Every society has its own terminology for a young generation regarded as odd or unfathomable, and marketers are quick to give them catchy labels. It’s no exception in Japan, which is now abuzz with talk of men with a soft spot who are becoming known as soshokukei, meaning “herbivorous” or “herbivores.”

The word soshokukei, coined by a writer named Maki Fukasawa in 2007, has been widely picked up in the media in the last six months or so, owing in part to Megumi Ushikubo, president of the Tokyo market-research firm Infinity, and author of “Soshokukei Danshi Ojo-man Ga Nippon wo Kaeru (The Herbivorous Ladylike Men Are Changing Japan),” which was published in November 2008. Through interviews with around 100 men in their mid 20s and early 30s in Tokyo and other major cities, Ushikubo concluded that the soshokukei boys have a combination of the following characteristics:

• They are not as competitively minded about their jobs as men in older generations.

• They are fashion conscious and eat sparingly so they can stay thin and fit into skintight clothes.

• They are chummy with their moms and often go shopping together.

• They are not interested in dating girls, having relationships, or even having sex (choosing from a plethora of “self-help” toys instead).

• They are very tight with their money and often carry several retailers’ “point cards” around, declaring that those who don’t pinch pennies are stupid.

Ushikubo has even gone so far as giving these types a new label: ojo-man (ladylike men).

“Many of the boys I’ve met told me they cannot go out of their house if their hair doesn’t look perfect,” she said. “They have also told me that their self-esteem goes up when their nails look nice.”

Ushikubo estimates that 60 percent of today’s men aged 20-34 fall somewhat into the soshokukei category. Sounds exaggerated? Of the 500 single men in their 20s and 30s surveyed in March by Lifenet Seimei Life Insurance Co., 378 — or 75.6 percent — replied that they regarded themselves more as herbivores than nikushokukei (carnivores).

But why are they suddenly popping everywhere? Ushikubo cites a number of factors. First, the younger generation today has grown up never knowing what it is like to live in good economic times. The generation just above them — now aged 35 and older — had its heyday during the asset-bubble economy of the late 1980s, when cash was abundant, jobs were easy to find and people couldn’t be more optimistic about their future. In contrast, the economy the ojo-man generation knows has been in constant decline, with only occasional upturns, which have not directly affected their everyday lives.

They have also seen the income gap between seishain (permanent employees) and groups such as haken (contract workers) widen, with many of them belonging to the latter group. In fact, the average annual pay of men in their 20s now stands at ¥3.25 million, the marketer says, citing National Tax Agency figures, noting that those aged 25-34 making more than ¥6 million constitute only 3.5 percent of those in that age bracket.

This, Ushikubo suggests, explains their cool, resigned view toward work — and their growing fashion-consciousness, which is the only ego-booster left for them. Further damaging their outlook was the rise and fall of IT wunderkind and Livedoor founder Takafumi Horie, who was arrested and indicted in 2006 for irregular business practices.

The case of Horiemon, as the young entrepreneur was popularly called, has served as a reminder that, if they are too assertive or aggressive at work, they might suffer the same harsh consequences as him.

Now, indeed, 64 percent of new workers display a conservative view of their careers, saying they would like to stay with their first employer until retirement, according to a Mitsubishi-UFJ Research and Consulting survey of 1,264 new graduate hires released last month. However, 51 percent of the respondents also said they’d rather work fixed hours than do overtime.

What is most troubling to a growing legion of young women, however, is that soshokukei men are also extremely noncommittal in their relationships with the opposite sex. Many are not interested in the act of koku-ru (confessing their love to girls), out of fear that doing so would make them psychologically disadvantaged, Ushikubo says. Furthermore, being cynical about the generation above them, in which nearly half of marriages are shotgun weddings, young people — and young men in particular — are very wary of making lifelong commitments “by accident,” according to Ushikubo.

Likewise, they tend to have little interest in reproducing, often even being too physically tired to have sex, let alone start a family, according to Ushikubo. The young men’s tendency not to have real sex — apparently counterbalanced by their growing reliance on Internet porn sites and “do-it-yourself” gadgets — is a big headache for the nation’s condom makers, whose shipments have been falling since 1999, the very year that marks the beginning of the Internet revolution.

Meanwhile, a few other phenomena are underscoring the trend for some men to defy their sexual stereotypes. A 2007 survey by a major toilet-seat maker found that half of Japanese men sit on the toilet to urinate, while bras designed for men have been selling briskly since they hit the market last November.

But are women becoming like men as well? Are they more manly than they used to be?

So far, not really, experts say. While a few vernacular magazines have called some women nikushokukei, Ushikubo says the young women she has interviewed are not carnivorous compared to many bubble-era women in their 20s and 30s, who were much more sexually exploitative. But some women do find themselves carnivorous for a limited time only — when they get ready for marriage and starting a family, she claims.

Why do we see, then, a one-way street of men becoming like women, rather than both sexes blurring their boundaries?

At the root of all these changes in the male species is the fact that men in Japan have been freed from pressures to “be manly,” argues Masahiro Morioka, professor of philosophy at Osaka Prefecture University and author of “Soshokukei Danshi no Ren-ai Gaku (The How-to Guide to Relationships for Soshokukei Boys),” published in July 2008.

He attributes the soshokukei trend to the postwar peace Japan has enjoyed for the last six decades.

“The most ‘manly’ men, I think, are soldiers on the battlefields,” Morioka said. “But the pressures for men to act manly have gradually faded over the last six decades. As a result, the (per capita) rate of murders committed by men in their 20s in Japan is now the lowest in the world.

“Behind all this is the fading of social values that have driven men into violent acts. Men don’t have to be violent any more, and that’s why they can be herbivorous.”

Japan’s uniqueness stands out, he went on, when compared to the United States, which has waged several wars since 1945 and has a steady supply of war veterans. Similarly, in such Asian neighbors as South Korea — unlike Japan — young men are conscripted for military service.

Morioka, however, denied a link between the herbivores and homosexual men, saying most Japanese men are “searching for heterosexual love while turning unisex.”

The erosion of the sexual boundaries, in fact, is by no means a new phenomenon, Morioka further argued, saying that Japan had a group of herbivorous men during the Edo Period (1603-1867), when peace under the Tokugawa Shognate lasted for 260 years.

“Japan has long had a tradition of men acting like women in public places, such as in kabuki,” he said. “And during the Edo Period, some boys are known to have been raised as girls, dressed up in girls’ kimono (apparently due to a widely held belief that doing so would lead to their healthy development). And in shunga (pornographic illustrations from the Edo Period), men are depicted as if they were women, dressed up in beautiful kimono and doing their hair up like women’s. They are impossible to tell from women — apart from their genitals.”

All in all, though, Morioka sees the soshokukei phenomenon in a positive light, saying that it is a sign of society becoming more tolerant of individual differences among men.

“Men should diversify,” he said. “It’s good for both men and the society if more men are freed from fixed values.”

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