A CULTURAL HISTORY OF JAPANESE WOMEN’S LANGUAGE by Endo Orie. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, Center for Japanese Studies, 2006, 140 pp., $38 (cloth)

When I was first studying Japanese back in 1947, I went to a local language school where the teachers were mostly older ladies, born in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). They taught the language of that period — in the form that they knew it. As a result, we students spoke some anomalous Japanese.

One day I accidentally bumped into someone on the street, turned, bowed and said, as I had been taught: “Gomenasobasei.” It was not until I noticed other passers-by convulsed with laughter at my apology that I suspected I might have been taught the wrong thing.

Indeed I had, for the form is firmly feminine. There is no way to translate it into English but an approximation might be: “Mercy me! I am so very, very sorry!” Not something that a male should be saying.

It is not, as the author of this very interesting linguistic analysis points out, that there is anything like a women’s-only language; only that at certain periods there are certain words that are reserved for feminine use. “Gomenasobasei” has for some time now remained firmly feminine.

Many such gender appropriated terms have not. The reason is that language is alive, it changes. As the author phrases it: “Gender differences in usage arise where none existed due to social and political factors, and then gradually disappear due to a different set of social and political factors.”

For example, a degree of political control over women’s speech and behavior was extended by the infamous Shogunate Counselor Matsudaira Sadanobu 1758-1829), who decreed that “all women should be illiterate,” or at least use their own vocabulary. The voice itself, he said, should be low and indistinct, the speaker faltering from time to time to indicate her docility, in the meantime avoiding all Chinese-derived terms but contenting herself with yamato kotoba (native Japanese words) befitting her simple state.

Language as political control is behind such maneuvers as these, and here the author gives us an interesting rundown of just what this concept has meant throughout Japanese history. Joseigo (women’s language) is always defined, no matter the era, but none of the authorities lists anything like a danseigo (men’s language), and this indicates the power behind the politics.

There is, however, no lingual status quo, and as the power structure changes so does the language. Women start using men’s language and men start using women’s. Back at the beginning (1926) of the Showa Era, moga (“modern girls”) were calling boys “kimi” and themselves “ore,” second- and first-person pronouns originally thought masculine.

When men invented insulting neologisms like “urenokori” (“unsold goods”) to designate unmarried women, women retaliated with “sodaigomi” (“large trash”) to describe retired husbands hanging around the house.

“Kun,” a second-person pronoun used by superiors to refer to subordinates, is now commonly used by women, as in “asshi-kun” (“Mr. Feet”), meaning a man with a car who is willing to drive a woman around. Or “otaku,” formed from “zaitaku shite asobu hito,” meaning “a loner obsessed with a hobby such as computers or comic books,” with a saucy and insincere honorific thrown in on top.

All of these recent developments indicate that young women now are no longer shackled by an assumed women’s language, and have begun to claim a genderless language style of their own. This book shows how this was achieved and what women had to go through to accomplish it.

At the same time, as “social and political factors” continue, men are using the formerly “feminine” language. It is now all right for a man to use “no” or “wa” after the verb rather than “yo,” and lots of men now use “kashira” to indicate speculation. So, maybe I, with my “gomenasobasei” was being prescient.

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