In America, 90% of Japanese teachers are women. That’s great, but women have a particular (though somewhat subtle) way of speaking Japanese. There are slight differences between the way that men and women talk in Japan.
Now, I should be clear. Gendered language (that’s what this is called) in Japanese is quite different from other languages. First of all, compared to languages like German or Spanish (and many others), it’s not as big of a deal. A big part of this is because Japanese gendered language isn’t a grammatical thing, where there is no choice. Dudes can speak more like gals and gals can speak more like dudes. Depending on how much they do this, they can sound odd, but not grammatically incorrect.
All that being said, though, it’s a good idea to learn the differences between feminine and masculine speech in Japanese so that you can sound more fluent and natural.
Before we do that, though, a little history.
Where Did Japanese Feminine Language Come From?
To look at the history of Japanese gendered language, we’ll actually have to (mainly) look at feminine form. Why? Because really, this is (mainly) the only one that’s really changing. It’s also the one that’s focused on the most by “intellectual” types, who turn out to be not all that intellectual at all.
If you ask a Japanese person (even the scholarly types) they’ll probably tell you that the “tradition” of gendered language (or more specifically, feminine Japanese language) came before time itself (or, if they’re more specific, around the 4th Century AD). Turns out, this isn’t true and was probably just made up during the very nationalistic time after World War II when Japan was attempting to re-figure out what it means to be “Japanese.” Endo (a big expert in Japanese gendered language) found that while there are differences in speech back during this time, it was based off of social status, not male or female… so, somebody’s lying, and I’m guessing it’s not Endo.
The first time gendered language really started popping up was actually after the Meiji Era had begun (when Japan went through modernization), which is pretty recent. This is when you first start to get high class and scholarly male types complaining about schoolgirls speaking in an “unpleasant,” “strange,” and “vulgar” way. Turns out, these “vulgar” ways schoolgirls started talking also happens to be pretty similar to the gendered language we see in Japanese today. So, it’s not so much a “tradition” as it is a “kind-of-recent-phenomenon,” not to mention one that the Japanese people didn’t like before (but now claim to be a tradition).
Fast forward a few years when these schoolgirls are all grown up. Suddenly this is the norm, and combining this along with the “Good wife, wise mother” push going on at the time, plenty of print media claiming it’s a thing, and more, feminine language (onna kotoba 女言葉) becomes official and no longer “vulgar” (oh, and did I mention this is a tradition before time itself?? *Cough cough*).
So, gendered language is really a modern thing – and even to this day it’s changing fast. There are some things, though, that I’d consider “staples” of gendered language. They’ll probably hang out a while, though later on you’ll see some exceptions to the rule. Let’s take a look at the things that make feminine Japanese feminine and masculine Japanese masculine.
Differences In Sentence Enders
One thing you’ll notice right off the bad about gendered language is that gendered language in Japanese isn’t all that difficult. It’s really only a few things you have to learn (for the most part), and once you’ve learned them, you’ll be A-okay. That being said, a lot of people don’t learn about this because it’s either a) so natural for the teacher they don’t even think about or b) it doesn’t really matter because you learn neutral / formal Japanese, which tends to be pretty gender neutral.
Sentence enders are one of the two main ways that gendered language shows up in Japanese. There will be some crossover, which is okay (you won’t be ostracized for using a feminine sentence ender or vice versa), but in general during casual speech you’ll want to use the right sentence ender so you don’t sound… odd. P.S. You’ll need to know how to read hiragana and some kanji for this table (use Rikaichan if kanji’s a problem)
Now, you’ll notice that the masculine form tends (more often) to be neutral form – that’s because originally sentence enders were all the same between both men and women. In the book Vicarious Language, Miyako Inoue compares two literary works, Ukiyoburo (1813, aka pre-Meiji Japanese language) and Sanshiro (1909, aka modern Japanese language). She shows how sentence enders changed over the course of approximately 100 years. The column on the far right is the one you want to pay attention to if you’re learning Japanese, though the chart as a whole is very interesting too, I think.
M = Masculine F = Feminine B = Both
|Sentence Ender||Ukiyoburo (1813)||Sanshiro (1909)|
|のよ||B (minus samurai-class females)||F|
|だな||B (minus samurai-class females)||M|
|だぜ||B (minus samurai-class females)||M|
|だぞ||B (minus samurai-class females)||M|
|ぜ||B (minus samurai-class females)||M|
|ぜぇ||B (minus samurai-class females)||M|
|や||B (Even crosses gender, age, status)||M|
Just remember that there are exceptions to all rules, especially Japanese language related ones. The above tables aren’t always going to be right in every single situation, but it’s a good jumping off point when you’re studying Japanese.
Besides these sentence enders, there’s also another type of sentence ender that deserves some focus, and that is “asking questions.” Let’s do that now.
Differences In Asking Questions
Asking questions in Japanese isn’t just adding a か to the end of a sentence and calling it good. Well, for a while it is, but eventually you grow out of that and learn that there are other ways to ask questions. These other ways also happen to be both masculine and feminine forms of Japanese, so you don’t want to get them confused too often if you can help it.
You can see some of the differences between guys and gals, and also a bit how it compares with the first table that does sort of the same thing. All this just for asking questions, too. Good thing there actually isn’t that much more to learn about gendered language for you to become a Japanese gendered language expert of sorts.
Differences In “I” And “You”
“I” and “You” are the last big differences between men and women in terms of how they speak. In fact, most likely, this is the only thing Japanese learners learn about gendered language, though usually just in passing. This explanation should hopefully be pretty thorough for you:
|私（わたし）||Used by both men and women for polite / formal speech|
|あたし||Used by women to sound childish / innocent.|
|私（わたくし）||Considered very polite / formal for men and regular polite / formal for women. Obviously women are held to a higher standard.|
|僕（ぼく）||Used by younger men (usually up until college) to sound more boyish. Recently being used by women more, though still sounds tomboyish when used.|
|俺（おれ）||Very informal used by men, usually with other men (or sometimes girlfriends). Can be considered a bit vulgar / rude depending on the situation.|
|自分（じぶん）||Very masculine. Often used by military people. Sort of archaic.|
|あなた||Used by both men and women, though for men it’s considered polite form and for women just regular form. Once again, higher standards for women.|
|あんた||Usually used by women informally when talking down to a man.|
|きみ||Usually used by men to close women friends, though women have been starting to use it more lately (to talk down on men).|
|おまえ||Usually used by men to talk to other men in a talking-down-on-you sort of way. Kind of vulgar / rude unless you’re doing it jokingly.|
|こいつ||Used only by men to talk down on on someone.|
|てまえ||Used mostly by men to talk down on someone.|
|あいつ||Used by men – it’s a rude way to refer to someone else.|
|あの人（あのひと）||Used by both men and women, means "that person."|
|あの方（あのかた）||Used mostly by women, literally means "that person."|
|あの子（あのこ）||Used mostly by women to talk about someone else. Informal.|
So, you can probably see now that there’s a lot of variety in the ways in which you can refer to yourself or someone else, and a lot of the rules are there to be broken (like ぼく, for example). I’d say that these “I” and “You” words are the main way that women are breaking the “gendered language” rules as of late – it’s definitely a way for women to empower themselves, which is interesting (and wouldn’t be possible if Japanese gendered language was grammatical).
With Japanese Gendered Language You Should Remember…
To be honest, gendered language in Japanese isn’t a huge deal. People often freak out and think “omgomgomg, am I speaking like a girl??” and go all crazy. There’s really not that much difference between the two. Just a few big things to know, and then you can move on to learn something more important. Sure, these things will help you to be more fluent, and help you to be a better Japanese speaker, but a lot of these you’ll learn automatically while some things you may end up having to change. Good news is, there’ll never be a lot of things to change. Japanese gendered language is quite simple, considering what it could be.
So, here’s some basic things to remember about gendered language that should help you on your way.
- The purpose of feminine speech is to make female speech sound “softer” and more “submissive.” It might be hard to tell the difference when you’re just starting out, but after a while you should be able to know when something is “soft” or “hard” in Japanese. If you need to guess, choose the one that fits you best.
- The most important set of things to know is probably the “I” and “You” section. If you can learn that, I bet you’ll be just fine.
- Try to pick out gendered language in materials you’re using while you’re studying them. Just by actively searching it out, you’ll learn a lot more and become comfortable with it a lot quicker.
- Gendered language pretty much only pops up in casual speaking … not in writing (unless someone is writing someone actually speaking in a book or something, then there’ll be gendered language present).
- Most likely you’re learning gender neutral Japanese, especially if you’re a beginner. You probably don’t have to worry about gendered language stuff until you’re more like an intermediate level student of Japanese, I’d say.
To help you out, though, I’ve put together this gendered language cheatsheet for you to download and use at your own pleasure. I’m guessing you won’t need it all that much, being the very smart hoopy frood you are, but just in case… here it is.
If you remember these things, you should be fine… that is, unless gendered language changes anytime soon, and it just might, too!
Gendered Language, Ever Changing
Gendered language came into existence in less than a hundred years, so what makes you think it won’t change just as fast? While gendered language was originally something popularized by schoolgirls speaking “improperly,” it’s come to be something that separates men and women, in a way. Although not the case all the time, feminine language tends to put women down a little bit. It’s supposed to make them sound more submissive, which is probably a little bit sexist, even if nobody really means it for realsies.
Women are using gendered speech to empower themselves. For example, women are using きみ to talk down to men because men have used it to speak to women first. ぼく, too, is sort of a form of self-expression, I’d say. Things will change somewhat fast, I think, and then this post will become unimportant. It won’t be tomorrow, it won’t be next week… but I think someday gendered language will become virtually nonexistent in Japanese.
Until that day comes, though, I hope you find this how-to guide useful and sound like whatever gender you want to sound like.