How Japan's 'Salaryman' is becoming cool

New research looks at Japan's changing relationship with masculinity and gender stereotypes

Japanese men are becoming cool. The suit-and-tie salaryman remodels himself with beauty treatments and 'cool biz' fashion. Loyal company soldiers are reborn as cool, attentive fathers. Hip-hop dance is as manly as martial arts. Could it even be cool for middle-aged men to idolise teenage girl popstars? 

A new collection of studies from the University of Cambridge is providing fascinating insights into the contemporary lives of Japanese men and looks behind the image of 'Cool Japan'...

Examining the changes in what it means to be a man in Japan over recent decades, the newly-published book Cool Japanese Men: Studying New Masculinities at Cambridge, brings together a cross-section of research projects by current students and recent graduates, including one examining the country’s new-found fascination with  Ikumen: ‘cool’ fathers who take an active and engaged role in child-rearing – rather than accepting the punishing life of the archetypal ‘salaryman’ who single-mindedly sacrifices himself for the company to support his family.  

The book also examines the rapid rise in popularity for personal grooming among Japan’s male population, the ascendance of hip-hop culture among young men who wish to be seen as rebellious and alternative, and the legion middle-aged male fans of all-girl super-group AKB48 – a musical and cultural phenomenon.

The 'salaryman'

Salaryman by Kimi Chen on Flickr

Salaryman by Kimi Chen on Flickr

“You can’t understand Japanese society without understanding gender,” said Dr Brigitte Steger of Cambridge’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and editor of the new research.

“There is a lot of new interest in ideas around masculinity. Japan’s economic success in the post-war era has been built on a clear gendered division of labour:  the reproductive housewife and the hard-working man.

“For men, the model to which they aspired was that of the dark-suited ‘salaryman’ – the central pillar of Japan’s economy and also of his family as the sole breadwinner. But the old type of salaryman have a reputation of not knowing how to talk to women, bad communication skills, lack fashion sense and are renowned for smoking and drinking a lot and having an aged smell.

“Times are changing in Japan. Masculinity is in a state of upheaval and reconfiguration. We now have shops and beauty parlours aimed purely at men. Government has adopted and promoted the notion of Ikumen. They have pushed the idea that it’s ‘cool’ to have more fathers involved in childcare – and that someone who does that is a hunk and a handsome guy. This is Government policy now.”

The financial hardships of the 1990s, rising unemployment and less stable job opportunities have contributed to the rise of more flexible lifestyles according to the Cambridge researchers. As falling birth rates and news of death by overwork hit the headlines, the economic system and the masculinity so closely linked to it has been called into question.


Photo by Soka University Photo Club on Flickr

Photo by Soka University Photo Club on Flickr

Cambridge graduate Hannah Vassallo spent time embedded with five Japanese fathers and families for her chapter on Ikumen in Cool Japanese Men. Although the men she interviewed on the whole disliked the term, regarding it more as a marketing device, all were happy with their increased role in family life – despite some suffering significant abuse or condemnation from bosses and colleagues.

She said: “On resigning his job to take a more active role in the home one man received comments such as ‘What? A man child-rearing?’ and was criticised by his superiors who felt that he had wasted their time spent training him. His parents were similarly unsympathetic.”

Vassallo believes the fathers she interviewed are setting a promising precedent, especially given Ikumen’s visibility in the media and their own communities. Significantly, though, many aspects of the fathers’ lifestyles continue to be consistent with the post-war salaryman model, relegating most childcare and housework tasks to mothers.

Magazine articles and posters promoting Ikumen often portray such fathers as superheroes – hypermasculine icons who serve the nation through protecting the weak (children and mothers); and frame their roles more in terms of ‘support’, ‘consideration’ and ‘understanding’ for their wives – a somewhat passive fathering model that helps to reinforce existing stereotypes and leaves the gendered division of labour largely intact.

Elsewhere in the book, PhD candidates Christopher Tso and Nanase Shirota discuss Japanese self-help literature which explores the need for men to become better listeners, as well as grooming rituals for Japanese businessmen which include eyebrow plucking and facials as well as hair removal, face slimming and aromatherapy – in direct contrast to the old guard of salarymen who have been described as ‘hairy-bodied, shitty old geezers’.

While body odour has always been a big issue in Japan, it was sometimes seen as a badge of honour for hard-working men. That is no longer the case: Konica have recently released an app that claims to be able to detect the exact type of body odour one might be suffering from, including the dreaded ‘old-age smell’ so terrifying to the modern Japanese businessman.

AKB48's male fans

AKB48 by NanChan

AKB48 by NanChan

In another study, Rosie-Dent Spargo looks at otaku, the nerdy male fans of the female pop-band AKB48 with over 100 members, infamous for their sexy school-girl styling, their widely broadcast rock-paper-scissor tournaments, and in-band ‘general elections’.

She shows that despite the recent ‘cool’ image of otaku, there are less lovable aspects to this phenomenon, including the sexualisation of young girls. In doing so, AKB48’s management reinforces male fantasies by marketing an ‘exclusive’ fan-idol relationship, whereby fans are encouraged to support a particular idol from a broad catalogue of feminine types.

While fans can download the AKBaby App to see what their baby with their favourite idol would look like, girl band members themselves are contractually beholden to forego dating and keep up a semblance of availability. 

Meanwhile, Sakari Mesimäki explores in his ethnography how the culture of after-school and university clubs in Japan breeds masculinities, especially when meeting the rebellious spirit of hip-hop dance.

He finds that the young male student dancers represent ‘an aesthetic of coolness that stops short of advocating any substantial rebellion’ against the traditional social and gender values.

Dr Angelika Koch who edited the book alongside Steger said: “The articles we have assembled in this book provide us with an insight into the array of forces that Japanese men must contend with and negotiate today when asserting their masculinities.

"It is clear on the one hand that national agendas continue to promote certain gender roles for men and women and seek to tie masculinities to the needs of the nation.

“But women are also complicit in existing hierarchies. From the teenage girls in AKB48 who expose themselves to the male gaze and the hip-hop dancing students who cheer the performance of men and vote them into leading positions to the women who criticise their husbands for encroaching on their domain of expertise in child-raising, women also wield power as judges of what constitutes ‘successful’ masculinity.

“Our contribution to this important debate reveal that in many ways, Japanese society still adheres to the more traditional ideas of how men (and women) should act. Behind the contemporary veneer of ‘new’ and ‘cool’ it seems that some old habits die hard.”

Both Cool Japanese Men and its predecessor Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy. Studying Japanese Gender at Cambridge (2013) have been published by LIT and are available now.