I still remember the first (of many times) that someone told me, 「キャメロンの日本語って、ちょっと女の子っぽいよね。」"Cameron, your Japanese is kind of girly."
I was an assistant junior high school teacher, and was outside helping the PE teacher set up for the upcoming sports festival. His statement caught me off guard, because I knew I'd been using the "male" pronoun 僕. I wasn't yet aware of any other features of gendered language in Japanese, so I assumed it had something to do with my intonation — usually a dead giveaway that I'm gay when speaking English.
「どんなところが女の子っぽいですか。」"In what way is it girly?" I asked.
「いつも『〜わ』って言ってるところとか。」"Maybe the way you're always ending sentences with 〜わ."
This answer only confused me further, because I had definitely heard men more masculine than I stick 〜わ to the end of their sentences too. It made me wonder what other aspects of my language use were communicating information I wasn't aware of.
Over time, I came to understand that Japanese is full of different language features that communicate your gender identity. In English, we rely on others to call us by our preferred pronouns, such as "he," "she," or "they," but in Japanese, the power to express your gender through language often rests in your hands. As great as this is, the array of gendered language choices can be hard to navigate, and many language learners receive overly-simplified or contradictory advice about gendered language use. Even if you identify as cisgender (a person whose gender identity and birth sex are the same), the traditional "girls use this, boys use that" explanation for gendered Japanese can be hard to wrap your mind around. If you don't identify that way, it's even more difficult to figure out!
This article aims to give a more queer-inclusive overview of gendered Japanese language use. We'll take a look at the stereotypical gendered language speech styles known as 女言葉 ("women's language") and 男言葉 ("men's language"), and then dive deeper into how speakers deviate from these linguistic gender norms in real life. We'll also discuss オネエ言葉, another stereotypical gendered language style that originated in the gay bar scene, and is now highly visible in Japanese media. My hope is that this article leaves you with a more thorough understanding of gendered language options in Japanese, and empowers you to make the choices that best suit your unique identity and communicative purposes.
- What is Gendered Language?
- Gendered Language in Practice
- What is Queer Japanese?
- The Future is Nonbinary
Prerequisites: This article assumes you already know hiragana and katakana. If you need to brush up, have a look at our Ultimate Hiragana Guide and Ultimate Katakana Guide. If you haven't already, we also recommend installing a text translator plug-in for your browser, such as Rikaikun or Safarikai to help you read the kanji in this article.
What is Gendered Language?
Setting out to define gendered language is a more complicated task than you would expect. There are two different ways that we can approach this question — from the perspective of stereotype and ideology, and from the perspective of practical language use. Our main focus in this article is to see how real people with diverse gender identities use Japanese, so we'll mostly concern ourselves with this second perspective — real life, practical language use. Still, understanding the first perspective is also important, since stereotypical gendered speech styles influence speakers as they make choices in their language use. We'll start by examining the two ends of the stereotypical gendered speech style spectrum — 女言葉 (women's language) and 男言葉 (men's language).
女言葉, or "women's language," is a speech style that is associated with femininity, refinement, classiness, and modesty. It's a common belief that 女言葉 dates back to ancient times, but in reality, the features of 女言葉 are based on just a few points in history when small groups of upper-class women developed new speech styles. Over time, these speech styles were reimagined as the way that all women (should) speak. While this naturally means that the actual linguistic features of 女言葉 have shifted over time, there is one aspect that has endured throughout the ages — the belief that women speak (or should speak) in a more indirect, polite, and subtle manner than their male counterparts. Let's take a look at a typical example of 女言葉:
- I'm hungry.
There are three features that place this sentence within the realm of 女言葉. The first is the pronoun 私, which is considered to be feminine when used in casual contexts. Second, we have the sentence-final particle わ. When pronounced with rising intonation, this is another typical marker of 女言葉. Finally, we have the avoidance of vulgar terms, such as 腹減った, which also means "hungry." In this traditional view of 女言葉, women are expected to choose the more polite and refined variant. In this case, the speaker uses お腹空いた, which, as you can see, contains the honorific prefix お〜, and is a more polite option.
女言葉 is not a representation of how all women, or even most women speak Japanese.
Keep in mind that this is not a representation of how all women, or even most women speak Japanese. In fact, 女言葉 is today most often used as a character development tool in creative writing or TV shows. The majority of young women nowadays prefer more gender-neutral options in their day-to-day lives. While this speech style is commonly referred to as 女言葉, linguists have proposed that "gentle" speech style is a more accurate way of conceptualizing it, and we agree with this perspective.
Next, we'll take a quick look at 男言葉, or "men's language." This speech style is associated with masculinity, assertiveness, and crudeness. Compared to 女言葉, it has received much less scrutiny throughout history. Rather than being conceptualized as the way that men speak, it is seen more as a linguistic resource that men have at their disposal when they need to "flex" their masculinity. As we'll see later on, though, this is more of a stereotype than an actual representation of how this speech style is used. The characteristics of 男言葉 are basically the opposite of 女言葉 — check it out:
- I'm hungry.
While this sentence is identical in meaning to the 女言葉 example above, it has a completely different feeling. The pronoun 俺 is strongly associated with masculinity in standard Japanese. The sentence-final particle ぜ has a similar feeling. Perhaps the most defining trait of 男言葉 is the use of "vulgar" words and phrases. In this case, the politer お腹空いた (hungry) is traded in for the rougher sounding 腹減った, which, besides its nuance, is synonymous.
Linguists refer to this speech style as "rough" language, which is more in alignment with actual use.
Just like with 女言葉, this is not an accurate depiction of how men actually speak. It too is a stereotypical speech style that any speaker can draw on when they need to sound a bit gruff. As you probably know, Japanese culture values politeness and showing respect, so these forms would not be appropriate in a lot of situations. Despite being associated with men for most Japanese speakers, linguists refer to this speech style as "rough" language, which is more in alignment with actual use.
Gendered Language in Practice
In the previous section, we took a look at the stereotypes surrounding gendered language use in Japanese. We saw that gendered language is realized through three different aspects of language use — pronouns, sentence enders, and word choice. In the following sections, we'll take a look at each of these in a less stereotypical way, and show how speakers of all genders draw from each of these speech styles to suit their individual identities and communicative needs.
Japanese has a lot of pronouns! With so many options, it can be really tricky to know which pronoun you want to pick when referring to yourself. Unlike in English, the pronoun that you choose is not static, meaning that you can choose a different pronoun for different reasons and situations. In addition to your gender identity, your age, social status, and other elements of who you are will affect your choice of pronoun, and how that choice will be perceived by others.
We've organized a few key pronouns into a spectrum below, from masculine to feminine. This list of pronouns is by no means exhaustive, and some speakers might disagree with exactly where each pronoun should be placed. Still, this spectrum will be helpful for navigating the options available to you. Check it out:
First Person ("I")
Let's start by examining 俺. We've placed it on the far left, because this pronoun is typically associated with masculinity. As you may know, it is commonly used in casual settings by people who identify as men. However, it would be inaccurate to say that 俺 is only for men. Anyone can use 俺 to draw on the "roughness" associated with 男言葉:
- I said so, didn't I?
As you can tell, the speaker of this sentence is clearly annoyed that someone didn't listen to them properly. In her fieldwork in lesbian bars in Shinjuku Nichome1, Hiroko Abe noticed that queer women who typically used 私 or 僕 as first-person pronouns would use 俺 in heated a situation. It seems that this choice had less to do with the speaker's gender identity, and more to do with their sudden burst of anger. It's unclear how common this is, even within the queer community, but it's an interesting example of how pronoun use is more varied than people think, and can be driven by factors other than gender identity alone.
During her fieldwork, Abe also noticed an interesting use of 自分 by a few of her interviewees:
- I haven't eaten. What! There's nothing left.
This example, taken from Abe's study, was spoken by the employee of a bar who self-identified as onabe. They explained that stereotypically feminine pronouns, like 私 and あたし, do not match their identity at all, but they don't feel at home using stereotypically masculine pronouns like 俺 or 僕 either. For this speaker at least, 自分 feels adequately "rough" for their personality, but also feels gender-neutral.
It seems that even outside of the queer community, cisgender women sometimes use 自分 in a similar way. One of my coworkers here at Tofugu mentioned that she used to use 自分 while working in an office where she was a gender minority. She tends to use 私 or うち in her daily life, but she explained that using 自分 helped her to present a more assertive presence in her place of work.
Next let's take a look at あたし. It is located far to the right of the spectrum, indicating that it is seen as highly feminine.
- I'll have a beer too.
Without any context, most Japanese speakers would probably assume that the speaker of this sentence is female. However, many adult cisgender women in Japan today tend to avoid strongly feminine pronouns like あたし, and instead choose pronouns that are more neutral or even masculine. This is because あたし is commonly used by young girls, so it carries a connotation of immaturity. A woman using あたし while doing something "adult" like ordering a beer might sound a bit out of the ordinary.
However, there are adults who use あたし as well. This is especially common amongst speakers of オネエ言葉. A stereotypical gendered language style just like 女言葉 and 男言葉, オネエ言葉 has its origins in the queer community. Speakers of オネエ言葉 often play with gender stereotypes by using hyper-feminine forms while simultaneously deviating from other feminine gendered language norms.
One such norm is the avoidance of second-person pronouns for referring to others. This is actually not only avoided in 女言葉, but also in polite, gender-neutral Japanese in general. To refer to others in polite Japanese, you would typically use a person's name or title, even in the second person. Of course, people do use second-person pronouns in Japanese, but it tends to be reserved for informal situations, when you want to express intimacy, confrontation, or both. While second-person pronouns do have a stereotypical "masculine" or "feminine" connotation, we will see that speakers often break these stereotypes.
Second Person ("You")
Let's check out an example using the あんた, a more casual variant of あなた:
- You're really handsome, aren't you.
Like all second-person pronouns, whether it comes across as intimate or confrontational comes down to context. In this case, あんた is used in a playful, or perhaps flirtatious, way. This use of あんた is particularly common in オネエ言葉. You might hear it in a traditional "snack" style gay bar, where a ママさん2 entertains her guests with witty banter, but doesn't necessarily know their names.
Despite what stereotypical explanations of pronouns might tell you, the more "masculine" words like てめぇ and お前 are not limited to use by men. This next example is a sentence that was hurled at me by an angry customer when I worked in a coffee shop in Japan:
- You need to get it together!
お前 can have a lot of different nuances depending on the context, but in this case it is expressing the frustration of the speaker. I can't remember what I did, but the woman who said this to me was certainly not impressed with my performance. Clearly, women also draw on these pronouns that are typically considered to be 男言葉 to meet their communicative needs.
Pronoun choice in Japanese is truly an art, as it involves balancing all the intersections of your identity with the specific context of the moment. For a deeper look at the layered nuances of individual pronouns, we suggest checking out this article.
Another major way that gender is expressed in Japanese is using sentence enders. These refer to conversational particles, like よ and ね, as well as question particles, like か or かな, that come at the end of Japanese sentences. Just like in the previous section, the table below organizes some of these sentence enders according to their gendered connotations.
If you're anything like me, it can be quite difficult to make sense of these sentence enders when you're learning Japanese. Part of being a good language learner is listening to how people speak around you, and testing out those forms in your own language use. Since gender identity can also be expressed by these forms, you're likely to start emulating the choices of your friends or teachers, which might not match your own identity.
Let's start out by examining two sentences that are identical, except for their sentence enders.
- ♀ ご飯の時間よ！
- It's time for dinner!
The first sentence, ending in 〜よ, is marked as feminine (♀), and the second sentence, ending in 〜だよ is marked as neutral (🏳️). This gender difference comes down to one tiny word: だ. While it seems insignificant, だ packs a pretty strong punch, since one of its main functions is to emphasize that whatever you're saying is true. When だ is omitted, this creates a feminine connotation, due to the stereotype in 女言葉 that women are less assertive and direct than men. Since the majority of my friends in Japan were women and gay men, I picked this feature up without even realizing it. While I continued to use it with my friends after discovering its connotation, I was able to code switch to more gender-neutral Japanese when I wanted to.
Let's check out another sentence ender that is often tricky to get the hang of: 〜わ.
- ♀ 暑いわ↑
- It's hot 〜
For this example, you're going to have to pay close attention to those arrows pointing up and down at the end of the word. The sentence marked as feminine shows an upward arrow (↑), meaning that this is pronounced with rising intonation. The other sentence, which is marked as gender-neutral, has a downward arrow at the end of the sentence (↓), meaning that this is pronounced with falling intonation. This little difference in intonation changes whether 〜わ sounds feminine or not.
Keep in mind that the relationship between language and gender is very dynamic, so you will experience a lot of variation.
This is one of those areas where regional dialects intersect with gendered language to really screw with your head. The feminine 〜わ↑ sentence ender is associated with stereotypical 女言葉, which is based on the standard Tokyo dialect. The gender-neutral 〜わ↓ sentence ender, on the other hand, comes from Kansai dialect, which is the way that people speak in the Osaka area. I started out my days in Japan in Kansai, and encountered this Kansai gender-neutral 〜わ↓ first. When I moved to Tokyo, I was very confused when people told me that 〜わ is a feminine sentence ender. Hopefully with this extra context, you won't feel as confused as I did! Just keep in mind that the relationship between language and gender is very dynamic, and sentence enders are where change seems to occur the most rapidly, so you will experience a lot of variation.
But also, don't worry about it too much. Nowadays, most people seem to stick to more gender-neutral sentence enders, such as 〜だよ and 〜だね. In casual contexts, it's also pretty common to hear typical masculine sentence enders like 〜ぞ and 〜ぜ as well. On the other side of the spectrum, though, the sentence enders traditionally associated with 女言葉, like 〜わよ and 〜のよ, are beginning to lose favor amongst younger cisgender female speakers. Not surprisingly, they are best preserved by オネエ言葉 speakers.
Even most beginner Japanese language learners are familiar with the fact that Japanese possesses multiple ways of saying the same thing, based on how polite you want to be. Like we said before, 女言葉 is associated with refinement, while 男言葉 is associated with crudeness, so it goes without saying that 女言葉 is characterized as the more polite of the two.
Let's check out a pair of sentences that are basically the same, but differ in whether they are polite or crude:
- ♀ あたし、ちょっとカレー食べすぎたかも。
- I might've had a little too much curry.
Both of these sentences have the same translation in English, but they each use a different word for "eat." The first sentence uses 食べる, which is the standard word for eat. This word is not feminine on its own, but the absence of a crude form paired with the pronoun あたし marks this sentence as feminine. On the other hand, the second sentence gets the masculine marking (♂︎) due to the crass word for "eat," 食う, and the pronoun 俺.
There are many pairs like this in Japanese, spanning many word types. There are verbs, like あげる and やる for "give," adjectives, like おいしい and うまい for "delicious," and nouns, like ご飯 and 飯 for "meal." The former of each pair is the more polite option, and the latter is the cruder option. Again, these politer options are not necessarily feminine, and they are frequently used by people of all genders. Similarly, speakers of any gender can also use crass word options when they are a better fit for how they want to express themselves.
オネエ言葉 draws on gendered language stereotypes to create something entirely new.
In fact, the use of crude words is what most clearly separates the stereotypical オネエ言葉 and 女言葉 speech styles. While オネエ言葉 is known for its use of exaggeratedly feminine pronouns and sentence enders, it's also known for being sharp, direct, and crude, which are all features associated with 男言葉. Simply put, オネエ言葉 is a parody of gendered speech styles in Japanese. Let's check out a classic example from linguistics research on オネエ言葉:
- If I ate curry right now, I'd have diarrhea.
This sentence is a perfect example of how オネエ言葉 mixes elements of 女言葉 and 男言葉. The speaker uses the strongly feminine pronoun あたし and the equally feminine sentence ender だわ, but also uses 食う, the crass version of "eat," and is talking about diarrhea! This is decidedly not "ladylike!" While on the surface オネエ言葉 looks like it is an imitation of 女言葉, we can clearly see that this is not the case, and it draws instead on gendered language stereotypes to create something entirely new.
What is Queer Japanese?
It's popped up a number of times by now, but we haven't yet taken a deeper look at exactly what オネエ言葉 is. As already mentioned, オネエ言葉 is a stereotypical gendered speech style, similarly to 女言葉 and 男言葉. While it is associated with the queer community, it goes without saying that it is not "the way gay people talk." Rather, just like 女言葉 or 男言葉, it's a speech style that people of all different gender identities can use in their own speech.
The name of this speech style comes from a queer identity term, オネエ, which is short for お姉さん (older sister). オネエ is used to refer to people who speak オネエ言葉, or act in a flamboyant manner. Just as a quick disclaimer: オネエ is considered derogatory by some, so we recommend using appropriate caution with this word. Still, it is quite commonly used in the media, as well as in friendly banter between members of the queer community, much like English-speaking gay men might call each other "girl."
To ホゲる or Not to ホゲる?
So how does the queer community feel about オネエ言葉? The answer is a mixed bag. Many people appreciate オネエ言葉, and view it as a unique cultural treasure of the queer community. In fact, some speakers have gone as far as to call it their "native language." オネエ言葉 offers a shared dialect for groups of people to unite and build solidarity through. Due to its irreverence towards gender-normative language expectations, オネエ言葉 helps to break down social barriers more quickly between strangers.
However, there are also those within the queer community who view オネエ言葉 in a more critical light. For one, they point to the fact that mainstream media representation of queer people is often limited to speakers of オネエ言葉, whose appearance on TV is contingent on their willingness to be viewed as silly or comical.
ホゲる — to let your queer identity be recognized through your actions, such as speaking オネエ言葉.
Some queer people say that they don't speak オネエ言葉, but tend to use it when texting with their friends. This allows them to capitalize on the community-building qualities of オネエ言葉, even if they don't feel it fits their personal speech style. You can even download オネエ言葉 stickers if you use the LINE app!
If you've been out and about in gay bars in Japan, you may have happened across the word ホゲる. It's a little hard to translate, but it basically means to let your queer identity be recognized through your actions. One way to do this is by speaking オネエ言葉, as in:
- You really let loose when you come to Nichome!
Its etymology is uncertain, but the most likely explanation is that ホゲる comes from the world of 落語, which is a form of storytelling theater. In 落語, ほげる means "to make a commotion." However, at least in my experience, the common belief in the LGBTQ community is that ホゲる is related to 捕鯨, which means "whaling." 🐳🤔
Whatever its origins, it's a useful word to know if you're a queer person living in Japan. For example, when you're on the way to meet up with a friend's family, you can probe how accepting they'll be of your identity by asking:
- Is it ok if I let loose?
The Future is Nonbinary
Overall, gendered language in Japanese seems to be on its way out. Most young speakers of Japanese are sticking to gender-neutral forms the majority of the time. However, rather than thinking of gendered language as disappearing, it might be better to think of it as evolving. We have seen how speakers of all gender identities draw on forms that are traditionally both masculine and feminine to suit different purposes. On top of that, those traditional, old fashioned 女言葉 forms are being reinvented in オネエ言葉, taking on new nuances and applications.
If you're an LGBTQ learner of Japanese, I encourage you to take a playful approach to gendered language in Japanese. Keep an ear out for how a variety of people use pronouns and sentence enders, and emulate the ones that you feel the right vibe with. While you probably don't want to start speaking オネエ言葉 in the middle of a formal business meeting, you might find that it adds a playful and expressive dimension to your casual Japanese!
Colloquially known as 'Nichome,' Shinjuku Nichome is Japan's largest gay district, located in East Shinjuku, Tokyo. ↩
Owners of the small, traditional gay bars in Japan are often called the ママさん. They go beyond just being a bartender, and make an effort to create a friendly atmosphere that keeps people coming back. ↩