STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The sensitive New Age guy has finally arrived in Japan. He's kind. He's gentle. And he's thrown off the traditional macho image of the Japanese male. There is one important catch: The new Japanese man does not appear to be interested in women, which is a problem in a country with a declining birth rate. NPR's Louisa Lim investigated on a recent trip to Tokyo.

LOUISA LIM: In Tokyo on weekends, the trendy area of Harajuku is a sort of melting pot of urban tribes. Here the Lolita goths bat their fake eyelashes, while the punks glower. Away from the strutting are the retiring wallflowers, a quiet army of sweet young men with floppy hair and skinny jeans. These young men are becoming known as Japan's herbivores, girly guys who are heterosexual but aren't really interested in matters of the flesh. Yukihiro Yoshida is an economics student and a self-confessed herbivore.

Mr. YUKIHIRO YOSHIDA (Student): (Through translator) I don't take initiative with women, I don't even talk to them. I'd welcome it if a girl talked to me, but I'd never take the first step myself.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Nowadays, surveys show that about 60 percent of young Japanese men identify themselves as herbivores. Their "Sex and the City" is a television show called "Otomen," or "Girly Guys." The lead character is a martial arts expert. But his secret passions include sewing, baking and crocheting clothes for his soft toys.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Otomen")

Mr. MASAKI OKADA (As Asuka Masamune): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I will hide my true nature, he says as he sews secretly. At all times, he vows, I will be a man - a real Japanese man.

But what does that mean nowadays?

Mr. KATSUHIKO KOKOBUN (Hair Salon Owner): (Through translator) It's not so much that men are becoming more like women. It's that the concept of masculinity is changing.

LIM: Katsuhiko Kokobun should know. He owns Guzzle, a popular hair salon in Harajuku. Over the years, he's seen more and more men come into his salon, and they're demanding more traditionally female treatments.

Mr. KOKOBUN: (Through translator) We have eyebrow plucking and facials for men. And the eyebrow plucking is very popular among high school boys.

LIM: Hello. Nice to meet you. I'm Louisa.

The changing tastes of Japanese men is quite literally what takes up Yasuhito Sekine's days. He works for a Web site. And he's the founding member of an online group called Sweets Club, especially for men who like puddings. Set up in January, it already has 1,000 members who get together to debate the virtues of different brands of strawberry shortcake. It's something which he believes would've been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Mr. YASUHITO SEKINE (Sweets Club): (Through translator): Back then, lots of men liked desserts, but it was considered uncool. Cool men had to like alcohol or spicy food. I've discovered my father likes eating dessert, but he never showed it in the past.

LIM: Putting Sekine through his paces with an impromptu taste test, he praises peach jelly as fresh-tasting. He's not so keen on coffee jelly with cream - a macho pudding if ever there was one - labeling it retro. He believes his pudding club shows how young Japanese men are asserting their individuality, reflecting a change in values from Japan's booming �80s.

Mr. SEKINE: (Through translator) Back then, Japanese men had to be passionate and aggressive, but now those characteristics are disliked. Our members have very mild personalities. They simply enjoy what they like without prejudice.

LIM: Japan's top expert on herbivores, a columnist who christened this tribe, believes they were born out of the lost decade of economic stagnation. Maki Fukasawa argues the herbivores are rebelling against the salary-man generation of their fathers. They've turned away from the macho mores and conspicuous consumption of that era.

Ms. MAKI FUKASAWA (Columnist): (Through translator) They have some feelings of revulsion towards the older generation. They don't want to have the same lives. And the impact of the herbivores on the economy is very big. They're such big news now because sales are down, especially of status products like cars and alcohol.

LIM: But there are fears about the financial and social impact of herbivores. Their low levels of spending and lack of interest in sex invoke two of Japan's biggest problems: its lackluster economy and declining birthrate. Herbivores do like to be friends with women, but that's as far as it goes.

Back in the streets of Harajuku, Alex Fujita explains why it never goes any further.

Mr. ALEX FUJITA: (Through translator) Nowadays, women have more education and enjoy working. Women are scary now.

LIM: And of course, there's a name too for the economically empowered working Japanese women who know what they want: the carnivore women. With herbivore boys and carnivore girls, it seems the land of samurai, sumo wrestlers and geisha girls is remaking its gender landscape anew.

Louisa Lim, NPR News.

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