In Japan they call them herbivores and on Saturday nights they come out to graze: a perfumed army of preening masculinity. Groomed and primped, hair teased to peacock-like attention and bodies wrapped in tight-fitting clothes, their habitat is the crowded city where they live in fear of commitment and the carnivorous females who prey on them. For much of this decade, the older men who made Japan an economic powerhouse have looked on in bewilderment at the foppish antics of the younger generation. The country's twenty- and thirtysomething males seem uninterested in careers and apathetic about the rituals of dating, sex and marriage. They spend almost as much on cosmetics and clothes as women, live with their mums and urinate sitting down. Some have even been known to wear bras. 'What is happening to the nation's manhood?' asks social critic Takuro Morinaga. Now they have their answer: Japanese males are transforming into 'grass-eaters'. Coined by columnist Maki Fukasawa, the term soshoku-danshi (herbivorous male) refers to a generation of men who are less interested in sex (flesh). The term has been popularised in a best-selling new book called The Herbivorous Ladylike Men (who) are Changing Japan, by Megumi Ushikubo, president of Tokyo marketing firm Infinity. Her company claims that about two-thirds of all Japanese men aged 20 to 34 are now partial or total 'grass-eater' and a long way from the twin stereotypes of 20th century Japanese masculinity: the fierce, unyielding warrior and the workaholic salaryman. 'I noticed these major changes taking place from my father's generation, the 58- to 63-year-olds who are retiring now, and the under 35s,' she says. 'This is just a very different breed.' Ushikubo believes that the postwar carnivorous corporate samurai is increasingly a dinosaur whose legendary dedication to the company - at the expense of family - is as much a relic as dawn calisthenics on the factory floor. 'Grass-eaters' by contrast, are not competitive and not committed to work, a symptom of their disillusionment with Japan's troubled economy. 'People who grew up in the bubble era [of the 1980s] really feel like they were let down. They worked so hard and it all came to nothing,' says Ushikubo. 'So the men who came after them have changed.' Like many all-encompassing buzzwords, the description of 'herbivore male' can be laughably scattershot. Among his other qualities, the herbivore is close to his mum, has a liking for desserts and foreign travel and leans toward platonic relationships with the opposite sex. He will happily spend the night with a woman without laying a hand on her and doesn't waste his money on prostitutes. But the term resonates with a generation struggling to make sense of profound social disruption rooted in economic changes. Wealth disparities are undermining Japan's meritocracy and poverty is rising. A 2007 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report showed that relative poverty in Japan is the second worst in the developed world, after the US. Business magazine Weekly Diamond recently noted that 82 per cent of 35-year-olds in Japan live on an annual income of 2 million yen (HK$158,532) - a key poverty benchmark. 'I don't think the lives my parents had is an option for us any more,' says Kai Ishii, a 26-year-old stockbroker in Shizuoka prefecture. 'I want to eventually get married and buy a house. I just don't know when I'll be able to do that, even if I'm still in a job.' About one third of the Japanese workforce is now casual or part time, and confidence in the future is at rock bottom. For many young men, the postwar dream of lifetime employment, home and family is fading. In response, some have turned their energies elsewhere, toward the once feminised sphere of consumption - or away from life altogether. Millions remain at home as 'parasite singles', meaning they live with, and off, their parents. The pressing need to find a partner has been alleviated by the ubiquity of porn, sex toys and virtual sex on computers - one reason, say analysts, why consumption of condoms has been falling for a decade. Even those who opt for conventional marriage find their old role of main breadwinner is gone: men and woman increasingly share the roles of work and home. Many of these complex changes are also occurring elsewhere and are not unwelcome, says sociologist Yuko Kawanishi. 'Japanese men had it good for a long time. They were macho and sexist, and neglected their wives, so it's good that they're discovering their feminine side and learning to co-operate.' Ushikubo, 41, also hails the rise of the ojyo-man, or ladylike men. 'My generation expected that sort of traditional man to pay for everything, to get a good job and support us,' she says. 'But that system put a lot of pressure on men. They don't know when they'll be fired or have their jobs restructured. The idea that they have to carry the burden by themselves is fading and I think we're seeing more equal relationships.' While sociologists debate its merits, the herbivore phenomenon has become popular media fodder. On one discussion show this year, a group of grass-eaters faced their older counterparts like opposing armies across a battlefield. 'Men are turning into women,' says critic Morinaga. The blurring of gender boundaries has been highlighted by stories appearing to demonstrate that once proud alpha males are being symbolically castrated in the home. Toilet-maker Matsushita Electric Works released a survey this year suggesting that over 40 per cent of adult men in Japan sit on the toilet when they urinate - a figure that is rising every year. Nagging wives are also blamed for the rise of the Tenshi no Hizamakura, or Angels Knee Pillow, a kneeling stool with an unfortunate resemblance to a church pew that brings men closer to the bowl when they pee. It's designed to stop splashing around the bowl - women, after all, still do the vast bulk of household cleaning. One media outlet's headline for a story on the product was: 'Men brought to their knees by angry housewives'. Marketing experts such as Ushikubo, who also authored a book called The Consumption Power of Twentysomething Happy Parasites, have also been quick to learn the lessons of the new herbivorous world. Men are now leading buyers of hair products, makeup, fashion accessories and manicures. A Tokyo-based company called WishRoom is even selling men's bras, some to middle-aged salarymen. 'They were the generation we had been told were 'manly' - they led Japan in the postwar period,' WishRoom president Masayuki Tsuchiya told The Japan Times recently. He said the company had sold more than 5,000 bras to men who are probably reacting against the classic stereotype of the stoic, silently enduring male. 'They said wearing a bra just made them feel more calm, relaxed and revived.' True carnivores sigh in disgust, but could the grass-eaters be merely the latest flowering of an old tradition? Japanese culture has long had a strong element of androgyny: during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), men played women and women dressed as men for the theatre, while erotic art celebrated bisexualism and transgender role-playing. The traditions live on in the Takarazuka Review, which features women performers in dress suits playing men, and in Kabuki theatre. The common element between the Tokugawa era and today, says Osaka-based philosopher Masahiro Morioka, is peace. 'Japan has been free from any form of conflict since the second world war and that has liberated men from the need to be manly.' Not that he or anyone else is advocating a return to war to give men back their symbolic cajones. 'I think the changes among men are mostly healthy and are here to stay,' says Ushikubo. 'Men are nicer to the women in their lives and happier with themselves.' What can be bad about that?