Grass-eating boys, freeters, and postmodern ennui: the unlikely foundation of the degrowth economy

Commonly maligned social and cultural trends suggest that Japanese are seeking less competitive lifestyles

The following is the fourth section of the first chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.

Even if the population declines and the size of the economy shrinks, if citizens can live comfortably there’s no problem whatsoever.
Wouldn’t it be great just to live modestly, and find a niche market with no external enemies?
What we should strive for is the life of the panda. Neither the hunter nor the hunted, living in the bamboo grove. Yes, the “bamboo-eating people,” wouldn’t that be wonderful?
—columnist Takashi Odajima (Japanese link)

In the 1960s and 70s, the postwar period of economic expansion in Japan ushered in a mass urban middle-class of nuclear families, rooted in a clear gender division of labor between the male domain of bureaucracies and businesses and the female domain of the domestic sphere (1). This arrangement was highly in a sense the culmination of postwar aspirations for Western-style modernity and wealth. While the full time housewife took charge of domestic life, the hardworking salaryman remained largely absent from participation in the household and family, working extremely long hours in devotion to his company or organization. However, by the 1980s this model of men and women reduced to single-faceted professional or domestic roles began to lose appeal to children raised in the suburban communities of the new affluent Japan, write Akiko Hashimoto and John Traphagan write in Imagined Families, Lived Families:

In many respects, the ideal new families had been made possible by the consumerism that accompanied economic expansion; but when the economic bubble burst and the recession exposed the illusion of permanent and stable employment for the diligent work force, the children found that attaining a better living than their parents through hard work and better education was no longer guaranteed (1).

Hashimoto and Traphagan believe that “the economic downturn and the restructuring of the “postwar” social system [at the beginning of the 21st century] has created a context in which people have been forced to confront and reconsider past categories and assumptions about life, family, school, and workplace” (2). But with the social contract to which they subscribed coming under increasing stress, many older people regard the narrow ambitions and inward nature of today’s youth as a cause, not a result, of Japan’s economic decline. Young people are said to lack their ancestors’ spirit of perseverance (ganbaru seishin), which has been replaced by a pervasive and paralyzing aversion to risk (risuku kaihi no seishin). One common explanation is that the relaxation of educational standards during the 1990s, and the implementation of what came to be known as the “slacker education” (yutori kyōiku) has dulled kids’ tolerance for competition and hardship. The result is introverted, unambitious, non-aggressive personalities. “Japanese kids no longer have the hungry spirit we once had,” one English educator who had studied in the United States in the 1960s told me forlornly in 2011, “and as a result Chinese and Korean companies are leaving us behind in the global market.”

Do youth really deserve blame for Japan’s economic decline? In a 2010 essay collection titled Escaping Elders, Youth without Desire, novelist and social commentator Ryū Murakami argues that today’s middle-aged generation is “solely concerned with escaping from the coming collapse.” Because this generation currently dominates the media and national politics, the mainstream conversation about Japan’s post-growth predicament has often focused on restoring the old system to vitality, while marginalizing the voice of youth, who have a clearer understanding of the need for fundamental institutional reform. Thus, government job policy continues to be to support major companies to maintain existing employment levels, even as growing numbers of youth are denied entry to the security of corporate Japan. The government has also been slow to reform the social system to accomodate growth in non-traditional families, including single mothers. As a result, many young people have become alienated from a political process that ignores their interests.

Changing gender roles

As the generation that grew up in the post-bubble era enters adulthood, gender roles are beginning to break down. In recent years, the term “grass-eating boys” (sōshokukei danshi) has come into use to describe the growing numbers of men who lack the ambition or aggressive tendencies of their “meat-eating” peers, choosing cultural pursuits or personal enrichment instead of participating in the race for promotion and status (See this Japanese guide written by a self-described grass-eater). They prefer cooking dinner to the salaryman’s late-night drinking, value avoiding conflict more than asserting their will over others, and spend their money on cheap fashion items from Uniqlo instead of fast cars.

Equally non-aggressive in romance as in careers, the increase in grass-eaters is a factor contributing to the higher average age of marriage and the declining birthrate. The corresponding term “meat-eating girls” describes women who have the traditionally masculine traits of being more assertive in their careers and personal lives. Murakami argues that “grass-eating boys” is simply the latest in a string of popular words coined by the mass media to mask deeper inconvenient truths about social, political, and economic conditions. The term, in his estimation, precludes discussion of the true implications of “the decline in ambition, both of individuals and society as a whole,” just as the phrase “winners and losers” (kachigumi and makegumi) in the early 2000s was a simple way to shrug off the widening gap in prosperity caused by the Koizumi reforms and globalization.

Society has moved slowly to adapt the modern institutions and norms of family, work, and school, which were so conducive to economic growth and social stability in the postwar era, to accomodate the breakdown of gender roles. The growing number of non-conforming individuals is a sign that rigid familial and professional arrangements need to change in order to fully welcome women into the workplace, as well as to create space for less competitive men to pursue alternative careers and share in domestic labor. As the postmodern family and identity gradually arrives in Japan, society will evolve in a pluralist direction that will enable individuals to pursue more diverse lifestyles. But there are other paths to pluralism besides adopting a competitive form of individualization that is the social counterpart to American-style neoliberalism. Reflecting the decline in personal and national ambition that Murakami alludes to, degrowth would instead point towards a new pluralistic social structure rooted in a paradigm of flexible cooperation—an economy that allows everyone to be their natural selves, but embedded within mutually supportive familial and societal arrangements. The ability to construct such a social structure may be one of the benefits of being a relatively homogenous nation.

Changing career goals

Not only gender roles, but perspectives on the institution of work are changing as well. The symbol of today’s labor force may no longer be the salaryman but rather the lowly freeter (furita), a term used to describe underemployed or freelance youth, whose numbers have risen from 0.5 million in 1982 to over 1.8 million today (Japanese link). While some young people forego the long hours and lack of freedom associated with regular employment by choice, others who are unsuccessful at finding a job in the increasingly tight job market are left with no choice but to pursue part-time work.

The typical “voluntary” freeter subsists on little money, spends her free time on individual pursuits, and may not care very much about pursuing a career or attaining a higher level of material comfort. The rise in part-time workers is undoubtedly a result of the weak labor market, but it also stems from a mood of ennui that comes along with living in a highly developed postmodern society where basic necessities can be gained without much struggle. A subset of this group are the so-called “parasite singles,” living off their parents’ savings at home, while other disaffected youth are classified as “NEET,” or not in education, employment, or training. At the worst extreme, millions of young people have shut themselves in their rooms in a tragic phenomenon known as hikikomori, incapable of even facing their own parents, much less finding a job and participating actively in society.

I do not wish to be misunderstood as saying that the myriad social and economic challenges facing young people in Japan should not be treated as serious problems. It is clear that the structure of Japanese society today and the effects of economic stagnation are driving many young people towards underachievement, social isolation, economic insecurity, and unhappiness, and these trends must be discussed and debated. But what is too often lost in arguments over how to deal with the social challenges facing today’s youth is that these are not mere aberrations, but rather symptomatic of a deeper, irreversible shift towards a post-growth, post-consumer society. Japan’s future will not be saved by jamming the round peg of post-growth youth through the square hole of a growth-oriented society. Each challenge must be situated within the broader vision of achieving a degrowth society, and only when the community can offer a compelling and achievable new paradigm of happiness will underperforming youth once again find a place to grow and contribute more fully to society.

Until that point, passive resistance to the status quo in the form of freeters, grass-eaters, and “dropping out of society” will serve to undermine and hasten the demise of the present system. In the next section, I profile one way in which young people are actively prefiguring the degrowth society they wish to see in the future.

・・・

(1) Akiko Hashimoto and John Traphagan, ed. Lived Families, Imagined Families, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2008), 9.

(2) Ibid, 9.

(3) Ibid, 1.

Part five here

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