Gendered Language

I was deprived of the right to use imperative form (meireikei 命令形) the moment I was born. I will never have the opportunity of referring to myself as “boku” (僕). Instead of The Forbidden Particles like “zo”, the particles “wa” and “kashira” will be sticking at the end of my sentences for the rest of my life. The reason: I’m female. Not that I am sorry for that, but I just wanted to point out that there is a notable difference in Japanese speech between men and women.

woman-speech-japaneseThere is no trace of gender-related language differences in Europe. Proof of distinctive vocabulary was found in ancient cultures situated in Asia and Australia. Nowadays, Japan is the only language where the difference between the sexes is so obviously ruled by grammar and vocabulary, especially in the use of pronouns, verbs, sentence-ending particles and prefixes. For lists, you can check wikipedia and tofogu.

Why such distinctions? Is it used to define oneself, to express clearly ones gender?  Language is a powerful tool to indicate human relations and social position. For example, women who wanted to stand up against the male dominance, used the male pronoun “kimi” (君) to address the opposite sex. Nowadays, it has become quite common for girls to use terms like that. I guess that it has a lot to do with emancipation.

The Japanese woman has to be polite, submissive and humble, and so is her language, men speech“ladylike” (onnarashii 女らしい). They often use the honorific prefix “o” en “go” (御), and especially the particle “wa” expresses feminism, even a kind of coquettishness. They rather use polite (teineitai 丁寧体) than non-polite speech (futsuutai 普通体). Men speak in a lower register, using masculine words. That means that “manly” language (otokorashii 男らしい) shows that the man is dominant above women, because he addresses them as inferior by his speech.

It’s a cultural process that has been going on for ages, but women criticizing gendered language is quite understandable. You can see the tendency toward a fading of the strict distinction in Japan’s youth of today. On the other hand, elderly women still address you in polite speech, even if it’s not necessary because you’re younger. But gendered language will certainly not be gone in the following years. If I compare speech in popular Japanese drama, the differences are striking. Here are a few examples (M is male, F is female):

1. Kimi wa petto (君はペット, 2003)
These are conversations between a career woman and  her boyfriend, who was her senior (sempai 先輩) in college. She still uses polite language, despite the intimate relationship.

M: あれっ。やってみよう。(are. yattemiyō.)
F: へっ。プリクラですか。(he. purikura desuka.)
M: 実、俺、一枚も持っていないだよね。(jitsu, ore, ichimai mo motteinaidayone.)

M: Ah, let’s try that.
F: What? Sticker Photos?
M: Actually, I don’t even have a single one.

F: すみません。ありがとうございます。(sumimasen. arigatō gozaimasu.)
M: あ、これ。おいしそうだった。(a, kore. oishisoudatta.)

F: Sorry (for having you get me coffee). Thank you very much.
M: Oh, and this. It looked so good.

F: わらっています。(waratteimasu.)
M: 違う。ごめんごめん。(chigau. gomen gomen.)
F: あのう、本当本当に申し訳ありません。(anō, hontou hontouni mōshiwake arimasen.)
M: そんななんでも謝らなくていいってわ。(sonna nandemo ayamaranakute iittewa.)


F: You’re laughing.
M: No. I’m sorry.(informal)
F: I’m really really sorry.(formal)
M: You don’t have to apologize so much.

2. Ōran High School Host Club (Ōran kōkō hosuto kurabu 桜欄高校ホスト部, 2011)

M: 俺は飲むぞ!(ore wa nomuzo!)
F: あたしも今度、飲んでみようかしら。(atashi mo kondo, nondemiyō kashira.)

M: I will drink it!
F: Maybe I will drink it too, next time.

ouran-high-school-genderedlanguageIn non-formal occasions, schoolboys will always use “ore” to refer to themselves and “omae” and “omaera” to classmates. The girl’s speech is non-polite because she’s talking to a classmate, but she inserts feminine words (onnakotoba 女言葉 or joseigo 女性語) like “atashi” and “kashira”.

3. Rich Man, Poor Woman (リッチマンプアウーマン, 2012)
M is the company president, F is an employee.

F: できそうですか。(dekisoudesuka?)
M: ん、まあ。もういい。お前、帰れ。(n, maa. mō ii. omae, kaere.)
F: へっ。(he.)
M: なんだ? (nanda?)
F: いいえ。お疲れ様でした。(iie. otsukaresamadeshita.)
M: あ。(a.)

F: You made it?
M: Yes, seems so… You, go back.
F: Hé?
M: What?
F: Nothing. We had a good work session.
M: Yes.


There are a lot of “yesses” in Japanese, from the most formal “haa”, “hai” and “ee” to informal “n”, “a”, “o”. M uses imperative form and addresses F as “omae”. Even if F was M’s boss, she wouldn’t use this kind of language.

As you can see, there is no particular difference in the English, what makes it interesting for Japanese learners to grasp the nuances in underlying relationship, which are difficult to convey by translation. Watching drama and anime or reading manga can be a good exercise to train your linguistic feeling. But be careful to pick up the language of your own gender!

Facts for Fun

– This is an elaborated and very interesting post about (female) gendered language in manga by a fellow blogger: Tobidasu


– wikipedia, again wikipedia and tofogu

-Philips, Susan U., Susan Steele, and Christine Tanz. Language, Gender, and Sex in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Dramacrazy, for providing a mountain of drama


9 thoughts on “Gendered Language

    • I was also surprised. During Japanese lessons here, female and male students are taught the same kind of Japanese, except for the pronouns. It made me realize that my speech probably sounds a bit unfeminine…

  1. It has been confusing for me a lot when I`m trying to improve my Japanese, as in my native English there are very few words that are feminine or masculine. Yes, other European languages like Spanish have feminine and masculine, but the only English words I can think of are some professions, like waiter vs. waitress. Polite words are gender neutral, and easier to remember. To be fair, though, the Japanese probably get very confused when they try to learn plural forms in English!

  2. certainly like your website however you need to test the spelling on quite a few of
    your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling issues
    and I find it very troublesome to inform the truth nevertheless I’ll surely come back again.

    • I know my English is not very good. I suppose you mean mistakes in grammar, syntax and vocabulary? Because I use several spelling correctors, the words should be more or less written correctly. Thank you for informing me, I will think of some solution, proof reading for example. I understand very well it’s bothersome for native English speakers to read my poorly written posts.

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