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Gender differences in spoken Japanese

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Title: Gender differences in spoken Japanese  
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Subject: Japanese language, Nyōbō kotoba, Sociolinguistics, Japanese honorifics, Miyako Inoue (linguistic anthropologist)
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Gender differences in spoken Japanese

The Japanese language has some words and some grammatical constructions that are associated with men or boys, while others are associated with women or girls. Such differences are sometimes called "gendered language." In Japanese, speech patterns associated with women are referred to as onna kotoba (女言葉, "women's words") or joseigo (女性語, "women's language").

In general, the words and speech patterns associated with men are seen as rough, vulgar, or abrupt, while those associated with women are considered more polite, more deferential, or "softer". Some linguists consider the rough/soft continuum more accurate than the male/female continuum. For example, Eleanor Harz Jorden in Japanese: The Spoken Language refers to the styles as blunt/gentle, rather than male/female.[1]

There are no gender differences in written Japanese (except in quoted speech), and almost no differences in polite speech (teineigo), since males take on "softer" speech, except for the fact that women may be more likely to use polite speech in the first place.

Traditional characteristics of women's speech

The word onnarashii (女らしい), which is usually translated as "ladylike" or "feminine," refers to the behaviour expected of a typical Japanese woman. As well as behaving in particular ways, being onnarashii means conforming to particular styles of speech. Some of the features of women’s speech include speaking in a higher register, using more polite forms and using polite speech or honorifics in more situations, and referring to themselves and those they address more formally.[2][3]

Some linguistic features commonly associated with women include omission of the copula da, the use of personal pronouns such as watashi or atashi among others, use of feminine sentence-final particles such as wa, na no, kashira, and mashoo, and the more frequent use of the honorific prefixes o and go.[2]

According to Katsue Akiba Reynolds, ladylike speech is instrumental in keeping Japanese women in traditional roles and reflects Japanese society’s concept of the difference between women and men.[4] For example, there is the potential for conflict for women in the workplace in that, to be onnarashii, a woman must speak politely, submissively and humbly, yet to command respect as a superior, she must be assertive, self-assured, and direct, even when dealing with male subordinates.

Actual language used by Japanese-speaking women differs from these ideals. Such onnarashii speech is a norm that institutions such as education and media encourage women to adopt. Similarly, these forms may be prescribed for women learners by Japanese textbooks and other materials. There are, however, various deviations from these norms in conversation.[2]

Although Japanese women may not follow the gender norm in speech, some linguistic studies indicate that Japanese women tend to use more honorific language than men do, which reinforces the idea of onnarashii and traditional gender roles.[5]

Traditional characteristics of Japanese men's speech

Just as there are modes of speaking and behaviour that are considered intrinsically feminine, there are also those that are considered intrinsically masculine. In speech, being otokorashii (男らしい, "manly" or "masculine") means speaking in a lower register, using fewer polite forms and using them in fewer situations, and using intrinsically masculine words.

Some words associated with men's speech include the informal da in place of the copula desu, personal pronouns such as ore and boku, and sentence-final particles such as yo, ze, zo, and kana.[2] Masculine speech also features less frequent use of honorific prefixes and fewer aizuchi response tokens.[6]

Research on Japanese men's speech shows greater use of "neutral" forms, forms not strongly associated with masculine or feminine speech, than is seen in Japanese women's speech. Scholars argue that men use typically masculine forms to "assert their own authority and knowledge of themselves".[6]

Some studies of conversation between Japanese men and women show neither gender taking a more dominant position in interaction. Men, however, tend to show a "self-oriented conversation style", telling stories and expressing their expertise on topics being discussed, than is typical of women in these studies.[7]

Gender differences in modern society

As women gain an increasing leadership role in Japanese society, notions of onnarashisa and otokorashisa, that is, what is deemed appropriate behavior for men and women, have evolved over time. Although comparatively more extreme movements call for the elimination of gender differences in the Japanese language (gender-neutral language), convergence in usage is considered unlikely and may not even be desirable. Instead, trends in actual usage indicate that women are feeling more comfortable using traditional characteristics of female speech (such as wa) while still maintaining an assertive attitude on par with men. In other words, there is a gradual decoupling of language forms and traditional cultural expectations.

Although the characteristics of Japanese male speech have been largely unaffected, there has been an increasing sensitivity regarding certain usages (such as calling mature women -chan) that may be considered offensive.

Regional dialect may often play a role in the expression and perception masculinity or femininity of speech in Japanese.

Another recent phenomenon influencing established femininity in speech is the popularity of おかま Okama, very feminine men as popular 芸能人 Geinoujin (television personalities). While homosexuality and transgenderism is still a fairly taboo subject in Japan, lesbians with male traits, or cross-dressers, are referred to as onabe or tachi.

Problems for Japanese learners

Without the proper instruction by fluent Japanese speakers and/or teachers, non-native persons risk learning and expressing themselves inappropriately to the native Japanese. Compounding the difficulty of language acquisition, formal instruction may emphasize learning the polite forms of expression (that favor female students) while glossing over informal expressions (that favor male students) and honorifics (distinguishes natives from foreigners). It is important for non-natives to be instructed by members of the same sex or be aware that mere mimicry may not have the expected results.

In addition to the use of pronouns to refer to oneself and others, the use of titles such as -san, -chan, and -kun also is strongly influenced by gender-based overtones and is another source of potential problems for the non-native speaker.

The situation is further complicated by regional variation. For example, in many regions of Japan it is common for older men to refer to themselves as boku or older women to refer to themselves as ore.

See also


  1. ^ Jorden, Eleanor Harz; Noda, Mari (1987). Japanese: The Spoken Language. New Haven: Yale University Press.  
  2. ^ a b c d Siegal, Meryl; Okamoto, Shigeko (2003). "Toward reconceptualizing the teaching and learning of gendered speech styles in Japanese as a Foreign Language". Japanese Language and Literature 37 (1): 49–66. Retrieved 2013-04-26. 
  3. ^ Kazuko, Ashizawa (1998). Mangajin's Basic Japanese Through Comics. Weatherhill.  
  4. ^ Reynolds, Katsue Akiba (1990). "Female Speakers of Japanese in Transition". Aspects of Japanese Women's Language (Tokyo: Kurosio). 
  5. ^ Tanaka, Lidia (2004). Gender, Language and Culture: A Study of Japanese Television Interview Discourse. John Benjamins Publishing.  
  6. ^ a b Sreetharan, Cindi Sturtz (2004). "Students, sarariiman (pl.), and seniors: Japanese men's use of ′manly′ speech register". Language in Society 33 (01).  
  7. ^ Itakura, Hiroko; Tsui, Amy B. M. (2004). "Gender and conversational dominance in Japanese conversation". Language in Society 33 (02).  

Further reading

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