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Dude looks like a lady in our recessionary times

A question is cropping up more and more on the streets of Tokyo: male or female?

It's not an exaggeration to point out that many young Japanese men are looking a bit ladylike. The phenomenon is an obsession on television talk shows, and it could have bigger implications for Asia’s largest economy than many appreciate, few of them good.

Social commentator Maki Fukasawa in 2006 coined the word “herbivores,” or grass-eating men. It's not meant to insult vegetarians, but to explain a growing subculture of heterosexual males in their 20s and 30s who are less interested in careers than their salaried fathers and ambivalent to sex and marriage.

If you think this story should be on the fashion pages, not the business ones, you are mistaken. The feminization of the ranks of tomorrow's corporate samurais connects directly with two of Japan’s main economic problems: a declining birthrate and negligible consumption.

This issue doesn't fit neatly into the election cycle that is beginning in an economy sinking back into deflation. It’s not something Prime Minister Taro Aso can easily pontificate about and address in a direct way. Nor is it a phenomenon that investors are likely to grasp as they assess Japan’s prospects.

Yet the blurring of gender identities says lots about so many challenges Japan faces -- ones that are being actively ignored by the government.

Old stereotypes

As many as two-thirds of Japanese men between the ages of 20 and 34 would classify at least partly as herbivore men, according to Megumi Ushikubo, author of the bestselling “Herbivorous Ladylike Men Are Changing Japan.” And, she argues, their mindset is a long way from the stereotypes about the relentless and workaholic Japanese men of the last century.

Rather than joining one company for life, drinking heavily with colleagues and chasing women, herbivores are less into work and dating than clothes and cosmetics. They often go shopping with their mothers, wear hairclips and sit down on the toilet when they pee. Tokyo-based company WishRoom is selling bras for men, some middle-aged salarymen.

Philosophizing about the explosion of straight, effeminate men more interested in their appearance than starting a family has become a cottage industry. To many observers, it's a rebellion against the lives that their fathers led and disillusionment from growing up in post-bubble Japan. It’s also a response to an increasingly assertive female population.

New challenges

One self-described herbivore, named Daisuke, told me in Osaka that he feels let down by Japan Inc. Daisuke's father (the 22-year-old declined to have his last name used) worked for a major trading firm 12 hours a day and often on weekends. His father was rewarded for his hard work; Daisuke’s generation expects a very different income trajectory.

Japanese older than 35 came of age during the pre-1990 bubble years and many enjoyed a period of abundant cash, unbridled opportunity and national pride. The experience of the under-35 crowd is a marked contrast.

The deflation of the 1990s and early 2000s crimped living standards and ushered in historic changes to the lifetime-employment system. Those people with “non-regular” jobs -- meaning part-time, less pay, fewer benefits -- make up almost 40 percent of the labor force. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says Japanese employers have more incentive to hire such workers.

Demographics and debt

The upshot will be less consumption amid worsening demographic and debt trends. The population is rapidly aging, while the birthrate is stagnant. An aversion to immigration means imported labor won't close the gap. And the debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio is zooming toward 200 percent.

Japan may even be on the verge of its own subprime-mortgage crisis. Over the last decade, many housing lenders lowered borrowing standards. In many cases, the traditional 20 percent down payment was waived and huge outlays were required during biannual bonus seasons. As the recession deepens, bonuses are disappearing and mortgage defaults may skyrocket.

Paying off all that debt and remaining competitive amid China's rise will rest on the shoulders of the very demographic wallowing in disillusionment. Japan already underutilizes its female workforce, another aspect of corporate Japan with which the OECD takes exception. Now, it appears many Japanese men under 35 are actively underutilizing themselves.

The real thing

Commentators often harp on the birthrate implications. As more women delay motherhood, many men of marrying age appear less interested in sex than past generations. Many point to a steady decline in condom sales and surveys that show some young men prefer pornography, cyber-sex and sex toys to the real thing. It may just accelerate the decline in Japan's workforce.

Economic stagnation is manifesting itself in unexpected ways when it comes to male behavior, and the phenomenon may have a silver lining or two. One could be a reduction in “karoshi,” or death from overwork. The alternative male lifestyle also could encourage some of the more than 30,000 Japanese who commit suicide each year to think twice.

The key is for the government to take steps to ensure the vibrancy of Japan's workforce and society. Here, it’s hard to find much good news to report. If only the state of Japan’s politics was as pretty as its young men.

Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist.

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