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Herbivore Men in Japan: A Step Toward Gender Equality?

Picture: マハロ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
While some herald them as a step forward in gender equality, other experts say that Japan's "herbivore men" are still stuck in traditional gender roles.
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In 2009, the phenomenon of “herbivore men”—heterosexual young men who lacked interest in romance or sex and rejected masculine gender norms—took Japan by storm. Media outlets focused on the potential impacts of these men on Japanese society and its economy. But how are these men viewed today? And where do they fit in when it comes to feminism and gender equality in Japan?

The History of the Term “Herbivore Men”

The term “herbivore men” (草食系男子, soushokukei danshi, or 草食男子, soushoku danshi) was coined in 2006 by columnist Fukasawa Maki (深沢 真紀). She chose the word “herbivore” to depict these men's indifference to “carnal” desires:

恋愛やセックスに「縁がない」わけではないのに「積極的」ではない、「肉」欲に淡々としている 。
Although they are not aromantic or asexual, they do not actively pursue romance or sex. They are indifferent toward desires of the flesh.

Fukasawa Maki (October 13, 2006):「U35 男子マーケティング図鑑:第 5 回草食男子」『日経ビジネスオンライン』. (link no longer available)

However, it wasn't until 2008 that the term propelled into the limelight, when philosopher Morioka Masahiro (森岡 正博) published Lessons in Love for Herbivore Men (『草食系男子の恋愛学』). In the book, Morioka challenges the idea that a man needed to be macho in order to find romance. He gives advice to the “kind and gentle” young men who struggled with romantic relationships.

Lessons in Love for Herbivore Men
Morioka's 2008 book, Lessons in Love for Herbivore Men. Morioka remarked in 2013 that this cover illustration (by manga artist Asano Inio) of an unconfident, thin young man in glasses shaped the image of herbivore men in eyes of the public.

Both Fukasawa and Morioka characterize such men in a positive light. However, their portrayal in media immediately trended toward the negative. Media focused on the characterization of these men as fashionable but effeminate, sensationalizing the concept of herbivore men. According to Morioka, older male commentators at the time lamented the future of Japan. They believed that herbivore men's lack of assertiveness would lead Japan's economy to ruin.

The Current State

Although “herbivore men” as a buzzword died down quickly after 2009 (see chart above), it has remained in the public consciousness. The word today carries a range of connotations from negative to positive. One blog from 2018 (JP link) lists the following traits as characteristic of herbivore men, among others:

  • Mild-mannered
  • Generally skinny and fair-skinned
  • Little romantic experience and low sex drive
  • Not marriage-oriented
  • Often stays at home
  • Otaku-like

According to a study by the Meiji Yasuda Institute of Life and Wellness in 2017 (JP link), young people in their mid-thirties and under tend to have a positive image of herbivore men. Nearly 80% of single men ages 15 to 24 said they were either passive or uninterested in pursuing romantic relationships. This trend suggests that such men may be becoming the norm.

Not Quite Advancing Feminism

In 2013, Morioka published the paper “A Phenomenological Study of ‘Herbivore Men',” where he reflects on the birth, development, and evolution of the concept. Toward the end of this paper, he analyzes their relationship to feminism:

I think the appearance of herbivore men can be seen as a victory for feminism. These are men who feel constricted by a “manliness” that means creating norms and controlling and protecting women and who are attempting to release themselves from its spell. As this comes from an internal motivation and not as the result of condemnation by women, is this not indeed quite close to the new type of man feminism is seeking? I think that for feminists herbivore men can at least be seen as potential allies in the struggle to change this society’s gender order rather than men who must necessarily be treated as adversaries.

Morioka Masahiro: “A Phenomenological Study of ‘Herbivore Men'”, The Review of Life Studies Vol.4 (September 2013):1-20.

Social historian Maekawa Naoya (前川 直哉) disagrees with the idea that herbivore men are a “victory” for feminism. Maekawa argues primarily that they're not totally free from gender roles. He cites an interview from Morioka's 2009 book Herbivore Men Will Bring Your Last Love ( 『 最後の恋は草食系男子が持ってくる 』 ) as an example. One of Morioka's interviewees said, “I'd like for both of us to be working. But if we had kids, I'd want my wife to take care of them.”

While herbivore men recognize and reject the oppressive nature of traditional male gender roles, they do not do the same for those gender roles imposed on women. Maekawa criticizes this as “having the best of both worlds.”

「草食系男子」は、どうすればジェンダー平等への一歩を踏み出せるか(前川 直哉) @gendai_biz

〈男らしさからの脱却〉論を超えて 「草食系男子」という言葉が一世を風靡してから10年余りが経ちました。この語を流行させた立役者の一人・哲学者の森岡正博さんは、2009年に刊行した『 最後の恋は草食系男子が持ってくる 』(マガジンハウス)で 「 草食系男子とは、心が優しく、男らしさに縛られておらず、恋愛にガツガツせず、傷ついたり傷つけたりすることが苦手な男子のこと 」 …

Maekawa Naoya (January 16, 2020): “What can ‘herbivore men' do to take a step toward gender equality?”, Gendai Business. (JP link)

Sociologist Kumiko Endo agrees that traditional gender norms still persist even among those who self-identify as herbivore men. She conducted interviews with many single men and women in 2018 and observed the following:

From my male respondents’ perspective, what constitutes the ideal ‘suitable person’ was described as the following: ‘someone easy to talk to’, ‘someone like an older sister’ (culturally speaking, someone indulgent), and ‘someone who won’t negate me and who will validate me’. The general consensus could be summarized with one oft-cited adjective in describing the attractive female mate: the ‘comforting-type’ (iyashikei). The single men that I interviewed also emphasized that the ‘suitable’ woman would be positive and bright, but certainly ‘not voracious’ (gatsu gatsu shiteinai), because this ‘carnivorousness’ would imply a sense of aggression.

Kumiko Endo (2018): Singlehood in ‘precarious Japan’: examining new gender tropes and inter-gender communication in a culture of uncertainty, Japan Forum

In particular, Endo observes that, while single men (and women) in Japan are starting to defy their own gender norms, their expectations of the opposite gender are still dictated by traditional values. In other words, herbivore men alone won't solve the furariiman problem.

Can Herbivore Men Help Advance Gender Equality?

Maekawa emphasizes that the subset of herbivore men who reject masculinity and romance for the sole purpose of maximizing their own comfort does not contribute to advancing gender equality. In fact, these kinds of men often hold anti-feminist views and perceive feminism as a threat to their lifestyle.

However, he does agree with Morioka that such men have great potential to contribute to the fight towards gender equality. Their denial of societal expectations of masculinity suggests that they understand the difficulties of oppressive gender norms. Therefore, instead of rejecting masculinity while still expecting femininity from women, herbivore men should be allies to women undergoing similar struggles. Maekawa argues that men must view women not just as women, but as fellow human beings, and lend an ear to their voices.

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Alan Cheng

Alan knows just enough Japanese to distinguish 柿 from 杮 thanks to his time abroad in Japan, where he ran a strict schedule alternating between playing rhythm games at the arcade and singing at karaoke. He currently works in the US and spends his free time learning obscure kanji instead of studying anything useful.

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Herbivore Men in Japan: A Step Toward Gender Equality?

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