Deanna Elstrom
Jan 21, 2016

Shifting masculinity: Being a man in Japan

The definition of manhood in Japan is undergoing a major transition, and advertisers need to pay attention, writes Flamingo Tokyo's Deanna Elstrom.

Shifting masculinity: Being a man in Japan

Until about 20 years ago, Japanese men could be neatly fitted into one of two roles: student or salaryman.  Perhaps things were never quite that simple, but the picture is certainly more complicated today. From the construction worker with the deep tan to the hipster young businessman with the “two-block” haircut to the café owner with three-day stubble and a passion for jazz—today, it is impossible to describe the “typical” Japanese man. 

While much has been written about Japanese women and their changing roles in the family, the workplace and society, there is a surprising lack of conversation about what’s happening with men.  What is the experience of being a man in Japan today?

The enduring economic recession in which Japan has been languishing since the 1990s, the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster have all impacted profoundly on the realities of the lives and mindsets of today’s Japanese men (and women, for that matter). These past decades of economic decline have created diminished expectations in terms of employment prospects and professional advancement and have led to a great unravelling of the traditional sense of masculine identity and “purpose in life” (ikigai).  The result: What it means to be a man in Japan today is in a state of major transition.

Previous generations of Japanese men were defined in terms of their specific, tightly circumscribed role within the greater structure of society. In Edo-period Japan, a man might be a samurai, merchant or farmer. In Showa Japan, a salaryman or teacher. Today, men (and women) are no longer defining themselves in such singular ways. Identities and roles have become multiple. Today’s young people form the ‘hashtag generation’, who take inspiration from the media in interpreting and defining their plural identities. Today, there exists the choice to be multiple. 

While this opening up of possibilities for men seems—to a Western mindset at least—liberating and positive, it should also be borne in mind that choice can create confusion, especially when there are so few real-life aspirational examples to follow. Today’s young men want lives that are different from those of their fathers, with their numbingly long hours, declining prestige and lack of fulfilment. Rather, such lives offer a shining example of what they don’t want. Young men are searching—for greater meaning in their lives and their own identities.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

This search, however, is not one that you will hear men talking about. ‘Masculinity’ (otokorashisa) is a term that feels irrelevant to men’s lives today and is dropping out of everyday vocabulary. Asked what it means to be masculine, men in their 40s will respond with the standard answers, that masculinity is being responsible, committed, able to get things done. The emphasis is firmly on a man’s deeds rather than who he is. If you ask younger men, they tend to be dumbfounded by the question and eventually mumble some pleasantry about kindness (yasashisa)—a trait valued for both men and women in Japanese society.

This search for purpose and identity amongst today’s young men can be likened to a type of search for do 道 ('path' or 'way').  In Edo Japan, bushido (the do or ‘way’ of the warrior) provided the structure and strictures around how a samurai should act, treat others, live and die. Today, one’s do is about finding the passion that can guide your life. The logic is that in pursuing your passion, you learn how to live.  This do could be your job—if you love your job, that is—but, more likely, it is your personal interests: your hobby, your family, your love of travelling. It is what sets your heart on fire and makes life worth living.

What does this mean for marketers?

Today’s men want to hear about what makes them feel good about themselves. Ads that persist in holding up one-dimensional visions of men—laying out set roles in the assumption that all men will see happiness in conformity—have lost relevance and resonance. To resonate powerfully, marketers need to connect with men’s inner purpose: who they want to be apart from what society, their employer or women demand they be. Brand messages that connect with how today’s young Japanese men want to feel about themselves, rather than holding up models illustrating how others will perceive them, are likely to have greater impact, triggering deeper emotional connections.

In summary, masculinity in Japan is becoming increasingly diverse, fluid and plural, with more opportunity for individuals to discover and pursue their own passions, purpose and value. Today, being a man is not a set definition cemented into the expectations of society and family, but is evolving into a personal assessment. Unlikely to articulate their emerging identities in words, today’s Japanese men are defining themselves through their actions. To do is to be. For men, there’s no need to talk about it.

Deanna Elstrom is director at Flamingo Tokyo


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