“Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women” by Kittredge Cherry

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”.

I have myself little direct perspective on the matter. It is however a linguistic question that has long been debated. Words mean what people think they mean. The argument against gender-specific language is that it reinforces gender stereotypes, perhaps insidiously if not explicitly. One counter runs that many languages have gender markers, and that in the Romance languages, the word for “war” (la guerre, la guerra, etc.) is feminine. Perhaps it matters when people decide it matters.


Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women, Kittredge Cherry (Stone Bridge Press, November 2016)
Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women, Kittredge Cherry (Stone Bridge Press, November 2016)

One imagines that most readers of Womensword will however be those interested in either Japan or Japanese. The book has dozens of words and descriptions, ranging from o-eru, i.e. “OL” or “office lady”, to oshikake nyobo or “intruder wives”, women who don’t wait for the man to propose marriage. An intruder wife “typically barges into her beau’s home without permission and starts living there.”

But in addition to being a sort of counterpoint to English-language gender politics, Womensword may interest general readers in other ways. One is the relationship between language and culture. For a language from a society that “values tradition as much as Japan does”, Japanese seems adept at coining new words, many of which carry layers of social and cultural, often pop-cultural, meaning.

A good number of these neologisms are formed by contracting together two or more other words: rikejo, a young woman with scientific leanings, comes from a contraction of rikei (sciences) and joshi (young woman). The component parts of these new words are often of foreign origin: sekuhara is sexual harassment; matahara is “maternity harassment”; thirty-somethings who live with parents are known as parasaito shinguru, or “parasite singles”. Other than perhaps the compound words of Soviet-era Russian, I can’t at the moment think of other languages which have engaged in this kind of compound-abbreviation word formation to anywhere near this apparent extent.

This edition of Womensword is a “30th anniversary edition”, which is an upscale way of saying “reprint”. The update consists of a new introduction which, while certainly an interesting essay in its own right, does not address in detail the issue of how the use of gender-specific vocabulary in Japanese may be changing. Cherry states in the introduction that original book “remains very relevant”; that is not quite the same as confirming that the thirty-year-old linguistic snapshot remains accurate as far as contemporary usage and the interplay between language and society are concerned.

Womensword may well bemuse the English-speaking (gender-specific) layman. By the political linguistic standards of English, Japanese’s penchant for coining gender-specific words would seem backward if not retrograde. Yet Japanese women, if the book is to be believed, are active participants in this process. Japanese women, Cherry writes, keep on “inventing and inspiring new terminology to describe their changing lives.” Many of the new terms, such as “1.57 shokku” (the “shock” of fertility dropping to 1.57) are gender neutral, but quite a few, like rikejo, are not. This process, Cherry seems to imply, is considered more empowering than the opposite.

On can’t help but wonder what Japanese-speakers would make of American university guidelines on “gender inclusive” language use.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.