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A woman’s lowly place in Japan, mirrored in its language

by

Special To The Japan Times

Historically, two of the worst words in the Japanese language relate to a woman’s womb: 石女 (umazume, stone woman), an insult hurled at females who failed to bear children, and 畜生腹 (chikushō-bara, beast womb), for women who gave birth to twins and triplets — since folk wisdom said only animals had multiple births.

Much of Japanese profanity revolves around women’s reproductive organs, which says something about the values of the society and culture. Language reveals the judgments and biases of the group; it specifies how they see the world and how they want it to be — and, in doing so, shapes that very world. Given that so many demeaning and negative words related to women endure, is it any surprise that sexism is still rife in Japan?

That is clear from the 30th-anniversary edition of “Womensword: What Japanese Words Say About Women,” by Kittredge Cherry. Although it was first published in 1987 and parts of it are now outdated, its overall narrative is still startlingly relevant. Cherry’s short, meticulously researched pieces are filled with lively descriptions and illuminating historical tales about words relating to women, illustrating how womanhood, femininity and the role of women are perceived in Japanese society.

Cherry’s writing is witty, but this collection of short essays reads at times like a dismal history of sexual oppression. It is astonishing how many words there are to belittle and objectify women.

Take, for example, the way in which 女 (onna, woman) often signifies something evil or underhand when it forms part of another word: 奴隷 (dorei, slave) when combined with the character for hand; three women together are 姦しい (kashimashii, noisy), or even liable to 姦する (kan suru, rape, seduce or assault); a woman sandwiched by two men is 嬲り殺し (naburi-koroshi, death by torture). Jealousy, according to the kanji in 嫉む (sonemu), is a woman’s disease.

That men rank above women is a given: Both men and women are offended when their behavior or thoughts are called 女性的 (joseiteki, woman-like). No woman wants to be an 男勝り(otoko-masari, man-surpasser), as it seems arrogant; 女以下 (onna-ika, worse than a woman) is a cutting insult for men.

Another good chunk of words in the book ram home the belief that women exist to be 良妻賢母 (ryōsai-kenbo, good wives and wise mothers). 花嫁修業 (hanayome-shugyō, bridal training) suggests self-improvement should be in the service of snagging a good mate; 永久就職 (eikyū-shūshoku, eternal employment) refers to a wife’s duties, recognizing that marriage is an economic arrangement; and marrying a man far richer than oneself is praised as 玉の輿に乗る (tama-no-koshi ni noru, riding the jeweled palanquin) rather than disdained as “gold-digging,” as it is in English.

On the other side of the Madonna-whore spectrum, there’s the expectation that a man deserves to have his sexual desires gratified: Scholars can apparently count 30 words for prostitute, but not a single one for men who buy their services. The kanji for 痴漢 (chikan), which refers to molesters on trains and the like, is made of characters meaning “foolish” and “man”; Cherry suggests this “reflects the indulgent way these fools are viewed by society” — as merely stupid rather than criminal sex abusers.

Thankfully, there are some reverential words as well: 天照大神 (Amaterasu-ōmikami, Amaterasu the sun goddess) is the foremother of all Japanese people and the supreme deity in Shinto, one of the few religions to perceive the sun as female. Women had more political and religious power in ancient times, when Japan was matriarchal. Two traditions from that time that have survived are 婿養子 (mukoyōshi, men marrying into women’s families and taking their name) and 里帰り(sato-gaeri, women going to stay with their mother to give birth, leaving their husband at home).

As this 30th-year edition has only been updated with a new introduction, the text itself is outdated. Points are substantiated with surveys conducted in 1982 or earlier, and there are jarring sentences such as “It will be years before the full impact of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law [passed in 1985] is known.” Modern readers who don’t know Japan very well may be tempted to believe that employers still make sure unmarried female staff live with their family, that some salarymen only ever utter three words to their wives (“Dinner! Bath! Bed!”) and that White Day is a recent, and unsuccessful, marketing ploy.

Cherry explains in her introduction that she has been waiting in vain for three decades for someone to write a modern equivalent of “Womensword,” but no one yet has. It seems that health reasons, having forced her into early retirement, may have prevented her from doing a more comprehensive update of the rest of the copy, but her introduction is a thorough assessment of what has changed in the past 30 years, including growing recognition of transgender issues, the fading appeal of marriage for women, marriage equality for lesbians, the falling birth rate, “womenomics” and increasing voluntary celibacy among both sexes.

Even as more of a socio-historical text rather than a contemporary vernacular guide, “Womensworld” remains a rich treasure trove of words and reflections on aspects of Japanese womanhood that you won’t find anywhere else.