Paths to Manhood in 21st Century Japan

I wrote this essay for a sociology class called “Family and Gender in Japan” at Georgetown University in December 2015. I eagerly await updated studies on contemporary Japanese masculinity in the late Heisei period, especially given the fact that the number of fresh graduates who have received job offers (内定率) has risen continuously in the last 7 years to new highs, according to Japanese government statistics.

In 2006, the columnist Fukusawa Maki coined the term soushokukei danshi, or “herbivore male,” to describe heterosexual Japanese men uninterested in sexual relationships.[1] The herbivore male is marked by his conspicuous consumption, feminine actions, lack of career ambition, and “resistance or indifference to active heterosexuality.”[2] Herbivore masculinity directly opposes salaryman masculinity, which arose as part of the postwar “state-sponsored patriarchal industrial-capitalism.”[3] It promoted an ideology of a “socially responsible shakaijin, as producer and reproducer (in other words, the daikokubashira mainstay of the household),” emphasizing the public sphere as the man’s domain and the private sphere as the woman’s.[4] However, after the bubble economy’s collapse, salarymen were “embodied by loss of authority, loss of seduction, and loss of genius,” undermining its hegemonic masculinity status.[5]

Through the lens of the country’s low fertility rate, Japanese and international media portrayed herbivore males as a widespread phenomenon. A 2013 BBC documentary, No Sex Please, We’re Japanese, featured a 39-year old about his virtual girlfriend on a Nintendo DS, whom he went on dates with on the weekends.[6] In a 2010 Nihon Keizai Shimbun feature article, a 27-year old admitted that he was “scared to be rejected if [he] confessed” to his female crush.[7]

This essay will argue that young, heterosexual Japanese men remain committed to forming romantic relationships with women, marriage, and seeking ambitious careers while continuing to face pressure from the social expectation of being a daikokubashira. In the workplace, they have adapted salaryman masculinity to the harsh realities of Japan’s business environment, but salaryman masculinity and stable employment retain their hegemonic status over opportunities for individual pursuits in their youth. In their private lives, they are using their agency to fit more gender-equal expectations towards love and marriage from Japanese women. Therefore, the sexually passive and unambitious “herbivore male” form of masculinity is merely a fabricated construct in an attempt to explain an evolution, not revolution, in Japanese masculinity.

In the first section, the essay will argue that while traditional assumptions on hegemonic salaryman masculinity have been weakened, young Japanese men have begun to redefine the salaryman, an even more difficult and competitive ideal to obtain, with new attributes of entrepreneurship and personal success. The second section will explain that ‘freeters,’ part-time or temporary workers who are either unwilling or unable to become permanent employees, have little viability to embody a new hegemonic masculinity because of the daikokubashira expectations that remain embedded in Japanese masculinity even as female role expectations change. The third section will contend that the allegedly effeminate interests of heterosexual herbivore males, far from being platonic, are part of their responses to women’s desires in seeking love and marriage.

Changing Definitions of Salaryman Masculinity

The collapse of the material aspects of a salaryman’s job seemed to have undermined its status as a hegemonic masculinity. In the postwar heyday, the young male university graduate would need to display “qualities of loyalty, diligence, dedication, self-sacrifice, [and] hard work” in return for the indefinite job security and firm benefits that his family could rely on.[8] These incentives provided ikigai for men to representatively dominate the public sphere in a high-growth era, because “to be 100 percent responsible for [one’s] family [meant] to be 100 percent responsible for [one’s] company.”[9] Thus, for laid-off salarymen, “the issues went beyond simply the loss of employment—their very identity as father, provider, indeed as male” was undermined.[10] Their company betrayed their loyalties and attacked the foundation of their masculinity.

A negative discourse about salarymen discouraged young Japanese males from emulating the glorified ‘corporate warriors’ of the past. Reflecting their sudden loss of ikigai, mature men’s suicide rates doubled at the end of the 1990s and have stayed high.[11] For those salaryman who stayed on with a job, their behavior of staying late at work was no longer something to celebrate, but a symptom of work addiction. The medical term karoshi became mainstream, describing victims of “psychologically unsound work processes” who worked on 14-hour days and died of fatigue.[12] A 1996 Japan Travel Bureau guidebook on salarymen ominously told tourists that “it is a miracle they are alive at all.”[13] Young men who grew up in economic decline and absent fathers are much less ready to place the success of a company that could betray them at any moment over their private lives. They believe they will not be rewarded for the salaryman work ethic that their fathers had.[14] Indeed, older salarymen believe that their successors “don’t care about the company at all…they only claim their rights.”[15] The growing desire of young men to work to live, rather than to live to work, was thus a salient challenge to salaryman masculinity’s hegemonic position.

Despite its diminished stature, Japanese male students have yet to make a wholesale rejection of salaryman masculinity; rather, competition for work, particularly white-collar regular employment has become more intense and exclusive. Fewer companies are able to afford on-the-job training, so they hire fewer employees with a greater emphasis on academic qualifications, particularly university degrees.[16] Before 1978, only 18.8 percent of males who finished schooling and entered the labor market attained university-level education or higher; by the post-bubble 1992-2000 era, that figure had risen to 43.2 percent.[17] Males who attempt to find regular employment with only a high school degree, “with neither the parental financial resources nor the necessary grades to enter a good university, find school to be less and less relevant to their lives.”[18] Far from rejecting regular employment as an objective for their masculine identities, Japanese men have to exercise more devotion than ever to enter higher education and to become salarymen.

Under conditions of intense competition and diminished corporate loyalty, the new generation crafted a new salaryman masculinity separate from the loyalty-based high-growth era model. The ideal salarymen “no longer focus around values like hard work, perseverance, and group harmony, but rather around entrepreneurial spirit, competitive society, and self-responsibility.”[19] What young male workers care about is no longer protecting their companies’ successes but building their personal careers using their human capital. New employees are more willing to switch jobs to fit their career ambitions. The average length of service at an employer for the age 25-29 cohort has fell from six years in 1985 to four in 2005.[20] In Brinton’s study on youth and postindustrial Japan’s labor market, a male university graduate had a stable banking job, but unlike his elite predecessors of the 1970s and 1980s, “went about looking for a new job that would be more challenging and a better fit to his talents,” and got one through the Internet, rather than the institutional social capital of his university.[21] Furthermore, male CEOs who subscribe to an efficiency-driven organizational culture, such as Carlos Ghosn, who radically restructured Nissan to save the company, are becoming new role models who are redefining the ideals and expectations of corporate masculinity. In contrast to passive company men who staying behind to score points with his manager, their hardline, aggressive entrepreneurism in pursuit of success makes “the older model of salaryman masculinity…appear almost ‘feminine.’”[22] While external pressures have changed the form of hegemonic salaryman masculinity, Japanese males have not yet separated white-collar work from their ikigai as the herbivore male discourse would want one to believe. They are competing even harder to get the elusive white-collar masculine identity.

Males Freeters, Aspirations, and the Daikokubashira

While the harsh business environment in the 1990s catalyzed the emergence of non-regular employment in Japan, analyses of changing Japanese masculinities have focused on young males who became freeters out of agency, and not because they are victims of economic stagnation. An emerging ikigai ideal is of the self, leading men to choose casual work that is personally satisfying. A former rock musician turned construction worker in Mathews’ ikigai study finds no regret in cutting himself off from “conventional Japanese notions of masculine success” because “he is celebrated by some of his male friends for being the epitome of masculine freedom.”[23] These choices have become desirable, because in a society of affluence, has individuals are likely to assume less risk in their livelihoods when they prioritize self-realization over financial stability and being a family daikokubashira.[24] Furthermore, from the 1960s, the average Japanese family had fewer than two children, so young males, who were more likely to have grown up in single-child households, are “more self-centered than previous generations with a weaker sense of social responsibility.”[25] Refusing jobs that embody hegemonic salaryman masculinity, they are the parasitic, ambitionless youth who take their parents’ hard work in the postwar economic miracle for granted.[26] Such changes in attitudes to employment form an alternative hypothesis for the shift in masculine performance towards freeters and casual work.

On the long run, as long as daikokubashira ideals of being the household’s primary breadwinner remains embedded in the Japanese male gender role, it remains doubtful whether the dream-fulfilling freeter masculinity is a sustainable enough ideal to displace the hegemonic status of salaryman masculinity as the hegemonic form. In a 2000 Japan Institute of Labor survey where high school students were asked to select only one reason about why they became freeters, the most common answers were “freeters have more free time than regular employees,” and “I want money immediately.”[27] However, being a freeter therefore remains a problematic career choice, especially when the imperative of stable work for stable finances to fulfill the daikokubashira ideal remains embedded in Japanese masculinity. While public opinion surveys have indicated greater normative acceptance of new female role expectations, such as women working after marriage, those surveys show rigid support for the male gender role of being a household’s primary breadwinner.[28] Freeters earn a relatively low annual income of 1-1.5 million yen, and will find it difficult to convert to regular employment status because of continued poor economic growth, low labor mobility, and the menial tasks that they perform in causal jobs which do not endow them with the necessary experience. Given that, as aforementioned, normative salaryman masculinity is adapting to young professionals who switch jobs and refuse to accept corporate paternalism, a young male graduate beholden to the daikokubashira ideal would choose to become a salaryman to fulfill his breadwinner role rather than to become a freeter to fulfill his dreams.

For men who do wish to pursue their individual desires, pressures from the daikokubashira masculinity expectation eventually force them to abandon their freeter careers. The period of transition in one’s early twenties provide a space for social becoming without much responsibility. However, as male freeters age deeper into adulthood, “aspirations related to lifestyle, employment, and family creation become important arenas of negotiation.”[29] Close to 90 percent of young people who continue to want to get married and have a family, but without access to stable, permanent employment, in a 2011 survey, a higher proportion (70 percent) of men aged 30-34 in the non-regular sector, compared to those in regular employment (41 percent), is unmarried.[30] Furthermore, Japanese women reject male freeters as marriage partners, because the risk of marrying someone who was not financially responsible or could be fired anytime is too great, and their own place in the labor market remains precarious.[31] Therefore, while male gender roles stay static and “women reject male freeters’ ability to form families, there is little chance that [freeters]…will be the vanguard of a new gender order.”[32] As the window for marriage and family closes, male freeters in their late twenties give up on making their aspirations their lifelong pursuits, and turn to full-time employment to become viable candidates for marriage.

Meeting Women’s Needs in the Heterosexual Market for Love

A Japanese man’s love life, or lack thereof, and feminine pursuits form the foundational definitions of herbivore masculinity. More young Japanese males subscribe to a “cult of male beauty,” thinking that it would be obvious to spend great effort and money on self-beautification such as dying one’s hair and wearing cosmetics, practices that older generations would consider to be feminine.[33] Moreover, herbivore males prefer forming platonic rather than sexual relationships with women through mutual activities such as shopping and cooking. Their close friendships counter “a dominant heteronormative assumption that heterosexual desire is the structuring agent of most male-female relationships.”[34]

The image-conscious habits of Japanese men should actually be viewed as agency to attract women into heterosexual relationships. By focusing on the ‘femininity’ of their consumption and masculinity, one overlooks the erotic objective of heterosexual men’s beauty practices of attracting the female sex. In the words of a Waseda University female student from a 2015 study, wearing makeup is “like going to the gym, to be confident. I have to say that men using makeup are actually carnivore,” suggesting that ‘feminized’ men are actually more aligned with the sexually active masculinity of the past.[35] Whereas in the bubble economy, a man need not be beautiful as long has was a man of action with economic stability and social capital, “women now employ a more critical eye, one which includes aesthetic criteria, when they evaluate potential lovers and spouses.”[36] While once upon a time, young heterosexual men turned to athletics to fulfill traditional hegemonic salaryman masculine values of obligation, loyalty, and self-control, they now engage in aesthetic practices to win women’s sexual approval. In a study of rugby players’ masculinity, the players lamented that girls “don’t like big strong men with thick necks and smelly, sweaty bodies.”[37] Modern Japanese youth culture may no longer appreciate their physical, violent form of masculinity. Nonetheless, the new image-conscious, ‘herbivore,’ heterosexual masculinity that has arisen may be soft, but its objectives are anything but platonic.

In a society where young Japanese more readily accept gender equity in both the private and public spheres and love marriage is the norm, heterosexual Japanese males must actively adapt their performances of masculinity to remain attractive candidates for women. In a case study of gender formation among Japanese male youth, an informant named Kenji took for granted “traditional” gender relations and thought that a girlfriend would be an “accessory.” However, he fell in love with a career-oriented young woman in the final year of high school who shook his perceptions of his own masculine identity, and committed himself to an anti-sexist ideology “in order to achieve a more egalitarian partnership with her.”[38] He demonstrates that romantic love is a powerful force of disruption in the gender formation of young, heterosexual Japanese men. Affection for someone of the opposite sex alone remains deeply influential such that it “prompts the reconsideration of gender relations and [heterosexual men’s] own masculinity.”[39] Indeed, maintaining that affection is now imperative for a sustainable heterosexual relationship since “contemporary Japanese women select men who display communicative, partner-like qualities,” and not the silent salarymen who demand that they remain professional housewives in the private sphere.[40] When Japanese men adopt feminine pursuits in fashion, beautification, and social activities, they are molding their “lifestyles and bodies to match the qualities desired by women.”[41] Given that emotional attachment is now a prerequisite to marriage, the soft masculinities that herbivore males exhibit are not evidence of their preferences for a sexless life, but a variation of Japanese men fitting their masculine identities to what women want.


This essay does not deny that Japan has males who embrace perpetual singlehood and reject the corporate lifestyle. However, it has attempted to reject the notion that the “herbivore male” form of masculinity has displaced hegemonic salaryman masculinity in the post-bubble economy era. Stable employment, marriage, and starting a family remain markers of adulthood for many of today’s Japanese heterosexual males. Even as gender norms for women change, Japanese heterosexual men continue to face the pressure of being their households’ daikokubashira breadwinner. To achieve them, being a freeter, pursuing dreams, and defining their own ikigai are not, unfortunately, long-term options. Instead, they are competing even harder in education and the labor market to become entrepreneurial salarymen, and they are adopting ‘feminine’ practices to court partners in romantic love. Japanese men are tinkering with their masculine identities, but media reports of the awkward herbivore male who is sexless, afraid of women, without career ambitions, and exists to the detriment of Japan’s future have been greatly sensationalized. Perhaps that is why the academic treatment on herbivore males has remained scarce and imprecise.

The literature that this essay has relied on is now more than a decade old, conducted at the height of Japan’s ‘Lost Decades.’ More recent research, such as Dasgupta’s Re-reading The Salaryman and Smitman’s “Resilience of Hegemonic Salaryman Masculinity,” have suggested that salaryman masculinity, despite the challenges it has faced, actually remains a powerful standard of masculine identity in Japan. Therefore, further research is needed to further support or refute this essay’s thesis. It would be invaluable to gather young salaryman informants who can more concretely explain how their view their salaryman masculinity, to examine the males who have remained freeters into their middle age and their negotiation with the daikokubashira social expectations, and to question why male gender roles have remained static in the 21st century.


[1] Jef Smitsmans, “The Resilience of Hegemonic Salaryman Masculinity: A Comparison of Three Prominent Masculinities,” (master’s thesis, Lund University, 2015), 21.

[2] Justin Charlebois, “Herbivore Masculinity as an Oppositional Form Of Masculinity,” Culture, Society and Masculinities 5, no. 1 (2013): 97, doi: 10.3149/CSM.0501.89.

[3] Romit Dasgupta, “Performing Masculinities? The ‘Salaryman’ at Work and Play,” Japanese Studies 20, no. 2 (2000): 192, doi: 10.1080/713683779.

[4] Romit Dasgupta, Re-reading The Salaryman In Japan: Crafting Masculinities (New York: Routledge, 2013), 155.

[5] Steven Chen, “The Rise of 草食系男子 (Soushokukei Danshi) Masculinity and Consumption in Contemporary Japan,” in Gender, Culture, and Consumer Behavior, ed. Cele C. Otnes and Linda Tuncay Zauyer (New York: Routledge, 2012), 294.

[6] This World, “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese,” directed by John Holdsworth, written by Anita Rani, BBC, October 24, 2013.

[7] “Musuko ga kekkon dekinai kamo息子が結婚できないかも,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun 日本経済新聞, September 22, 2010.

[8] Dasgupta, “Performing Masculinities,” 193.

[9] Tomoko Hidaka, Salaryman Masculinity: The Continuity and Change in the Hegemonic Masculinity in Japan (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 142.

[10] Romit Dasgupta, “Creating corporate warriors: the “salaryman” and masculinity in Japan,” in Asian Masculinities: The meaning and practice of manhood in Japan, ed. Kam Louie and Morris Low (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 131.

[11] Robin M. LeBlanc, “Lessons from the Ghost of Salaryman Past: The Global Costs of Breadwinner Imaginary,” The Journal of Asian Studies 71, no. 4 (2012): 864, doi: 10.1017/S0021911812001209

[12] Paul A. Herbig and Frederick A. Palumbo, “Karoshi: Salaryman Sudden Death Syndrome,” Journal of Managerial Psychology 9, no. 7 (1994): 11, doi: 10.1108/02683949410075831

[13] Dasgupta, “Creating corporate warriors,” 130.

[14] Chris Deacon, “All the World’s a Stage: Herbivore Boys and the Performance of Masculinity in Contemporary Japan,” in Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy: Studying Japanese Gender at Cambridge, ed. Brigitte Steger and Angelika Koch (Zürich: Lit Verlag, 2013), 140.

[15] Hidaka, 142.

[16] Ibid., 106.

[17] Mary C. Brinton, Lost in Transition: Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 71.

[18] Ibid., 88.

[19] Dasgupta, Re-reading The Salaryman, 160-161.

[20] “Employment in Japan: Sayonara, Salaryman,” The Economist, January 3, 2008.

[21] Brinton, 153.

[22] Dasgupta, Re-reading The Salaryman, 161.

[23] Gordon Mathews, “Can ‘a real man’ live for his family? Ikigai and masculinity in today’s Japan,” in Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan: Dislocating the salaryman doxa, ed. James E. Robertson and Nobue Suzuki (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 121.

[24] Reiko Kosugi, “The Transition from School to Work in Japan: Understanding the Increase in Freeter and Jobless Youth,” Japan Labor Review 1, no. 1 (2004): 60,

[25] Chen, 295.

[26] Emma E. Cook, “Expectations of Failure: Maturity and Masculinity for Freeters in Contemporary Japan,” Social Science Japan Journal 16, no. 1 (2013): 30, doi: 10.1093/ssjj/jys022.

[27] Kosugi, 60.

[28] Dasgupta, Re-reading The Salaryman, 82.

[29] Cook, 34.

[30] Dasgupta, Re-reading The Salaryman, 105.

[31] Cook, 38.

[32] Ibid., 40.

[33] Yumiko Iida, “Beyond the ‘feminization of masculinity’: Transforming patriarchy with the ‘feminine’ in contemporary Japanese youth culture,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6, no. 1 (2005): 56, doi: 10.1080/1462394042000326905.

[34] Charlebois, 95.

[35] Smitmans, 31.

[36] Laura Miller, “Male beauty work in Japan,” in Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan: Dislocating the salaryman doxa, ed. James E. Robertson and Nobue Suzuki (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 53.

[37] Richard Light, “Sport and the construction of masculinity in the Japanese education system,” in Asian Masculinities: The meaning and practice of manhood in Japan, ed. Kam Louie and Morris Low (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 113.

[38] Futoshi Taga, “Rethinking male socialisation: life histories of Japanese male youth,” in Asian Masculinities: The meaning and practice of manhood in Japan, ed. Kam Louie and Morris Low (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 146.

[39] Ibid., 151.

[40] Chen, 302.

[41] Ibid., 303.