Women’s speech

When feminist Americans come to Japan, they typically take one of two views on gender inequality here, either A) What a fascinating and exotic culture which I will refrain from judging, or B) Now I have seen hell.


Gender inequality is taken for granted in most forums in Japan, as with many other forms of hierarchy, and it enjoys the twin pillars of support that are common worldwide in (interpretations of) tradition and human biology.  It is also buttressed by speech patterns particular to Japanese which make considerations of gender essential to even the most basic utterances.

The old chestnut on the Japanese language, that a fluent speaker can listen to a lunchtime conversation between a boss and an employee and immediately tell which is the boss and which is the employee only by the types of words and grammar they use, is a very salient point for gender equality.

I wrote a paper during my MA studies on gendered speech patterns (how the idea of “different cultures” with associated norms of speech for men and women dovetails with popular understandings of evolutionary psychology), and although I didn’t mention Japan, it kept coming up in my mind.  Pragmatics, the way we use language to navigate society filled with other people, is ingrained in grammar in Japanese.  That is, it is nearly impossible to put together a grammatical sentence, even a simple declarative one like “the dogs drink water” without saying something about your social position, the position of the listener, and the type of relationship you want to create.  The first forms of verbs you learn, the ones in the dictionary like taberu, are generally inappropriate for formal situations, so it takes until maybe your second or third semester of Japanese class before you start learning how to not to sound presumptiously familiar – in fact the first time you meet people you’ll be drawing on practically none of the vocabulary you learned your first year.  In the common dialect there is no neutral ground, status-wise; you’re always putting yourself or the listener up or down, affecting casual or formal airs.  In most situations your ability to sound natural depends on your knowing which position you’re supposed to adopt, and adopting the wrong one is as much an error as “dog drink water” is in English.

your(hon) dog (+subj) water (+obj) drink (+formal)(copula (+formal)).

What does this mean for feminism?  Well, first is the obvious corollary of the above that women, like everyone else, broadcast their status in contexts where status is salient in virtually every sentence.  This is a step beyond the patterns in women’s speech catalogued by Robin Lakoff and Deborah Tannen (and later made a much larger part of public discourse by John Gray and Sheryl Sandberg, among others), which included uptalk, hedging, abundance of “empty” adjectives and might now include the derided vocal fry.  One can avoid all these and still maintain a feminine or neutral identity – it is not as if saying “brown” instead of “taupe” instantly makes one John Wayne.  Avoiding the type of language that marks status in Japanese doesn’t bring one parity or the appearance of competence; to the contrary using language inappropriate to one’s station comes across as incompetent, untrustworthy and illiterate.  Therefore the double bind that is commonly described, in which women have to choose between sounding masculine and unlikable or feminine and deferential, is even harder to escape in Japanese because formality is a part of virtually every sentence.

As in the USA, women are often characterized as innately supportive, conciliatory, and family-oriented – hence the apron on the mother in the “nuclear family” illustration at the top of this post, and millions of other examples of taken-for-granted supporting roles for women across society including the fact that girls can join the boys’ sports team in high schools but only as “managers”, who as far as I can tell mainly wash the players’ uniforms.  Again similarly to the USA, people reach toward some version of evolutionary psychology (women bear children and have to care for them etc.) to justify the assumption of female occupational second-fiddleness.  In addition to quasi-biological accounts, there are that fount of mythical-historical explanation which is classical Japan (whose samurai caste was made the model for all Japanese family values during the Meiji period) as well as the very special form of special pleading that Japanese society is just innately different from all other human societies.  Numerous arguments are available against women in positions of leadership or in the workplace at all, for those so inclined.  Similar to racism, often these arguments make some appeal to the innate characteristics of the groups they propose to separate and say that what they propose is not discrimination but just the most logical matching of jobs to skillsets.

Conscious defense of the unequal status of the genders is important to this discussion because, of course, the characteristics of women’s speech are not intrinsically low-status, in the same way that nothing in language is intrinsically anything.  Interpretations of indirectness and other linguistic behaviors depend on their host cultures; there are cultures where high-status people speak indirectly (because their subordinates are obliged to listen to them) or speak less (because people are supposed to know what they want beforehand – some authority figures in Japan and the US do this as well).  As in Sandberg’s book, one can describe the problem of women’s speech seeming to disqualify them as leaders without prescribing as a solution women changing their speech to match men’s.  The bigger problem is that gender roles are prescribed and defined to such an extent and in such a way that women’s speech is taken as a sign of social inferiority as opposed to a more neutral marker of identity.


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