Monday, June 15, 2009

The Samurai Eats Grass

I lived in Tokyo about five years ago, and enjoyed my time there immensely. With no one to talk to outside of work, other than a housemate I saw every couple of weeks, I spent my days and nights mostly in silence. At first I thought this would be difficult, used as I was to talking up a storm wherever I went, but in the end I found this silence to be oddly liberating. Like my grandmother always said to me, it is better to keep your eyes open, your ears open, and your mouth shut. You learn more that way, and in Japan I did just that.

From a North American perspective, Tokyo felt like a city with multiple personality disorder. At once polite and proper, the place also abounded with a seedy underside that outstripped even the sleaziest joints on Yonge St. in downtown Toronto. Though the people were law abiding and circumspect to a fault, it was also an accepted part of the culture that working men, salarimen, would get absolutely gobsmacked drunk, and weave their way home, urinating in the streets when the need arose. In some respects it is similar to what you would see outside of the Air Canada Centre after a leafs game, but in Tokyo this sort of behaviour carried on every single night. Not just after the game on Saturday.

These extremes were something I grew used to, and often became a source of humor. The government censored adult movies by blurring out the naughty bits, yet you could sit on the train and the dude next to you would be openly reading pornographic manga, without an iota of shame or discomfort. Or, for the equivalent of $50, you could walk into a replica train car, complete with a "schoolgirl" or "office lady" the randy salariman could then "molest" for a set period of time. The level and avidity of the fetishisation of innocence and purity was breathtaking. But it appears that things are changing, that the pendulum is swinging, and a real reaction to the licentious, besotted workaholism that afflicted so many men in the country is transforming into something entirely different - asexual, vegetarian, anti-consumerist asceticism. The media calls them "herbivores."

For a country with a rapidly declining population, with the lowest birth rates in the modern world, and an almost maniacal aversion to increased immigration, this is not, demographically speaking, a positive development. Between 40 to 60% of men in their 20's to 30's, that is, the new working generation, consider themselves to be "grass eating men." For these men, marriage is a laughable, old fashioned tradition that holds no interest for them, and women enter into their frame of minds as conversation partners, but nothing that would distract them from the more enticing worlds online and in video games.

One passage in particular seems to tell the whole story -

"Unlike earlier generations of Japanese men, they prefer not to make the first move, they like to split the bill, and they're not particularly motivated by sex. "I spent the night at one guy's house, and nothing happened—we just went to sleep!" moaned one incredulous woman on a TV program devoted to herbivores."

Someone ought to get Jared Diamond in on this, because we may be witnessing the first real case of a modern society choosing to commit suicide.

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