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Be careful not to bend your gender in Japanese

by Koichi Ko

One of the biggest omissions in Japanese textbooks, classes and one-on-one lessons is gendered language. Ignore it and at some point you will wind up sounding like a little Japanese girl — or a guy — when you didn’t intend too.

What exactly is “gendered language”? This refers to how males and females speak differently from one another within a language. It is a feature of other languages (Spanish, for one), but the Japanese version differs as it refers to gender roles and is not “grammatically gendered” — meaning that if you are a boy and speak like a girl, there is nothing grammatically incorrect about it. You would just sound like a girl, and that’s no fun.

So how do males and females speak differently in Japanese? The good news is the difference is not actually that great, and learning Japanese gendered speech patterns (onna kotoba, otoko kotoba — women’s words, men’s words) is more about being aware that they exist than about memorization and study. A key difference, though, is sentence-enders. For example, girls use the sentence-ender わ (wa), whereas boys wouldn’t use anything at all. Take the word 高い (takai, tall). A girl might say 高いわ (takai-wa), but a boy would just say 高い (takai). Another key difference is the way guys and girls refer to themselves and others. 僕 (boku) is a masculine way to refer to oneself, and あたし (watashi) would be a lot more feminine. There are so few differences, it’s much easier to provide a gendered-language cheat sheet.

The history behind gendered Japanese language is more interesting. If you have been through Japan’s school system, teachers of kokugogaku (national language studies) might have tried to convince you that gendered language in Japanese dates from the fourth century and court ladies, Buddhist nuns and geisha. Japanese love their traditions, but, unfortunately for the kokugogaku, gendered language in Japanese actually developed in the late 1800s. That’s about 1,500 years off. Ouch!

A linguist named Orie Endo was one of the first people to demonstrate this. He did it by comparing two literary works, one from 1813 (“Ukiyoburo”) and the other from 1909 (“Sanshiro”). The truth is that before 1887, when people started noticing feminine language, males and females spoke the same; differences in speech patterns were based on social status, not gender. Endo found that males and females used the same sentence-enders in “Ukiyoburo,” but these were split between men and women in “Sanshiro” (just 96 years later). The sentence-enders ぞ (zo), だぜ (da-ze) and ぜ (ze), for example, were used by both males and females in “Ukiyoburo” but only by men in “Sanshiro.”

How did this change occur so quickly? The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was the catalyst. Feminine language was initially frowned on by male intellectuals. The sentence-enders てよ (teyo), のよ (noyo), and だわ (dawa), in particular, got a lot of attention. This “vulgar language” (now considered a long-lasting and beautiful tradition) was blamed on hicks and lower-class Japanese.

Two big things helped feminine language go from vulgar to accepted tradition. The first was the philosophy of ryōsai kenbo (good wife, wise mother). This was encouraged by the government and showed up in a lot of women’s magazines — written by women who spoke in the new feminine form. This type of woman was shown as a member of the ideal middle class. As a result, other women emulated them. Feminine language became widespread, and necessary — if you wanted to be well-educated, happy and all the things a woman “should” want to be.

The other big transformation that helped embed gendered language in Japanese was the rapid modernization and Westernization of the Meiji Era. Change was occurring so quickly that it seemed as though Japanese culture was disappearing — that Japaneseness was being lost. People began seeking out traditions they could hold on to. One such “tradition” was feminine language; to be Japanese — and, more importantly, to be unique from Western cultures — meant speaking in a gendered language. This was just one of many “traditions” that sprang from times of rapid transformation (it happened again post-World War II, during the Allied Occupation, with the Nihonjinron (theories about the Japanese studies).

Today, the Japanese language is becoming less gendered, but the practice will not disappear anytime soon. It remains important to know the differences, so I recommend you look up the cheat sheet mentioned earlier, so you don’t sound gender challenged anymore!