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Our mission is to unmask Japan to reveal the real consumer truths

Grass Eaters

By: Dominic Carter

It was back in 2006 that columnist, Maki Fukusawa, alerted us to the possibility that Japan’s fabled salarymen were mutating into something rather more touchy-feely. In a series of articles published on the Nikkei Business website she coined the term “soushoku danshi” which means “grass-eater” or “herbivore”.

The term applies to young men in their 20s and 30s who have rejected the typical Japanese notions of self-sacrificing, conforming masculinity, and are happy to earn little and spend little. Rather than career, they focus on fashion and appearance, and believe that friendship without sex can exist between men and women. Moreover, in matters of romance, they take a non-aggressive stance- waiting to be courted, rather than taking the lead. They are careful to respect women’s feelings, and are not afraid to be seen as vulnerable.

A recent survey reported that almost three quarters of single men in their 30s are said, at some level, to consider themselves grass-eaters. This trend of rejecting what was normal for men only a decade ago has coincided with unabated, long-term economic stagnation. This phenomenon of meekness in men also seems to be consistent with a lack of risk-taking in society generally. The Internet has probably magnified the trend, facilitating increasingly internally oriented activities among men such as gaming, anonymous social media and porn that do not require much to be “put on the line”.

Balancing the trend of herbivorous males, women who are proactive in love, sex and in their careers are now called ‘carnivorous females’. Tired of waiting for men to take the initiative, many are not afraid to take the lead with men when it comes to relationships. In the workplace many of these women have more presence than their male counterparts which, on the part of men, seems to be provoking not anger, but passivity.

The media is split on the topic, as are the public. Some see soushoku danshi as refreshing. Japan lacks a true machismo culture, which makes it easier for many people to accept alternative expressions of masculinity. Others, many women included, are worried about the future of Japanese society. They are disappointed in the country’s men for not taking more initiative in the scheme of things and at least attempting to live active, aggressive and traditionally engaged lives.

Japanese companies are also worried as more and more herbivores influence the ways businesses operate internally. A lack of competitive spirit and goal orientation threatens to neuter the aggressive and expansionist foundations of Japan’s (somewhat creaking) economic miracle. Furthermore, the rejection of typical consumerist goals (including those associated with household formation) is fueling an anemic consumption rate; especially for firms offering costly items such as cars that men would have flocked to as status symbols in the past.

For the foreign marketer, this trend presents a wider palette of aesthetic and creative choices when talking to men. The opportunities to further extend traditionally female oriented categories such as fashion and grooming into the male market are obvious. Areas that mothers have tended to dominate such as cooking and even child-care are also bound to enjoy greater levels of male participation in the future. Perhaps more importantly, this trend reflects a softening overall of the demands on people to “be” a certain way, whether they are women or men.

Looking at successful brands like Uniqlo and Muji we can see that more modest, less demanding expressions of consumerism have formed a long-term trend. In the years ahead, brands that emphasize their friendly, “alternative” natures will resonate well in Japan. Unpretentiousness and simplicity will be an increasingly important value, but brands will need to express this in creative and fun ways. Status and prestige may become less important but brands will continue to be used by men and women as tools for self-expression.

All in all, the rise of the grass-eaters can be seen as a uniquely Japanese response to the long-term deterioration in economic opportunities. It is also quite possible with western markets facing similar stagnation to Japan that there may be some presaging of similar trends overseas; in which case Japan’s male consumers will be the ones to watch in coming years.

10th November 2010

CarterJMRN is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients with consumers and businesses in Japan and beyond since 1989.

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