies philosopher Masahiro Morioka has attributed the rise of herbivore men to post-war culture, as the need to prove oneself in combat that once dominated Japanese culture slowly faded over time.
Everything needs balance, and as herbivore men seek a more passive approach to romantic relationships, females are forced to be more aggressive. So-called “carnivore girls” or “hunters” are pursuing men more aggressively, as more men exit the relationship market.
If dating was a game, then carnivore girls would take the first move. It’s a sharp contrast from traditional gender norms and expectations in western countries, where men are expected to court the girl, not the other way around. How many movies have you seen in which a man proposes to a woman, not the other way around?
To be clear, herbivore men are not men who have no interest in sex whatsoever, they just aren’t interested in having girlfriends or wives because they are busy focusing on their own happiness. They also want to be free of a soulless corporate lifestyle that most men in Japan lead, working more than 80 hours a week and staying out late to drink with their bosses afterward. They do this by forgoing traditional masculine behaviors and hobbies, and focusing on their work-life balance, something many men in the corporate-sphere lack.
The need for a work-life balance is critical in Japan. In fact, there’s been an extreme amount of workplace deaths. They’re so commonplace that there is a term for it: karoshi, which can be translated literally as “overwork death.” In 2007, there were 2,207 work-related suicides, 672 of which were attributed to overwork.
Since corporate work culture is so intense in Japan, men are too busy working to start a family. In turn, the Japanese government has to deal with a crippling population crisis. In 2014, Japan’s population shrank by 268,000 people, the country’s largest loss ever recorded. As a result, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself announced his concerns regarding population decline as studies prime the population to be under 100 million by 2060, compared to the 126.8 million that exist today.
While Americans have not reached the extremes that the Japanese have gone through to accept an entire subculture of “herbivore people,” it is interesting to examine this phenomenon because it makes you think, “Is this what we’re heading towards?” According to Atsuko Oyama, a Japanese studies professor at Stony Brook University, the image of the herbivore man was popularized by the media in the late 2000s to help shift images of masculinity and encourage more equal gender relationships. Shifts in masculinity could theoretically lead men to be more involved in the home. In fact, corporate Japan has recently played a key role in stressing work-life balance by incorporating shared work-spaces for employees from multiple companies.
Older generations have not taken this phenomenon lightly. Corporate employers associate herbivore men with a weaker work ethic. The government associates them with the declining birthrate.
Now, if you spend as much time on the Internet as I do, then you’re familiar with a certain group of people who hide behind their screens in a state of resentment and frustration on account of their belief that masculinity is under attack in the U.S. because of movements like #MeToo, leading to the rise of “incels” and “beta males.” But herbivore men are different. Herbivore men, unlike their “incel” counterparts, are not frustrated by their lack of a romantic relationship with the opposite gender. Instead, they are generally indifferent when it comes to the opposite gender, as evidenced by their lack of romantic pursuits.
The “incel” laments on his ability to attract women on online forums. They vent about their appearances. They loathe a system that supposedly favors men with better looks and taller frames. The herbivore man is much more gentle and kind. They participate in traditionally female activities. They easily make female friends. While both lack a romantic relationship, it’s their reaction to the question “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” that sets them apart.
In Japan, not everything is about masculinity. In fact, it’s perfectly okay for a man to tap into his feminine side by taking care of his appearance, treating himself to different brands of desserts, purchasing small luxuries and more.
After all that is said, it’s good that herbivore men exist. At some point in every boy’s life, he is told by someone to “act more like a man,” and while some are motivated by those words, many others, simply, are not. Instead of going out to get drunk with their bosses in order to fulfill decades-old expectations coming from the Western world and Japan itself, these guys are truly allowed to be themselves. It is important to recognize this because although the trend is most prominent in Japan, it is easy to see how it can translate over to Western countries as well. Herbivores are harmless; they aren’t a threat to anybody but corporate Japan and the government, who are more focused on profit and ridiculous work ethics rather than individual fulfillment. While men identifying themselves as literal grass-eaters isn’t ideal, it is the first step in making Japan a less corporate, and ultimately more human, country.