In mid-19th century China, after suffering multiple humbling defeats by imperial powers, a movement to modernize China’s military developed. The idea was that the national essence or culture of China could be better defended with superior Western methods and technology than outdated Chinese methods—seen as the extension of a static political culture. That the methods and technology were Western did not matter—they were not tied to the imperial aims which produced them; they could be adapted by anyone, and were essentially culture-less.

Princeton University, or at least the HR department, recently promulgated new policies discouraging if not quite banning such terms as “man made”, “manpower” and “man” (as a verb); these are to be replaced with such gender-neutral terms as “artificial” and “staff” (as noun and verb). “Workmanlike” is to become “skillful” (although they don’t seem exact synonyms to me). It’s easy to make fun of such pronouncements; after all, the use of male terms for gender-neutral concepts predates even English itself. Exactly, women might reply.

It was with this political-linguistic issue in mind that I read Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women. Japanese is, or at least seems to be, an order of magnitude more gender-layered than English and Womensword is an attempt to pick these meanings apart and does so with clarity and good humor. But it seems that on the whole, author Kittredge Cherry is of the view that gender differentiation in Japanese is a flexible device rather than one constituting an instrument of social exclusion; indeed, she intends the book “to honor the women of Japan”.