Gender differences in spoken Japanese

Gender differences in spoken Japanese

The Japanese language is unusual among major languages in the high degree to which the speech of women collectively differs from that of men. Differences in the ways that girls and boys use language have been detected in children as young as three years old (Sannen).

Such differences are sometimes called "gendered language." In Japanese, speech patterns peculiar to women are sometimes referred to as onna kotoba (女言葉, "women's words") or joseigo (女性語, "women's language"). The use of "gender" here refers to gender roles, not grammatical gender. A man using feminine speech might be considered effeminate, but his utterances would not be considered grammatically incorrect. In general, the words and speech patterns considered masculine are also seen as rough, vulgar, or abrupt, while the feminine words and patterns make a sentence more polite, more deferential, or "softer" (countering abruptness). Some linguists consider the rough/soft continuum more accurate than the male/female continuum – for example, Eleanor Harz Jorden in Japanese: The Spoken Language refers to the styles as blunt/gentle, rather than male/female.[1]

There are no gender differences in written Japanese (except in quoted speech), and almost no differences in polite speech (teineigo), except for occasional use of wa (and except for the fact that women may be more likely to use polite speech in the first place).


Major differences in the use of Japanese

Female speakers Male speakers
Use polite forms more often Use polite forms less often
Use more tag questions Use fewer tag questions
Avoid dropping respectful titles Drop respectful titles more quickly
Use intrinsically feminine words Use intrinsically masculine words
Use forms intended to soften speech Use abrupt, rough-sounding forms more often

Words for "I" or "me"

Male or female
私, わたし watashi Polite, currently used by both men and women. In the Edo period, it was used mostly by women.
私, わたくし watakushi Polite, used by both men and women; more formal than watashi.
自分, じぶん jibun Used by both men and women. However, in the Kansai dialect, jibun refers to "you".
うち uchi Used by both men and women; especially, when speaking of home and/or family. Also used by young girls.
One's Own Name Used almost exclusively by very young children. Greater frequency of usage connotes femininity. For men, the usage is limited to extremely feminine men and elderly male people.
あたし  atashi Young girls, women, and men expressing femininity.
あたくし atakushi Formal form of atashi; used mostly by women in formal situations.
あたい atai More recently characteristic of the Tokyo "downtown" dialect; distinctly rough.
僕, ぼく boku Boys and young men, fairly casual; recently used by some girls. In songs, used by both sexes.
俺, おれ ore Informal form for men and boys, women not being feminine/polite; distinctly masculine, sometimes vulgar.
儂, わし washi old men
我輩, 吾輩 wagahai archaic, somewhat boastful masculine
俺様, おれさま ore-sama pompous, vulgar; boys, men, a combination of ore and the honourific title "sama"
我, 吾 ware men, may sound old.

Words for "you"

Male and Female
君, きみ kimi men to close friends, lovers; superiors (including women) to inferiors. In songs, used by both sexes.
貴方, あなた anata standard polite form when used by men, usual form used by women; (when used to address a husband or male partner): equivalent to "dear"; and can be used woman-to-woman, considered cute and very casual.
そちら sochira informal yet relatively neutral form for 'you', used among peers of similar age usually. Less insulting than anta (see below)
あんた  anta informal contraction of standard anata; potentially insulting
手前 temae archaic, extremely hostile in its corrupted form temee (てめえ); men
こいつ koitsu directive pronoun, as in "this guy"; rather hostile
nanji, nare archaic, generally used only in translations of ancient documents to replace "thou"
お前, おまえ omae direct, abrupt; sometimes hostile; (when used to address a wife or female partner): equivalent to "dear"
貴様 kisama formerly an extremely honorific form of address; in modern speech is as insulting as, but more refined than, "temee"
あなた anata (when used to address a husband or male partner): equivalent to "dear"; and can be used woman-to-woman, considered cute and very casual.

See also Japanese pronouns

Sentence finals

wa gives a distinctly soft effect; not to be confused with wa in the Kansai dialect
わよ wa yo informative
わね wa ne ne is a tag question roughly meaning "don't you agree?" It is sometimes placed at the beginning, rather than the end of sentences and functions to soften
no gives a distinctly soft effect;
のよ no yo informative/assertive
のね no ne explanatory/tag question
かしら kashira I wonder
かい kai masculine form of the question marker ka
zo emphatic/informative; more positive than "ze"
ze emphatic/informative
yo emphatic/informative; also used by women, but women often soften by adding wa
かなぁ kanaa I wonder

Traditional characteristics of women's speech

The word onnarashii (女らしい), which is usually translated as "ladylike" or "feminine," refers to the behaviour expected of a typical Japanese woman. As well as behaving in particular ways, being onnarashii means conforming to a particular style of speech, the features of which are, according to Eleanor Jorden, "repeated like a liturgy in writings everywhere." Some of the features of women’s speech include speaking in a higher register, using more polite forms and using polite speech in more situations, and the use of particular "intrinsically feminine" words (Mangajin).

Feminine speech includes the use of specific personal pronouns (see table, above), omission of the copula da, use of feminine sentence finals such as wa, and the more frequent use of the honorific prefixes o and go.

According to Katsue Akiba Reynolds, ladylike speech is instrumental in keeping Japanese women in traditional roles and reflects Japanese society’s concept of the difference between women and men. For example, there is the potential for conflict for women in the workplace in that, in order to be onnarashii, a woman must speak politely, submissively and humbly, yet in order to command respect as a superior, she must be assertive, self-assured, and direct, even when dealing with male subordinates. Miyako Inoue is also critical of the way gender difference in speech is portrayed in Japan.

Traditional characteristics of Japanese men's speech

Just as there are modes of speaking and behaviour that are considered intrinsically feminine, there are also those that are considered intrinsically masculine. In speech, being otokorashii (男らしい, "manly" or "masculine") means speaking in a lower register, using fewer polite forms and using them in fewer situations, and using intrinsically masculine words.

In particular, men use particular masculine personal pronouns, use the informal ("da") in place of the copula desu, use masculine sentence finals such as zo, and use honorific prefixes less frequently than women.

Gender differences in modern society

As women gain an increasing leadership role in Japanese society, notions of onnarashisa and otokorashisa, that is, what is deemed appropriate behavior for men and women, have evolved over time. Although comparatively more extreme movements call for the elimination of gender differences in the Japanese language (gender-neutral language), convergence in usage is considered unlikely and may not even be desirable. Instead, trends in actual usage indicate that women are feeling more comfortable using traditional characteristics of female speech (such as wa) while still maintaining an assertive attitude on par with men. In other words, there is a gradual decoupling of language forms and traditional cultural expectations.

Although the characteristics of Japanese male speech have been largely unaffected, there has been an increasing sensitivity regarding certain usages (such as calling mature women -chan) that may be considered offensive.

Regional dialect may often play a role in the expression and perception masculinity or femininity of speech in Japanese.

Another recent phenomenon influencing established femininity in speech is the popularity of おかま Okama, very feminine men as popular 芸能人 Geinoujin (television personalities). While homosexuality and transgenderism is still a fairly taboo subject in Japan, lesbians with male traits, or cross-dressers, are referred to as onabe or tachi.

Problems for Japanese learners

Perhaps due to having a female teacher, or perhaps because of other association with Japanese women, such as learning the language from a girlfriend or female partner, non-native male learners may inadvertently pick up "women's Japanese", which may sound awkward or cause embarrassment. Of course, the reverse situation is also true. This may also be because Japanese women generally use polite speech more frequently than men, even in fairly casual situations. Compounded with the fact that most courses and textbooks spend a great deal of time enforcing polite speech, non-native males may tend to sound feminine in casual situations.

It is important for non-native learners to spend time with males and females who speak Japanese natively in order to better comprehend the linguistic differentiations.

In addition to the use of pronouns to refer to oneself and others, the use of titles such as -san, -chan, and -kun also is strongly influenced by gender-based overtones and is another source of potential problems for the non-native speaker.

The situation is complicated by the fact that in actual usage many of the above gender differences are not as easy to delineate as they have been in the above chart. For example, in many regions of Japan it is common for older men to refer to themselves as boku or older women to refer to themselves as ore.[citation needed]

Problems with localization of video games

These gender differences in spoken language cause unique problems in the localization of video games. Spoken language in a video game is often displayed as text messages on the screen. To avoid awkwardness, games created in Japan use neutral or simple and functional messages when they may be spoken by both male and female characters. When this method is not feasible, different messages for each sex — and sometimes for each character — are created. Because of this, localization from Japanese is constrained only by the translators' ability or by technical difficulties in displaying enough characters on the screen.

However, games created outside Japan, especially in English-speaking countries, generally use the same messages for both sexes. When such non-Japanese games are localized into Japanese, localization efforts have two choices: make neutral messages usable by both sexes, or reduce messages to understandable form and strip all meanings that can not be localized in the limited display area. When the quality of translation is inadequate, a game may display a feminine message despite the character speaking it being male. The reverse is usually more acceptable, at the cost of making the female character seem unrefined or overly aggressive.

In games such as MMORPGs, in which a player's character can be customized to have any age, appearance, and sex, this problem is further complicated by the obvious lack of honorifics and titles in non-Japanese versions. Such a simple phrase as "I will help you" is a potential localization nightmare if a barbarian male warrior, who might normally use ore, and a cultured female wizard, who might normally use watakushi, are both forced to use watashi as the compromise. If additional translated words are similarly neutral, this male barbarian gains an unexpected refinement while the female wizard loses some of her nobility. Depending on the characters involved, the entire sentence may be grammatically correct, but socially unacceptable.

See also


  1. ^ Japanese: The Spoken Language, Lesson 9A-3
  • Cherry, Kittredge (1995) (in Japanese). 日本語は女をどう表現してきたか (Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women). Kodansha. ISBN 4-8288-5728-1. 
  • Graddol, David; Joan Swann (1990). Gender Voices. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-13734-3. 
  • Kazuko, Ashizawa (1998). Mangajin's Basic Japanese Through Comics. Weatherhill. ISBN 0-8348-0452-2. 
  • Reynolds, Katsue Akiba (1990). "Female Speakers of Japanese in Transition". Aspects of Japanese Women's Language.  Tokyo: Kurosio Pub.
  • Sapir, Edward (1958). Culture, language and personality: Selected essays. University of California Press. 
  • Schonfeld, Alexander (1999). "Manifestations of Gender Distinction in the Japanese Language". Retrieved 2005-09-09. 
  • Smith, Phillip M. (1979). "Sex Markers in Speech". Social Markers in Speech.  London: Cambridge University Press.
  • Tannen, Deborah (1990). You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. William Morrow & Co. ISBN 0-688-07822-2. 

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