Of Herbivorous Men and Carnivororous Women
Are Women Choosing Men in Japan Nowadays?
Until a decade or two ago, although it feels like eons, it was still a ‘man’s world’ in Japan when it came to choosing a partner in marriage. No more, according to one of those ‘big social trends’ the Japanese like to create to enjoy a collective ride on, often initiated and egged on by the media and commercial interests. The media are now full of stories about ‘herbivorous men and carnivorous women.’ And single women are supposedly devoting more time to konkatsu, short for kekkonkatsudõ, or activities aimed at finding a marriage partner.
If it’s a serious social phenomenon, it could change the way the Japanese society is evolving. It could also have a long-term impact on the young Japanese coming here to study or work, and on the way they interact with the ijusha and Nikkei community and with other Canadians. Maybe the pattern is already reflected in the miscrocosm of those young Japanese here. So I did some checking—talking to some of them and surfing the net.
It’s definitely more than just a passing fad. The imagery of wild animals brought to mind by the phrase “herbivorous men and carnivorous women” has proved a big hit. As one web magazine explained: “While it is said that ‘herbivorous men’ who are not very pro-active in love and romance are increasing, it seems the number of ‘carnivorous women’ who actively seek out ‘herbivorous men’ is on the rise.”
I found a news item that could be evidence of the above. One pro baseball club, the Hokkaido-based Nippon Ham Fighters, introduced promotional ‘konkatsu seats’ for two upcoming games at its home ballpark. 100 male and 100 female lottery winners would sit next to each other. Every inning, the men have to shift their places along the rows of seats to sit beside a different woman. Female applicants easily exceeded the number of seats on the day the offer was announced. But two days later, still only one-quarter of the men’s seats were filled. Surprised as they were by the eagerness of the female applicants, club officials sounded resigned about the men’s response. “Maybe ‘herbivorous men’ who are not eager for love and romance are increasing,” one sighed.
In one recent survey of 400 single men and women, 61% of men replied that they thought of themselves as ‘herbivorous,’ while 22% of women thought of themselves as ‘carnivorous’ in addition to 7% who thought carnivorous’ was “cool (kakkoii).”
As for kekkonkatsudõ, the expression was coined by sociologist Masahiro Yamada and picked up and sensationalized by the weekly Aera in November, 2007. Some large companies and municipalities have begun konkatsu support programs, and related businesses, including quasi-criminal ones, are said to be thriving. But more disturbing are the factors in the background that, according to Prof. Yamada, brought on the popularity of konkatsu:
• Future income prospects for men have become unstable due to the collapse of the traditional seniority (lifetime employment) system. Low-income males find it hard to find marriage partners.
• Because of equal employment opportunity legislation, the spread of free love and romance and the breakdown of traditional values since the 80s, the age-old system of men in managerial careers marrying ‘general employee’ female colleagues is on the wane along with arranged marriages.
• The above developments have demolished the age-old ‘system’ whereby ‘one could sort of get married without undertaking any special effort,’ leading to a bipolarizartion between attractive people and not-so-attractive people, creating a need for the latter to take specific actions in order to find a marriage partner.
Sounds convincing, coming from a sociologist. If it was the economic downturn that brought the whole thing on, things are not going to change soon.
I recently had an opportunity to observe young Japanese men and women up to 30-something over a four-week period while I taught them English. It was obviously not long enough to understand their deep motives or the complexity of their inter-personal relations. But even casual conversations and behavior revealed a tiny microcosm of contemporary Japanese society, including hints of the ‘herbivore/carnivore’ dynamics. I’ve been sort of following the behavior patterns of the young w?hori (working holiday visa) Japanese since I moved here 12 years ago, with a focus on their interaction with the Nikkei/ijusha community as the latest page, if you will, in the century-old saga of Japanese migration to these shores.
I was first of all struck by how deferential they were, as most young Japanese still seem to be, toward an older person like myself. Maybe I’m just an old man clinging on to the traditional value of respect for the elder, but I’m nevertheless relieved that they are still ‘Japanese’ in that way.
Are the women taking the initiative? Of my 17 students, 14 were women, which is consistent with what I’ve noticed over the past 12 years, that a significant majority of Japanese, who come to improve their English language skills in order to find better jobs back home or anywhere else, and maybe even to find a marriage partner, are women. They tend to be more practical and outgoing—and less self-conscious—than the men. That’s probably why they come here.
The men I certainly feel for. Back in Japan, customs and institutions still favour the men. Even if they are the ‘herbivorous’ type, at least the ‘carnivorous’ women will come looking for them, as long as they look reasonably neat and presentable. The men’s cosmetics sector has enjoyed huge sales over the past couple of decades.
It is not easy for Japanese men to ‘seize the initiative’ amid today’s economic recession, especially if you are in a foreign country, handicapped by language. There are few opportunities to come across ‘real Canadians’ to mix with, except for sympathetic host families, and they are from a culture where traditionally men did not have to ‘take the initiative’ in order to find company.
So what happens to ‘carnivore women’ and ‘herbivore men’ when they come to Canada?
‘Carnivorous’ or not, the women realize that such a classification is practically meaningless in North America where it has been normal, especially since the sexual liberation of the 60s, for members of both sexes to seek partners pro-actively. Not surprisingly, some of the female students had Canadian husbands or boyfriends. The vastly-outnumbered guys did not seem to have too many Canadian friends, male or female. Helped by their better command of English—women always seem to be better at foreign languages—the women seem to adapt better to their new environment.
Commentator Atsushi Miura, economist Takashi Kadokura and others suggest that the following changes may occur in Japan’s social structure: As women make bigger demands in terms of their marriage partners’ income and the number of children per family declines, casual marriage between men and women of unstable income may also increase. Inheritance may become more widespread among the haves, and a class structure may become more rigid.
In the histories of immigration, whether one is talking about the Italians and Irish to North America or the Japanese and Chinese to its West Coast, one constant has been their motivation, i.e. a better life in a new environment. In the future, will we see an increase in the number of young Japanese men and women coming here to seek better opportunities?