February 24, 2011

Local Grass Eaters

Together with three other foreign residents of Hiroshima, earlier this month I was invited to speak with a group of young Rotary Club members at a local hotel banquet room as part of their club activities. Such invitations are occasionally offered to the long-term expat in Japan, usually involving the theme of internationalization and the use of English. I sat at a table with a group of bright, buffed and busy young Rotarians, and we chatted about light topics for about 90 minutes (hobbies, families, home country, work, food, sports, etc.) using simple phrases and following a carefully-choreographed schedule. All fine and dandy, and I enjoyed it.

Credit: posterous.com
During our conversations, two things struck me as interesting. The first was when I asked the six young adults at my table why they became members of the Rotary Club, there was a long, pregnant silence, much nervous shifting in seats, and palpable discomfort.  Nobody had an answer, and it wasn’t due to a lack of vocabulary. Once we’d strayed beyond the customary topics, it was tough for them to figure out why they were at these meetings. My sense was that it was just a given, they had to do this quasi-public service for work or networking reasons. But the abject lack of some kind of stock phrase or joke to describe why they were there struck me as significant. Also interesting was that half the table was comprised of young female professionals, who were far more willing to go out on a limb and try to say something unique than their male counterparts. Perhaps they were more like the “meat eater” girls that have been pitched as a recent social phenomenon. Fact is, I had to squeeze out the words from the lads, who seemed more interested in the food. The young ladies clearly were the leaders at my table.

Can these young gents be the “grass eaters” I’ve been reading so much about since last year? This buzzword was derived from the Japanese phrase soushoku danshi, literally translated as grass-eating boys, which has seen considerable media play over the past year or so. The inference is that, compared to previous generations of Japanese men, these young men are less aggressive, more effeminate, more interested in clothes than fast cars—herbivores. Apparently less interested in their careers and accused of being apathetic about the social rituals of dating and marriage, the import is that these young males are Asian metrosexuals, without the sex. Hmm. That’s a far cry from the corporate samurai image — the hard working, hard drinking/smoking, quietly enduring, stalwart company man of Japan’s not-so-distant past.

Credit: Amazon.co.jp
Back to my Rotary revelry. After the main meeting was over, my fellow gaijin guests and I went for coffee to compare our experiences. One of them received a cellphone call from one of the older statesmen-type Rotarians, asking to join us. This was an unusual turn of events, and the subsequent conversation yielded the second insight of the evening:
“How can we motivate these youngsters?”, and, “What is wrong with today’s young adults?” he lamented.

Of course, older generations have been ragging on younger folk since the beginning of time, but this respected burgher seemed genuinely concerned about the future of Japan and he thought we random foreigners might be able to provide some ideas. The conversation can be summed up as “Japan is in the midst of a national identity or collective self-esteem crisis.”

Basically, he complained about the lack of a strong, traditional salaryman type in local companies, and that today’s youngsters were a bunch of slackers. My eyebrow arched at this turn in the conversation: I’d heard the same complaints levied against my own GenX cohorts back in the early 1990s. But I think the charges against contemporary young Japanese stem from the two-decade-long economic malaise, the rise of China and Japan passing, i.e. becoming #3 in the world economic pecking order. It’s the sociological consequence of a generation of young adults who grew up in a weak economy that is destined to become relatively smaller amid a continuing slide into international irrelevance as Japan seems to turn inward again in a paucity of confidence.

If I have another chance to sit down with a crew of smart and motivated young Japanese, I might just skip talking about banal topics and quietly ask them what they really think about these social trends, including the grass eater trend.

As I think about it now, though, it seems to me that this is just another fad which might well disappear if the economy ever gets better. If you consider what the kids of the 1970s were doing with glam and a Ziggy Stardust-like appearance in the West in the wake of Watergate and the oil shocks, this grass eater movement in the young men of Japan is just a reaction to the lowered expectations due to current socioeconomic circumstances. Trying to relegate these smart young men to bovine status, grazing contentedly in lulling pastures, is just a bunch of hooey to sell books and get eyeballs on screens. In this sense, calling it bulls--t is right on the money.

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