What’s the deal with the Japanese “herbivore men”?

One day, when I’d been in Japan for about a week and a half, I was sitting at my kitchen table, eating dinner, while my Japanese roommate (who I’ll call H) and her (Japanese) guy friend (who I’ll call J) were chatting about this and that.  H suddenly turned to me and asked, “Hey, Queenie, are you a herbivore or a carnivore?”

“Uhhhh.”  I had no idea how to say “omnivore,” so I wound up explaining, “I eat meat and vegetables?”

H and J started laughing.  “No, no, no, with BOYS,” H explained, as though this was supposed to make the situation more comprehensible.  “Are you a herbivore or a carnivore?”

“H is a carnivore,” J explained helpfully.  “She eats all the boys.”

“I’m like a wolf!” H interjected.

“I’m more of a herbivore myself,” J said.  “I like lettuce.”  The two of them broke down in helpless giggles.  Fortunately, this distracted them and so I never had to answer whether I was a herbivore or a carnivore.

As I learned later, a “carnivore” (肉食, literally “meat-eater”) is someone who is assertive and aggressive about their romantic/sexual relationships–the person who says, “HEY, I LIKE YOU; WE SHOULD GO OUT.”  (The pun here is that 肉 can refer to both “meat” and “flesh,” like in English.)  A “herbivore” (草食, literally “grass-eater”) is someone who is more passive about their romantic/sexual relationships–they’re not averse to the idea if it’s offered to them, but they won’t actively pursue a romantic/sexual relationship.  Needless to say, in Japan (like in many other countries), men are supposed to be carnivores while women are supposed to be herbivores.*

Recently, though, there’s been a trend of “herbivore men” (草食男子).  What is a “herbivore man”?  Well, the definition varies (a lot) depending on who you ask.  If you ask Japanese Wikipedia, you get a bunch of different definitions:

1. “Although it’s not that they’re not fated for love (恋愛),** they’re not assertive [about relationships], and they are disinterested in desires of the ‘flesh’ [肉, literally 'meat'].”

2. “A new generation of gentle young men, who aren’t the carnivorous type who greedily hunt the opposite sex.  The kind of herbivorous men who want to amiably eat grass shoulder-to-shoulder with the opposite sex.”

3. “A herbivore man has a gentle heart, is not bound by masculinity, has no burning desire for love (恋愛),** and has a sensitive disposition [literally 'is bad at being hurt over and over'].”

Basically, a herbivore man is one who is not particularly interested in actively pursuing romantic or sexual relationships (although every herbivore man I’ve ever met or seen quoted has said that if a girl asked him out, he wouldn’t turn her down).  He’s often shy and interested in “non-manly things,” like fashion, baking, or embroidery.  Often his lack of aggression extends to the workplace, so herbivore men tend to be much less competitive than their carnivorous counterparts.  Shockingly, these men also believe (hold onto your hats, folks) that they can be friends with women.  You know all those articles in the American press asking, “Can men and women really be friends????”  Well, in Japan, they don’t even ask that.  It is known that women and men cannot be friends.  (When I foolishly let slip to my all-girls class that about half of my friends were guys, they responded with audible gasping.  One of them even asked me afterward, “What is it like?  You know, being friends with a man.”)

There’s all sorts of blame being thrown around for the rise of the herbivore man.  Japanese women are becoming too assertive!  All these carnivore women are scaring men off of women forever!  (Oh, hey, that doesn’t sound like anything that’s been written in the American press recently.)  The internet is the reason that men are being stripped of their manliness!  Anime girls are destroying their manly hunting instincts!  (This is an actual argument I have read.)  Women are too interested in their careers when they should be interested in serving their men!  If they got back in their place, this horrible epidemic wouldn’t be occurring!  (Welp.)  Women are becoming more masculine, so men have to become more feminine in response!  All their attention to personal grooming is destroying the masculinity of the herbivore men!  And so on.

Interestingly, the Japanese press is most concerned by the idea that these are men who aren’t being assertive about starting romantic relationships (and thus contributing to the declining birthrate and the increasing age of first marriage), whereas the American press paints a picture that goes something like, “OMG THERE ARE ALL THESE JAPANESE MEN WHO HATE SEX OMG!!!!111!!”  In fact, sex is usually mentioned, if not in the title, in the first sentence of most American articles on the subject.  In Japan, the idea of having a sexless relationship is not uncommon–セクスレス (sexless) refers to a marriage in which the members have not had sexual contact for more than a month–but these guys aren’t even getting into relationships where they’re not having sex, which is the truly shocking part.

Since I’m an asexual blogger, I guess now it’s my job to talk about what the trend of herbivore men has in common with asexuality.  And the answer is…not a whole lot, at first glance.  The majority of men who self-identify as herbivores also identify as heterosexual.  Despite the American press’s screams about “THE ASEXUAL JAPANESE MAN OMG,” these men aren’t actually asexual; it’s not that they’re not attracted to women so much as they’re choosing not to act on that attraction.   (You could also write monographs about the stereotype of, as my lovely classmate put it, “the sexually challenged Asian man,” which is almost certainly feeding into Western media portrayals.)  Many herbivore men will happily enter into romantic/sexual relationships if the women take the initiative, but they’re just as happy staying single.

When you dig a little bit deeper, though, you can find some parallels with asexuality…or at least with a lot of topics the asexual community discusses at length.  Herbivore men are challenging the idea that you must be in a romantic/sexual relationship to be happy.  Although people may run around screaming about how sad and isolated they are, most of the herbivore men I’ve met or seen interviewed seem quite content and comfortable in their own skin.  They’re also not isolated by any stretch of the imagination–if anything, they are more connected to their communities and their relationships than the stereotypical career-driven carnivore man.  This idea that you can be happy while single is extremely important, especially in Japan, where your self-worth is often determined by whether you are dating/married or not.  I have a great many female Japanese friends who considered themselves worthless because they were graduating college without ever having had boyfriends–despite the fact that they were graduating from a very good university and receiving multiple job offers.  (I’ve also had many Japanese people inform me in a Tone of Doom that No Man Will Ever Marry Me if I get a PhD, so I better give up that dream and marry quickly.)  Herbivore men are opening up discussion about the options available for relationships.  Before it was assumed that a man would graduate college, enter a company, marry a woman he then spent very little time with, pop out some kids, climb slowly upward in the company hierarchy, have only male friends, and eventually retire, but now that herbivore men (who are often critical of the Japanese company system) have entered into the fray, it’s becoming–while not more acceptable–at least more heard of for men to not enter that path.  Herbivore men are also starting to bridge the huge gender divide in Japan–making friends with women and treating them with respect rather than seeing them solely as potential wives.

Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion (especially on American articles) on herbivore men is pretty similar to what we see in the comments sections of articles on asexuality: they’re all secretly gay, they should get their hormones checked, their “lack of masculinity” is probably caused by environmental pollution, their sex drive has been ruined by watching too much porn, etc. etc. etc.  People subverting gender norms?  There must be something in the water!  Don’t want to date every woman you see?  There’s probably something wrong with your hormones.  It’s somewhat saddening that people react in such a violently negative fashion toward anything that challenges their world views, but not entirely surprising at this point, I suppose.

Are herbivore men asexual?  No.  Next time you see an article about “OMG THE JAPANESE ASEXUAL MAN OMG,” you have my permission to roll your eyes at it.  Are they forcing people to question traditional ideas of masculinity?  Sure.  Are they questioning many of the assumptions people have made about relationships?  Of course.  Are they going to single-handedly lead to the downfall of Japan?  No, no more than the carnivore women are.  (Plus, the actual percentage of herbivore men in Japan is much lower than Western media makes it out to be.  You’ll often see a 60% statistic…but they fail to say that’s 60% of men between the ages of 16-19 in major metropolitan areas like Tokyo, which is where the herbivore men are concentrated.  Statistics: they only mean something if you have context.)  If anything, herbivore men (and carnivore women!) might open up new options for relationships, lifestyles, and self-expression in Japan.  And, hey, that’s not a bad thing.

*Japanese gender theory is beyond the scope of this post; suffice to say that when I’m talking about “men” and “women,” the “cisgender” should be understood.  “Transgender” is a fairly recent term to enter the Japanese vocabulary (it’s actually a “borrowed word” from English), and, as far as I know, there is no word for non-binary individuals.  Just to give you an idea of how different conceptions of gender are in Japan, many Japanese people who label themselves as “gay men” would be considered straight transwomen in the States.  Like I said, it’s complicated.

**This is actually a really hard term to translate, as it combines two characters, 恋, which is sort of carnal love, and 愛, which is a more “pure” love that is emotional or spiritual rather than physical.  恋愛 is normally translated as “love, love-making, emotion, or passion,” which is…really not clear at all.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
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30 Responses to What’s the deal with the Japanese “herbivore men”?

  1. Siggy says:

    I always suspected that something was getting lost in translation in US media coverage of herbivore men. The fact that Japanese women are expected to be herbivores in the same sense of the word is a pretty big hint that it has to do with gender politics rather than sexual orientation.

    Although I bet it has a pretty big effect on asexuals in Japan. Imagine that 60% of 16-19 year-olds in major cities in the US were quirkyalone; asexuals would probably end up talking about it a lot, even though in principle it’s unrelated.

    • queenieofaces says:

      One of my biggest regrets from my stay in Japan was that I wasn’t able to find an asexual community there. The city I was living in was far enough from Tokyo (where I know there ARE ace groups) that I couldn’t commute in easily, and my own city was somewhat famous as a dead zone for GSRM groups of all stripes. So, yeah, I have no idea how it affects the ace community in Japan, even though I wish I did!

  2. I have wondered about grass-eating men and their relation to asexuality for a while, and I am glad to be better informed now. I was previously under the impression (thanks to American media) that they were an asexual community.

    恋愛 seems similar to what people refer to in English as “sexual love,” because the word “love” is not really used in English to refer to a lust-only situation, and “sexual love” means something akin to love plus (sexual) lust.

    • queenieofaces says:

      恋愛 is KINDA like sexual love, but it’s even more complicated than that, because the term for sexuality, X性愛, is literally X-sex love (with this love being the pure, spiritual love). That’s mostly because the original term for homosexuality (同性愛, literally “same-sex love”) was created to refer to women who were essentially in Boston marriages, i.e. they had this incredibly deep and intense relationship, but they weren’t necessarily having sex. Before THAT there was a term, 男色 (literally “man color”), for the act of men having sex with other men, but it didn’t involve any “love” words. So now you’ve got this strange situation where the words to refer to sexuality don’t necessarily have any connotations of, you know, sexual ATTRACTION, and instead sound more like what we would consider a romantic orientation.

      …I should really just write a post on this, because apparently I know way too much about this stuff.

      • Eponine says:

        I almost mentioned those sexual orientation terms in my last reply, lol. In Chinese it’s pretty much similar, expect that it’s X性恋 instead of X性愛. e.g. homosexuality = 同性恋, and asexuality = 无性恋 (无 means “no” or “without”). When I found out sexual and romantic orientations are different things, it suddenly occurred to me that these terms are actually more appropriate to describe romantic orientations. I think that’s part of the reason why I didn’t realize my asexuality for so long: I always knew I liked men romantically, therefore I was “heterosexual” (异性恋, which literally means something like “heteroromantic”).

        • queenieofaces says:

          That’s so interesting! I think X性恋 in Japanese would be much closer to what we think of as sexual orientation, as 恋 is like infatuation or more physical love of a person. That’s why 恋人 is “lover” (in both the “person you love” sense and the “person you have sex with” sense). Of course, 愛人 also means “lover” or “mistress,” so it’s not always easy to separate the two terms cleanly… I remember my first Japanese teacher explained 恋 as the feeling of looking at your really hot crush and 愛 as “earth-shattering, world-changing love.”

        • Eponine says:

          I guess 恋 is more sexualized in Japanese then. In Chinese 恋人 is more like boyfriend/girlfriend in the passionate love stage, and 愛人 leans towards long-term partners, but sometimes they can be used interchangably. I think 恋 implies physical love, but it’s still more about the emotional component. Or maybe it’s just my acey interpretation. :P

      • Sara K. says:

        Yes, write a post about this! I would read it :D

        In Mandarin, 色, in addition to meaning color, also means something like ‘lust’. For example, there is a chengyu 重色輕友, literally ‘heavy lust light friend’ which means to value sex more than friendship. And there is the word 好色, literally ‘good lust’ which means ‘lustful’.

  3. Eponine says:

    Very interesting. I’ve heard of Japanese herbivore men before, but not in detail. As a Chinese, I see some of the Japanese mindsets are quite similar to those in China: young people base their self-worth on whether they’re in a relationship, many people don’t believe men and women can be friends (but not as extreme as Japanese people, and it’s not an absolute consensus), and most of all, “no man would marry a female PhD”. OMG, I hate this one so much. Female PhDs are seen as freaks who are doomed to be single, and even called “the third gender” (which also shows Chinese people’s understanding of gender is very much binary, like Japanese).

    I think 恋愛 in Chinese is closest to “romantic love”, which of course is usually sexual too. 恋 implies passion and attachment, and 愛 is the broad term which can mean any kind of love, just like “love” in English. But of course there may be some subtle difference in Japanese. :)

  4. Sara K. says:

    It’s interesting to compare both the Japanese and the Chinese approaches to this with the Taiwanese perspective.

    I would say that, on the carnivore-herbivore spectrum, most young Taiwanese men would fall under ‘omnivore’ – not particularly aggressive about pursuing romance/sex, but also not particularly passive.

    Gender roles and ideas about orientation do seem to be more flexible in Taiwan than in either Japan or China. I suspect it’s because of the social upheavals of the past 300 years – from the mid 17th century up to the end of the 19th century, there were more young men than women in Taiwan, and from about the mid-17th century until just a few decades ago it was to many people’s advantage to marry outside their own ethnic group, which meant lots of inter-cultural marriages (and this involved cultures with some very different ideas about gender).

    The Taiwanese government even talks about legalizing same-sex marriage, though it seems to be mostly air (the president did appear and give a speech at the Taipei Gay Pride parade once).

    Even so, the level of ignorance that most Taiwanese people have about GSM still sometimes shocks me.

    And Taiwan manages to have a lower birth rate than *Japan* and *China*.

  5. Seth says:

    I’ve been following this conversation with some interest, but suddenly, all I can think of is Kevin & Kell. Silly as it is, I cannot unsee the tenuous connection, and I’m having a hard time taking this seriously anymore. :P

  6. Calinlapin says:

    This is great ! –> Twitter

  7. Seth says:

    I’d say this trend is probably a result of feminism. In the past few decades there has been a sharp disapproval of men who are viewed as sexist/misogynistic/etc. The general response for a lot of guys is to be super nice, or in Japan’s case…just be more passive about it.

  8. Tako says:

    Really fascinating article! I’d like to think that this rising trend is more to do with gender roles, even in the more traditional Japan, becoming less and less important, so these men can feel comfortable in following their natural urges, whether that be meat-eating or grass-eating. And hopefully it should be something that sorts it out and becomes less sensationalist with time. Hopefully anyway, though that’s probably an idealistic view to take.

    Interesting comments about Taiwanese and Chinese perceptions on this as well from the commenters.

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  10. I think you are COMPLETELY getting their motivations wrong here. I think what’s driving Japan’s herbivore men is seeing what the carnivore lifestyle did to their fathers (working 70 hours a week ain’t a walk in the park), and saw how empty and vain it made them when they cared about nothing more than buying a new car each year or Louis Vuitton bags for their wives and each of their daughters (you seemed for some reason not to mention that in addition to overly sexual lifestyles, these young men also reject materialism). The thing is, men, even Japanese men, LIKE assertive women. We’re tired of having to do all the work to initiate romantic relationships. Stop assuming that everything men do is motivated by misogyny.

    • Siggy says:

      The post doesn’t say anything about men being motivated by misogyny. I really have no idea where you got that from. It also sounds like you are projecting your own feelings about assertive women onto Japanese men. How do you know that herbivore men have the same motivations you do?

      In fact, I’m sure herbivore men have a variety of motivations, and you’ve named a couple.

      • I’m getting it from when they sarcastically deride how people are “blaming” the rise of herbivore men on women working full-time. “Women are too interested in their careers when they should be interested in serving their men! If they got back in their place, this horrible epidemic wouldn’t be occurring!” That right there brands men as petty misogynists who feel their power threatened, when the thing is, male/female power structures are FAR more complex (and yes, women have a hell of a lot of power).

        • Siggy says:

          Well now I’m just confused about what you’re saying. Do you think Queenie is branding herbivore men as misogynists, that she’s branding anti-herbivore sentiments as misogynist? Are you sure you aren’t mixing up Queenie’s views with the views that Queenie mocks?

          I don’t know how Queenie feels about it, but I certainly don’t think either of those groups are misogynist. It all seems to be motivated by a generational gap in attitudes towards gender roles, materialism, work, dating, and so forth. Herbivore men and carnivore women are subverting traditional Japanese gender roles, and some of the older generation is treating it as a moral panic. It’s a little silly because what’s wrong with women sometimes being assertive, or men not always taking the initiative?

        • queenieofaces says:

          I’m really confused as to what you’re arguing as well. Certainly, the people who are arguing for women getting back in their “rightful place” are sexist, but as the herbivore men themselves are not arguing such things, I cannot see where you are getting the idea that I think the herbivore men are misogynists. I, in fact, do not think the herbivore men are misogynists, and am not arguing that in this essay. As Siggy was saying, the herbivore men phenomenon is motivated by a variety of things (none of which I touched on in any great depth) including changing gender norms, disillusionment concerning materialism and the Japanese company system, and a desire to approach relationships differently than the older generation, among other things.

  11. BigMobe says:

    The Grasseaters of Japan have been compared to the MGTOWs in the Western World.

    • Dahlia says:

      Except that The Grasseaters of Japan spent less time bitching about women,unlike the MGTOWs

      • Suffering Through Questioning says:

        HAha. Good Point. But the real misogynists are the Patriarchs or the “traditionalists” within the so called “manosphere” who say that men should work their asses off to get into a “good” college and rise to the top of the corporate ladder to earn his “alpha male” status and eventually becoming a “breadwinner” while his wife “should” stay at home. These men created feminism. Google anything between the link between the Rockefellar dynasty and feminism and you will be surprised how many results you will find. Sounds like conspiracy theorist f..kery but you have to see for yourself and decide what you want to believe. I think these herbivore men are rebelling against the established ways of rigid thinking rather than just wasting time and energy blaming the opposite sex for their issues. While the Japanese are concerned about these men causing society to have a birth rate “decline”, well, these men could possibly reduce the high suicide rates as well. They could say ” I could still continue live without shame doing what I want to do with my life instead of what everyone else wants me to do”. Better to reduce the birth rate than the death rate especially it its self inflicted!

      • Eliezer Ben-Yehuda says:

        That’s only temporary. Wait till full-on legal prostitution gets sorted out in Canada. Remember, the recent “mortgage crisis castrophe” in America occurred when only a few percent of homeowners couldn’t stay current on their payments. It ==is== the events on the margin which set price of the market. By 2015-2016, there will be MANY age 28-34 american women who have as much trouble getting a ring put on it as their 40-something older sisters do now. At that point, we will see a return to NORMAL HISTORICAL patterns of young women deciding to lock down a man at the height of their female beauty…. 22-23 at the latest.

        Don’t believe me? Go to Guam and talk to the age 25-ish Japanese tourist women. They are in full-on panic mode about EVER having a family Remember, from Japan it’s quite a short flight for the Herbivore men to visit the red lights of Manila and Bangkok. In two years, that will describe Vancouver & Toronto.

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  13. Chris S says:

    hippy redneck is right, Siggy is very very wrong.

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  16. normal? says:

    The question is, when are we all going to ask for what we want. Women have approached me but they are always indirect. Since I’m not really afraid of rejection I’ll ask her out if I like her and do not feel I should if I am not attracted. what is going on in Japan, is happening in many other places. I think it’s a phase torwards a new or different society. It will be interesting to how it all turns out and what we learn from it.

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