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Grace Mayhew

MT14 WK3

GENDER AS A FACTOR IN LANGUAGE VARIATION IN JAPANESE


Japanese womens language is, at a glance, a linguistic system within
Japanese, used exclusively by women, and which conveys softness,
nonassertiveness, and politeness (Matsumoto, p240) three characteristics that
could be considered valuable in the Japanese woman. Yet, in actual fact,
Japanese womens language is no more than a set of linguistic beliefs (Inoue,
p13), an ideological linguistic system even, which does not accurately reflect the
use of language by Japanese women. In this essay, when I discuss womens
language, it is not the way in which women speak that I am referring to, but this
theoretical linguistic construct. The misunderstanding that womens language
is a linguistic norm to which Japanese women abide may be rooted in a widely
propagated stereotype that depicts the average Japanese woman as educated,
urban, and middle-class, and the wife of a businessman. Such a stereotype is
perpetrated by the Tokyo-based media; in magazines, on the television
(Sunaoshi, p205). Sunaoshi defines Japanese womens language as an ideal
shared by women of a certain socioeconomic background who reside in Tokyo or
aspire to Tokyo values, including language use (Sunaoshi, p200). In the first part
of this essay I shall describe the features of this ideological Japanese womens
language; then I will attempt to shed some light on womens actual use of the
Japanese language.
Womens language is often said to be extremely polite. Indeed, in
Japanese, women tend to use honorifics and polite expressions more frequently
than men (Ide and Yoshida, p466). This is because in Japan women hold a
socially inferior position than men, and must reflect this inferiority by showing
deference and using formal speech (Ide, p49). On another hand, polite language
makes the speaker appear more refined, dignified (Ide, p49), and as it is
expected of women to possess such feminine characteristics, they may be
conditioned to use polite forms to a greater extent than men. In the same vein,
women also are said to use the prefix o- more than men do, not only in
honorification but also in a different process called beautification (Shibatani,
p374), serving to make their speech more pretty (Ide and Yoshida, p469). Men

Grace Mayhew

MT14 WK3

however only use the beautifying o- prefix when showing deference towards the
addressee (Ide, p57).
Furthermore, imperative forms should be avoided when speaking in
womens language. This is because it is socially expected of women to be
gentle and soft (Ide, p55). Instead of the masculine form taberoo, it is said
that a woman should say tabenasai, tabete kudasai or tabete, depending on the
formality of the speech situation. The latter of these, although informal, express
nothing more than a weak, soft, watered down request (Ide, p55). Of course,
vulgarities should also be avoided (Horn, 28/10/2014). Words like dekai, umai,
and kuu, or slurs, derogatory pronouns, et cetera, are said to be used exclusively
by men (ibid.).
Interestingly, it is said that the use of kango (words of Chinese origin) is
also in part prohibited by womens language. It is preferable for women to use
native Japanese forms, giving a softer impression (Shibatani, p374). Kango is
rough (Shibatani, p374), and is considered to be masculine as it had been
traditionally used for specialized texts in commerce, law, and administration and
thus had been exclusively associated with the (elite) male writing style (Inoue,
p63). Similarly, in the Meiji period, when English words became more frequent
in Japanese, they were considered to be masculine forms (Inoue, p64). This was
due to a gendered monopoly of access to, and assimilation and mimicry of,
Western modernity and modernization (ibid.). However schoolgirls at the time
started adopting English words, to the dismay of the male intellectuals (ibid).
One can say that in this sense the differentiation between womens language
and mens language served to try to maintain the social inferiority of women by
denying them access to meaningful, intelligent ways of expressing themselves1.
It is apparent that womens language is meek and had/has a more limited
access to intellectual vocabulary than mens language. Inversely, there are
words that women may use, but that men may not, such as the pronouns
atakushi and atashi. Although these exclusively female pronouns exist, as women
1

Here is an amusing quote I came across in my reading, in Inoue (p64). She cites an anonymous
commentator writing to a magazine (Onna tachi no kotoba bumi kotoba 1892:66-67):
It is extremely unpleasant to the ear to hear women use kango. It sounds manlike. It sounds
impertinent. When you see them talking in so-called Western language and walking at a late hour
of the night, it looks as though high-spirited young men (sshi). (According to Inoue, in early
Meiji period, sshi referred to the advocates of the Popular Rights Movement.)

Grace Mayhew

MT14 WK3

are required to be more polite than men, they tend to use watakushi and watashi
in situations when their male counterparts would use watashi and boku (Ide,
p48). It is interesting to note that even the informal feminine pronouns are just
variants of the polite forms (i.e. atashi instead of watashi) (Ide, p48).
When it comes to addressing other people, it is conventional in Japanese
to employ the name with an appropriate suffix; though some situations call for
the use of titles or pronouns. In these situations too, in the theoretical womens
language, women must show a higher level of deference than men might do. Let
us consider the case of a heterosexual married couple. Whereas the husband
might address his wife as omae or kimi (derogatory and informal forms), the wife
would use anata (the formal second person pronoun) to address her husband
(Ide, p51). Even within the couple there is a gap in the level of honorifics, despite
an informal speech situation.
There are words exclusively for women other than just first person
pronouns, notably interjections like maa (wow!) or ara (oh!) (Shibatani, p371)
and sentence-final particles. For the most part, such sentence-final particles may
be used by anybody, although some are said to index the gender of the speaker.
Whereas men would use ze, yo na, jan, sa (a), women may use kashira, wa, yo ne
(Horn, 28/10/2014). The feelings expressed by these gender-indexing particles
are very different, with ze indicating a forceful statement; kashira on the other
hand indicates uncertainty; wa softens the statement, and expresses deference
to the feelings of the addressee (Ide and Yoshida, p463), and is not to be
confused with the wa of Osaka dialect. The most commonly used particle in
Japanese is ne, and is used by all genders, however one could say that the ne
spoken by a man is not the same as that spoken by a woman (Horn,
28/10/2014).
There are also some grammatical features that characterize womens language.
One of them is the deletion of the copula da in presence of the sentence-final
particle yo (Shibatani, p373). As da is a decisive pattern of speech, in womens
speech it is generally replaced with desu (Ide p55) or when yo is present it is
omitted. Thus, in womens language, a speaker may say kirei yo or kirei desu yo,
whereas one would say kirei da yo if speaking in a more blunt, masculine
manner (Shibatani, p373).

Grace Mayhew

MT14 WK3

The second syntactic characteristic of womens language which I shall cite is


the high frequency at which the clausal nominalizers no and koto are employed
(Shibatani, p373). No, which is also considered to be a sentence-final particle,
makes the utterance softer, cute, or even childlike (Ide, p54). Both no and koto
can be used to express surprise, for example utukusii no nee (Isnt it pretty!) or
maa, kireina koto (Oh, how pretty!) (Shibatani, p373).
Womens language seeks softness and femininity not only in linguistic
structure, but also in the fashion an utterance is spoken. Japanese women often
speak in a higher pitch than their male counterparts. This is not solely due to
physiological differences there are also sociolinguistic factors at work (Ide and
Yoshida, p462). A higher pitch is deemed to characterize kindness, cuteness
and politeness, whereas a low pitch might evoke stubbornness, selfishness,
and strength (Ide and Yoshida, p463).
Womens language also dictates the flow of a conversation. The role of a
female interlocutor is said to differ from that of a male one (Ide and Yoshida,
p473). According to Abe (1989, in Ide and Yoshida, p473), there are four types of
communicative functions:
1. Carrying forward the conversation by explaining or adding details;
2. Interrupting the conversation by introducing different facts or denying
the previous utterance;
3. Showing reactions;
4. Suggesting a new direction for the conversation by offering new topics or
letting new participants in.

The communicative function carried out by womens utterances is opposite


to that of mens in a same-gender group, women tend towards the first and
second of the list, whereas in a mixed group, they take on the third and fourth
functions. Ide and Yoshida explain:
This difference in mens and womens roles in conversations can be
considered a reflection of their role differences in society. Mens leadership
in advancing or reiterative the conversation is likely to show that they have
power in social relationships with women, while womens supporting role
for men in conversations tends to be a manifestation of their supplementary
role in social relationships with men.

Grace Mayhew

MT14 WK3

Womens language and the etiquette it demands reflect and reinforce


social standards that place women in a peripheral position around men.
I have effectively described the main features of Japanese womens language,
and explained that this is much more than a set of linguistic rules it is an
ideological linguistic system that expresses a view of social organization
according to the synthetic notions of gender.
Obviously, in Japan, it is not the case that all women speak in the abovedescribed manner. Although it is true that there can be differences in how men
and women speak, there are many factors of speech variation other than gender,
like age, region, class, identity, linguistic background, or occupation (Sunaoshi,
p187, 200). Based on her study of women farmers from Ibaraki, Sunaoshi
explains that Japanese womens language is simply not in the repertoire of
some women, notably those from regional, working-class Japan, who speak in
their native dialect (Sunaoshi, p188). In this case, the use of womens language
is not so much an indicator of gender as it is of origin; of coming from an urban
area (Sunaoshi, p189).
How one wishes to project ones image is also a crucial aspect when
interacting. A speaker can adapt their utterances in order to appear for example
feminine, or authoritative. In the workplace, a woman may want to project
herself in an authoritative manner. There are different methods to achieve this. A
woman in a position of power might speak in extremely polite, refined forms,
thus showing off her superior class and polished demeanor (Ide and Yoshida,
p468). In other cases, she may assert her authority by speaking in a more
manly manner. For instance, some women use jibun when arguing with a
(presumably male) superior in order to put themselves on a more level footing
(Abe, p215).
There are in fact countless cases of women using masculine forms. In general,
when woman are not using polite terms, they tend to favor masculine particles
(especially when talking with friends), so as to convey intimacy rather than the
distance implied by the politeness of womens language (Ide and Yoshida, p466).
Furthermore, forceful expressions have been associated with youth (both
female and male) (Matsumoto, p251) rather than just men. Women using

Grace Mayhew

MT14 WK3

masculine language, not only in business but in everyday speech (Mills, p161),
are often referred to as oremeshi onna (literally, me-food woman), a term
which is a parody of an autocratic husbands command to his wife (Mills and
Mullany, p74).
Clearly women are not restricted to womens language, and have been
appropriating masculine forms for a very long time. On the opposite end of the
spectrum, there is a behavior called burikko an extreme case of feminine
language use. Burikko behavior is known for its high pitch, cutesy register, and
childish, yet modest demeanor (Miller, p153), all of which are connected to
prescribed cultural norms of femininity (Miller, p159). However, women who
show burikko behavior are often scorned. Miller writes the following on the
topic:
Is it the case that she deploys indexical forms unbefitting her situation and
is disliked because the manipulation of expected gender traits becomes just
too transparent, too camp? Perhaps a burikko performance makes us
uncomfortable because it asserts a hard truth about gender roles in general,
which is, as American drag queen RuPaul put it, that were all born the same
and the rest is drag.

Perhaps burikko behavior is an uncomfortable mise en abyme of womens


language, and is ridiculed because it reveals the absurdity in the concept of
feminine speech.
The use of womens language by Japanese women is far less widespread
than the blanket term leads one to think the linguistic features I described do
not thoroughly depict womens speech in Japanese. As I have shown, womens
language is a social creation, as is the very notion of gender. To repeat RuPauls
statement - were all born the same and the rest is drag. Like in Japanese
womens language, in the world of drag, pitch, intonation, and lexicon are
deemed essential parts of ones character indeed, language and gender are
inextricably tied. Perhaps that is simply because language is the process through
which the speaker shapes who they are.

Grace Mayhew

MT14 WK3

REFERENCES
Abe, Hideko. Lesbian Bar Talk in Shinjuku, Tokyo Okamoto, Shigeko and Janet
S. Shibamoto Smith (eds.). 2004. Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology.
OUP.
Horn, Stephen W. Gender and the Japanese Language, a lecture from the
Japanese Linguistics series at Oxford University, 28/10/2014.
Ide, Sachiko and Yoshida, Megumi, "Sociolinguistics: Honorifics and gender
differences." Tsujimura, N. (ed.) The Handbook of Japanese
Linguistics. Blackwell, 2002. pp. 444-480.
Ide, Sachiko. 1997. Excerpts from Women's Language, Men's Language. In Broken
Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism, ed. by Sandra Buckley, 48-65.
University of California Press.
Inoue, Miyako. 2006. Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in
Japan. University of California Press.
Matsumoto, Yoshiko. Alternative Femininity: Personae of Middle-aged Mothers.
Okamoto, Shigeko and Janet S. Shibamoto Smith (eds.). 2004. Japanese
Language, Gender, and Ideology. OUP.
Miller, Laura. You are doing Burikko! Censoring/Scrutinizing Artificers of Cute
Femininity in Japanese. Okamoto, Shigeko and Janet S. Shibamoto Smith
(eds.). 2004. Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology. OUP.
Mills, Sara, and Mulland, Laura. 2011. Language, Gender, and Feminism: Theory,
Methodology and Practice.
Shibatani, Masayoshi. 1990. The languages of Japan. Cambridge University Press.
Sunaoshi, Yukako. Farm Womens Professional Discourse in Ibaraki. Okamoto,
Shigeko and Janet S. Shibamoto Smith (eds.). 2004. Japanese Language,
Gender, and Ideology. OUP.