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In dim times, Japan's young men search for a new model

By Chico Harlan
Monday, October 25, 2010; A1

TOKYO - Something is happening to Japan's young men. Compared with the generation that came before, they are less optimistic, less ambitious and less willing to take risks. They are less likely to own a car, want a car, or drive fast if they get a car. They are less likely to pursue sex on the first date - or the third. They are, in general, less likely to spend money. They are more likely to spend money on cosmetics.

Japan's young men mystify their girlfriends and their bosses. They confound the advertisers who aim products at them. They've been scrutinized and categorized by social commentators, marketing consultants and the government. And they unnerve just about everybody who makes long-term projections about Japan's flagging birthrate and fading economy. Japan will grow or falter, economists and sociologists say, upon the shoulders of these mild, frugal, sweet-mannered men.

To hear the analysts who study them tell it, Japanese men ages 20 to 34 are staging the most curious of rebellions, rejecting the 70-hour workweeks and purchase-for-status ethos that typified the 1980s economic boom. As the latest class of college graduates struggles to find jobs, a growing number of experts are detecting a problem even broader than unemployment: They see a generation of men who don't know what they want.

Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors, the so-called salarymen who devoted their careers to one company. They wore dark suits; they joined for rowdy after-hours booze fests with co-workers; they often saw little of their families. These are the fathers of Japan's young men.

But among business leaders and officials, there is a growing understanding that the earlier work-for-fulfillment pattern has broken down. The economy's roar turned into a yawn. Concern about Japan's future replaced giddy national pride. As a result, this generation has lost "the willingness to sacrifice for the company," said Jeff Kingston, author of the recently published book "Contemporary Japan."

Kingston added: "And now as Japan begins to unravel in a sense, young people realize that the previous paradigm doesn't work. But they aren't sure what comes next. They've seen what amounts to a betrayal in Japan."

Striving for balance

And so, instead of fantasizing about riches, Japan's young men now fantasize about balanced lives and time for their families and quaint hobbies. As they do, Japanese women are catching up. This month, the government said single women younger than 30 were, for the first time, earning more on average than their male counterparts.

Yuizo Matsumoto, 24, learned about the differences between old and young values when he worked for a small food development company. Matsumoto studied the way trace ingredients and artificial flavorings change a product's taste. He developed salad dressings and fruit juices. He liked his job, with one major complaint: He worked 14 hours a day, often on Saturdays as well. He worked so hard, he didn't have time to job-hunt for alternatives. So in July, with the support of his parents, he told his boss he was quitting.

"My boss said to me, 'If you quit this wonderful company you'll never succeed in life,' " Matsumoto said. "I think the concept itself of quitting is alien to them. I think it's very normal for somebody from the older generation to stick with something whether he's happy or not."

Many in Japan's older generation deride the young for listlessness, even a lack of what is thought of as traditionally male behavior. Playing to that characterization, some media accounts of the transformation note the extremes of behavior: how one in four engaged men now opts for a pre-wedding spa treatment; how young men host dessert-tasting clubs; how, given a hypothetical $1,000 to spend and a list of possible purchases, a lot of young men would choose a high-end rice cooker.

Similar to metrosexuals

But Japan's modern man, separated from the statistics, cuts an endearing profile. Pop culture writer Maki Fukasawa first wrote about the changing male gender identity in 2006, coining a shorthand term for the new man ("a herbivore" - gentle and cautious). Now Fukasawa, who has surveyed young Japanese men about their purchasing preferences, defends the herbivores' nobility. "The people of the older generation would buy things, consume things, even fall in love for status," Fukasawa said. "However, these young people have no desire for status. . . . Maybe we're searching for new values. This is a more sustainable model."

This isn't about sexual orientation. According to a 2009 survey from market research firm M1 F1 Soken, almost half of Japanese men ages 20 to 34 identify themselves as herbivores. No matter their sexual preferences, herbivores tend to be less overtly sexual. Many say they do not prioritize physical relationships. They're more likely to buy gifts for their mothers than for their significant others.

Japan's herbivores bear some resemblance to the metrosexuals familiar in America. Like metrosexuals, they pay a lot of attention to how they look and how they dress - with a preference for flannel-patterned shirts, bought first-hand but made to look second-hand, and tight-fitting pants. But herbivores reflect a wider societal movement.

And, as it turns out, even those who identify themselves as more traditional men, rather than herbivores, are a lot different from their fathers.

Like Shinsuke Kanemura, 25, a jockish graduate from the elite Kyoto University, who met his friend for a 4 p.m. ice cream before beginning his night shift. And Akira Tanaka, 26, a "carnivore" who ridicules the herbivorous desire to "blend into the atmosphere."

"I was brought up in a family where, if you're a man, you ought to act like a man," Tanaka said. He works as a hairstylist.

Those who have rejected the old model, though, haven't yet discovered a new model - a way to earn a comfortable living without losing a quality life. Much as they loathe the office place's stifling social obligations, Japan's young men - according to the latest government statistics - prefer lifelong employment to any alternative, mostly because they value a safe option over a risky one. Japan's dim economic climate, experts say, has spawned a generation of unsentimental job-seekers who see only a spectrum of flawed options.

Little income

This demographic has remained elusive for automakers, brewers and other manufacturers. According to Tokyo's Metropolitan Police, between 1998 and 2007, the number of driver's licenses in Japan increased by 1 million. But the number dropped by 30,000 for people age 20 and by 40,000 for people age 25. People in their 20s, according to government statistics, consume less than half the alcohol of twenty-somethings in 1980.

Yoshio Kanda, 28, a wedding photographer from Osaka, says he feels "awkward" when talking to people from the bubble generation. He describes a sense of opposite values. He notices this most, he says, "when we go out drinking."

"People of an older generation, whatever they say or do, it's to the max," Kanda said. "Our generation, we don't spend money to the max and we don't drink to the max. We feel the need to save. At the same time, it's not cool to be throwing up on the street after you've been drinking."

More than the earlier generation, Japan's young men, according to marketing consultants, value close friendships and memorable experiences. One recent beer commercial depicts a hiking trip. Another shows a bunch of pals, hanging out at somebody's home.

But there's another factor, too: Japan's young men have little money to spend. Only 3.5 percent of men ages 25 to 34 make more than the average workers' household income of about 6 million yen (or $73,600) per year, according to National Tax Agency.

Matsumoto, the former food developer, has only his unemployment stipend, which expires in three months. He hopes to find a new job before then. So far, he's interviewed for one position and applied for five more.

He admits there's a chance his next job could also require 14-hour workdays. He wouldn't want to ask direct questions about time off during an interview.

Matsumoto shrugged.

"I never thought my job was the priority - that it was everything in my life," he said. "I want my private life to feel enriched as well. . . . I feel that the system itself is built for the older generation, but the young people just go into it because they have no other choice."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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