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Gender differences in Japanese language

In many languages around the world, gender plays a role in how you use the language. Whether it’s the phrases you use, or an object’s grammatical gender: It’s clear that gender is important. In Japan too, your gender has an effect on the language you’re expected to use.

Given that Japanese culture has often been male-dominated, it’s no surprise that there are differences in the way that men and women speak. Whilst modern Japanese culture has made progress in balancing the rights of men and women, hundreds of years of history have naturally left their mark on the Japanese language. In this article we’re going to discuss the different ways in which male and female people are expected to speak in Japanese.

Gendered Japanese language

Before we get into the language segment, let’s discuss the all-important two categories of gendered Japanese language. They are Danseigo ( 男性語 – Masculine language) and Joseigo ( 女性語 – Feminine language). As their definition shows, men are expected to use Danseigo, whilst women are supposed to use Joseigo.

Danseigo consists of words and phrases that sound ‘rough’, emphasizing one’s masculinity. In general, Danseigo is more direct than standard Japanese, and can come off as rude so isn’t appropriate in many polite scenarios. It was much more commonly used in the past.

Joseigo on the other hand, is a more polite variety of language. Aiming to sound ‘ladylike’ and ‘feminine’, Joseigo is a manner of speech which is often expected of Japanese women in workplace scenarios. It involves more frequent uses of honorific prefixes (a syllable added before words to make it more polite), as well as replacing words with more feminine sounding equivalents. Joseigo can be used in the majority of scenarios due to its comparatively polite nature.

It’s important for us to note here that a lot of the Danseigo and Joseigo that we’re going to discuss in this article is only used in spoken language. Written Japanese will generally use more neutral and polite terms and phrases. Now that we have defined Danseigo and Joseigo, let’s take a look at the more common uses of them in everyday life.

Gender differences for Japanese pronouns

First of all, let’s discuss the differences in how men and women use pronouns in Japanese. In comparison to English, in Japanese there are many different ways to express the pronoun ‘I’ and ‘You’ that are commonly used. Which you should use differs not only on the situation, but your gender too! Take a look at some of the most commonly used pronouns below.

‘I’ pronouns

私 – Watashi – Probably the most commonly way to refer to oneself, 私 is a polite way to refer to oneself that can be used by both gender.

僕 – Boku – A commonly used pronoun. Whilst it is mostly used by men, some tomboys also like to use it. Has a slight masculine feeling.

俺 – Ore – An exclusively male way of referring to oneself, 俺 gives off a very masculine feeling. Is seen as an impolite term. Shows a feeling of superiority when used with strangers, but a feeling of closeness with friends.

私 – Atashi – A variant of watashi, atashi is a casual, cute way for a young woman to refer to herself. Is generally not used in polite scenarios.

‘You’ pronouns

あなた – Anata – A formal term that, whilst not rude, is only rarely used. It is most commonly used by women to refer to their lover or husband, much like the English term ‘Dear’.

君 – Kimi – An informal term. Generally used with close friends or partners, but can be used to those below you in a hierarchy too. Used by both genders.

お前 – Omae – A rough, masculine term, お前 is mostly used by men. It’s considered rude in most scenarios, but can be used between close male friends too.

てめえ – Temee - てめえ is a very rude, aggressive way of referring to others. てめえ shows that the speaker is very angry, and often feeling hostile towards them. Generally used by men.

As you can see above, most of the masculine pronouns are considered to be rude and impolite, in line with what masculine Japanese language is. What might surprise you is the fact that there are so few pronouns for women to use. One of the main reasons for this is due to the fact that ‘You’ pronouns are generally considered impolite, and as such, don’t match well with feminine language.

Not only the names, but the honorifics too!

Another aspect of Japanese that differs based on gender is the use of honorifics. For those who don’t know what honorifics are, they’re terms added after people’s names to show respect and show the level of relationship between people. There are quite a few of these in Japanese, but only a few that relate directly to gender. Check them out below.

君 – Kun – An honorific used mainly for familiar male friends. Whilst it can be used for females, it’s quite rare. It can also be used in workplaces by seniors.

ちゃん – Chan – An honorific used for people that the speaker considers endearing or cute. It’s often used towards babies, young children, or young women/girls.

Slang – For men only

Whilst there are plenty of neutral slang terms that anybody can use in Japanese, there are a number of phrases that are used exclusively by men. They’re simple twists on commonly used words, made to include masculine sounds. In particular, they emphasize the sound ええ (Ee). Let’s go over a few examples of how this works.

凄い (Sugoi - Amazing) > すげー (Suge-)

じゃない (Ja nai – Is not, Isn’t it?) > じゃねー (Ja ne-)

やばい (Yabai – Risky, Awful, Cool) > やべー (Yabe-)

Pretty easy to understand the pattern, right? Like I mentioned before, it’s a Danseigo pattern which emphasizes masculinity. Much like many other Danseigo phrases, it’s considered quite a rude way of speaking, so best to use it only with your friends.

Watch out for the end bit!

Sentence-final particles are words added to the end of a sentence, often to convey a certain feeling. In Japanese there are many varieties of these, including some that primarily used by males or females. They can have a huge effect on the tone of a sentence, so you have to be careful to use the right one! Let’s take a look at a few of the gender focused particles now.

わ – Wa – Used almost exclusively by women, わ is generally used to emphasize that you are confident in what you are saying.

かしら – Kashira – Another term used mostly by women, かしら is used to ponder a point. There is the neutral version かな (Kana), but かしら gives a feminine feeling.

ぜ – Ze – A male term that is used when trying to push the listener into doing something. It can come across as threatening.

ぞ – Zo – Another male phrase, ぞ is used when issuing commands or strongly asserting one’s opinions or decisions. Once again, it can come across as aggressive.

かい - Kai – A male variation of the neutral particle か (Ka), it is used to show that a phrase is a question.

Reflections in the media

Gendered language is also used in various forms of Japanese media to help show the disposition and personality of various characters that appear in stories. Whether it’s anime, manga or live-action, Danseigo and Joseigo play an important role in showing these character’s mentalities.

Japanese manga is normally written to fit a certain group or demographic. Other forms of media also follow a similar system. Based on the demographic, the variety of Danseigo and Joseigo that is used differs greatly.

For instance, in media created for a primarily female audience, it’s not uncommon for a lead-female character to use quite a bit of Joseigo to give them a feminine feel and appeal to the target audience. On the other hand, stories aimed at adult men often feature gritty, strong male characters who use a lot of aggressive, direct Danseigo terms.

Of course, that’s not to say that stories aimed at female demographics don’t use Danseigo and vice versa too. However, the language used is often more predominately aimed at the target audience to help appeal to them.

In conclusion

As you can, there are significant differences between the way that men and women speak in Japanese, which reflects the historical positions that they’ve generally held. However, in recent times things have been changing in Japan. Gender-equality has become a more common topic of conversation, with various changes being made to help create a more balanced society.

As a result of these changes, the number of people opting to use more neutral forms of the language are increasing, with expectations of Danseigo and Joseigo becoming less prominent. Language is a fluid thing, and Japanese is surely changing with the times. I hope you found this article helpful, keep up the studying!

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