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.