I was eating steak at a local restaurant when a random woman said, ‘Y’know, you’d be much better off being a vegetarian.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? The cow was a vegetarian and look what happened to it!’”
— Quentin R. Bufogle, author and blogger
A young acquaintance, 27-year-old Ken, calls his grandmother regularly. Invariably, she asks her grandson the same three questions:
• Are you eating enough?
• Do you need money?
• Do you have a girlfriend?
Weary of her predictable queries, he sighs and gives his obachan the same answers each time, “Yes, no, and no.” Similar versions of their conversation could be going on across Japan as “gentle men” or soushoku danshi (grass-eating boys) grow in numbers.
Ken is a member of Japan’s “herbivore generation,” a phenomenon linked to the 1990s when Japan’s bubble economy burst, and the materialistic values that had come to characterize the country were abandoned, and a new subculture was born.
Journalist Maki Fukasawa coined the “herbivore” term in 2006 in a series of articles about young men who are not particularly interested in sex, marriage, or high-paying jobs. Since Fukasawa’s revelation, the legions of the herbivores have escalated dramatically. According to a recent survey by Lifenet, a Japanese life insurance company, an estimated 60-75 percent of unmarried Japanese men in their 20s and 30s identify themselves as herbivores.
Alexandra Harney, writing for the online publication Slate, observes, “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.”
Couple this with Japan’s corporate reluctance to promote women of child-bearing age, and the kanji handwriting is on the wall. It’s time to re-think the Japanese corporate culture that encourages women to pursue higher education then asks them to choose family or career by the time they are 40.
A 2014 article in The Economist noted: “When women (in Japan) have their first child, 70 percent of them stop working for a decade or more, compared with just 30 percent in America. Quite a lot of 70 percent are gone for good.” For some of these women, moving to the United States is an option. They become part of the burgeoning Shin Issei (new immigrants) generation. Many marry here, have Shin Nisei (new second generation) children and, yes, have jobs if they so choose.
Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe awakened to the realization that women may be the key to strengthening Japan’s economy. According to The Economist, in April 2013, he announced that raising female labor participation to the level of men’s could add 8 million people to Japan’s shrinking workforce, potentially increasing GDP (gross domestic product) by as much as 15 percent. Abe appointed Yoko Kamikawa to serve as Minister of Gender Quality. Even she is alarmed at the lack of significant progress in the past decade.
Americans describe the invisible barrier that prevents women and certain minorities from advancing beyond mid- and low-level corporate positions as the “glass ceiling.” In Japan, it is referred to as the “bamboo ceiling” because it is thick, hard and not even transparent. Although the number of Japan’s senior, executive committee-level female managers has increased to 4.5 percent, it is still far below China’s 9 percent and Singapore’s 15 percent.
Fukasawa contends that during Japan’s bubble economy, “Japanese people had to live according to both Western standards and Japanese standards. That trend has run its course.”
She adds, “In response to the herbivorous boys’ tepidity, carnivorous girls are pursuing men more aggressively. Also known as ‘hunters,’ these women could be seen as Japan’s (younger) version of America’s cougars.”
Having grown up as a Sansei Baby Boomer, I am well acquainted with my generation’s carnivorous ways. Men in the 1960s and 1970s who were macho were exalted by their peers in those days. Covering Japanese American community events for The Rafu as a young woman, I encountered more than a few older men trying to assert their manhood. Let’s just say I learned the meaning of the Japanese word sukebe early on.
Meanwhile, we gals were challenged to “go for it” — career and family. At times it was dizzying and exhausting. Sometimes “having it all” came at the expense of our health and sanity but, hey, it was worth it. It was, wasn’t it?
I’m starting to think that herbivores are on to something. They watched Baby Boomers, perhaps their own fathers, spend countless hours at work, then devote late nights to cultivating comradery with bosses and clients at bars or weekends playing business golf. In rejecting that macho lifestyle, grass-eaters may have happened upon the secret of a longer, healthier life.
How freeing it must be to work at a low-stress job and draw satisfaction from the simpler things in life — a walk in the park, taking photographs of ancient temples, expressing your creativity through a hobby, or cooking a modest meal. The Internet, too, is a key factor in allowing both men and women to explore the world at large.
At the same time, if the young women of Japan, or any country for that matter, seek the gratification that comes with the laughter of children, the love of a devoted husband, and the gratification of a career well-served, these should be available to them.
I am a proud female carnivore, who nevertheless would love to have a herbivore friend in which to confide every once in a while.
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
— Gloria Steinem (1934- ), American author and activist
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