Japan's young men choose cosmetics over careers

Time of article published Jul 3, 2009

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A question is cropping up more and more on the streets of Tokyo: male or female? It's not an exaggeration to point out that many young Japanese men are looking a bit ladylike.

The phenomenon is an obsession on television talk shows, and it could have bigger implications for Asia's largest economy than many appreciate - few of them good.

Social commentator Maki Fukasawa in 2006 coined the term "herbivores", or grass-eating men. It's not meant to insult vegetarians, but to explain a growing subculture of heterosexual males in their 20s and 30s who are less interested in careers than their salaried fathers and are ambivalent about sex and marriage.

If you think this story should be on the fashion pages, not the business ones, you are mistaken. The feminisation of the ranks of tomorrow's corporate samurais connects directly with two of Japan's main economic problems: a declining birth rate and negligible consumption.

In an economy sinking back into deflation, it is not a phenomenon that investors are likely to grasp as they assess Japan's prospects. Yet the blurring of gender identities says a lot about many challenges facing Japan that are being actively ignored by the government.

As many as two-thirds of Japanese men between the ages of 20 and 34 would classify at least partly as herbivore men, according to Megumi Ushikubo, the author of the bestselling Herbivorous Ladylike Men Are Changing Japan. And, she argues, their mindset is a long way from the stereotypes about the relentless and workaholic Japanese men of the last century.

Rather than joining one company for life, drinking heavily with colleagues and chasing women, herbivores are less into work and dating than clothes and cosmetics. They often shop with their mothers, wear hairclips and sit when they pee. Tokyo-based company WishRoom is selling bras for men - some middle-aged salarymen.

To many observers, the explosion of straight, effeminate men more interested in their appearance than starting a family is a rebellion against the lives their fathers led and disillusionment from growing up in post-bubble Japan. It's also a response to an increasingly assertive female population.

Japanese older than 35 came of age during the pre-1990 bubble years and many enjoyed a period of abundant cash, unbridled opportunity and national pride.

In contrast, for the under-35 crowd the deflation of the 1990s and early 2000s crimped living standards and changed the job-for-life system. People with non-regular work - meaning part-time, less pay, fewer benefits - now make up almost 40 percent of the labour force.

The upshot will be less consumption amid worse demographic and debt trends. The population is rapidly ageing and the birth rate is stagnant. An aversion to immigration means imported labour won't fill the gap. And the debt-to-gross domestic product ratio is zooming towards 200 percent.

Japan may even be on the verge of its own subprime mortgage crisis. Over the last decade, many housing lenders lowered borrowing standards. As the recession deepens, bonuses are disappearing and mortgage defaults may skyrocket.

Paying off all that debt and remaining competitive amid China's rise will rest on the shoulders of the very demographic wallowing in disillusionment. Japan already underutilises its female workforce. Now it appears many Japanese men under 35 are actively underutilising themselves.

Commentators often harp on the birth rate implications. As more women delay motherhood, many men of marrying age appear less interested in sex than past generations. Surveys show some young men prefer pornography and cybersex to the real thing, and condom sales are falling. It may just accelerate the decline in Japan's workforce.

The key is for the government to take steps to ensure the vibrancy of Japan's workforce and society. Here, it's hard to find much good news to report.

If only the state of Japan's politics was as pretty as its young men. - Bloomberg

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