The Shifting Sub-text of Japanese Gendered Language

Author: Mary Goebel Noguchi (Kansai University, Suita, Japan)
Speaker: Mary Goebel Noguchi
Topic: Language, Gender, Sexuality
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


Sociolinguists (e.g., Holmes, 2008; Meyerhof, 2006) generally describe Japanese as a language with gender exclusive elements. Personal pronouns, sentence-ending particles and lexicon used exclusively by one gender have been cataloged in English by researchers such as Ide (1979), Shibamoto (1985), and McGloin (1991). While there has been some research showing that Japanese women’s language use today is much more diverse than these earlier descriptions suggested (e.g. studies in Okamoto & Smith, 2004) and that some young Japanese girls use masculine pronouns to refer to themselves (Miyazaki, 2010), prescriptive rules for Japanese use still maintain gender-exclusive elements today. In addition, characters in movie and TV dramas not only adhere to but also popularize these norms (Nakamura, 2012). Thus, Japanese etiquette and media “texts” promote the perpetuation of gender-exclusive language use, particularly by females.

However, in the past three decades, Japanese society has made significant shifts towards gender equality in the legal code, the workplace and education. The researcher therefore decided to investigate how Japanese women use and view their language in the context of these changes. Data comes from three focus groups. The first was conducted in 2013 and was composed of older women members of a university human rights research group focused on gender issues. The other two were conducted in 2013 and 2019, and were composed of female university students who went through the Japanese school system after the Japan Teachers’ Union adopted a policy of gender equality and who have expressed an interest in gender issues. The goal was to determine whether Japanese women’s language use is shifting over time. The participants’ feelings about these norms were also explored—especially whether or not they feel that the norms constrain their ability to express themselves fully. Although the new norms are not yet evident in most public contexts, the language use and views of the participants in this study represent the sub-text of this shift in Japanese usage.

Keywords: Gender-exclusive language, Japanese, gender norms