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Edging Toward Japan: Just how gender neutral is Japanese?

Natsume Soseki

By Damian Flanagan

    I happened to notice recently that someone tweeted about Japanese having no distinction between "he" and "she" until the late 19th century, when the word "kanojo" was invented in order to translate the word "she" from European languages. "Before that," the person wrote, 'kare' was used for everyone, regardless of gender."

    In recent years, an obsession with the gender of pronouns has become a prominent feature of "culture wars" in the West, which has now begun to create waves in Japan. Sure enough, looking at the reaction to this tweet, I saw many retweets and shocked comments about how Europeans had imposed gendered pronouns on the Japanese.

    The tweet was slightly misleading, though raises an interesting subject - how different languages handle gender differences. It's not so much that the Japanese did not differentiate between the sexes before the late 19th century, but the manner in which they have done so has changed over the centuries.

    In written English, and most European languages, every single sentence constantly reminds you of the gender of a person through the use of male or female pronouns. In contrast, Japanese, both spoken and written, can get by with far less use of pronouns, and indeed feels no need to indicate the gender of a person in any number of sentences describing them.

    What many Japanese people don't realise is that until the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the Japanese language began to import many elements of grammar from English, there was in fact no third person pronoun in Japanese at all.

    Faced with the problem of how to translate such things as European novels into Japanese, after a considerable amount of head-scratching and experimentation, the word "kare" ("over there") was adopted to fulfil this role, and at first, for a brief period, was equivalent to both "he" and "she."

    In the Meiji era, if a Japanese writer wanted to specify that the third person was female then they would simply tag on to the character for "kare" the character for "woman," which was pronounced "ka no onna" ("she"). Only in the Taisho period (1912-26) did the pronunciation of this word settle on the modern form, "kanojo."

    All of this makes pronouns in Japanese in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century a confusing business. For example, when in his "Letter from London" of 1901, the writer Natsume Soseki wrote about his workman-like maid in a London boarding house, he refers to her repeatedly as "kare," making me wonder - when I translated the story for publication 20 years ago - whether Soseki was deliberately, and perhaps cruelly, highlighting her lack of womanly charm.

    It is more likely however to have been simply a late example of a rapidly changing linguistic landscape in which "kare" could still refer to both men and women before modern gender specific pronouns became firmly established. By the time Soseki started writing his novels in 1904, this gender-unspecific use of "kare" had dropped away.

    Over the following century, as more and more European and American novels were translated into Japanese and their influence absorbed, the use of pronouns in modern Japanese steadily increased, though is still considerably less than Western languages.

    Compared to 60 or 70 years ago, when the practice was overwhelmingly common, women when speaking Japanese today show considerably less signs of "gender stylization," both in real life and on the literary page. The sentence end particle "wa" for example has become increasingly rare and "atashi" has seemingly lost its vogue. In the old days you could read a written dialogue in Japanese and instantly tell the gender of the speakers. These days that's by no means true.

    In other words, over the last 150 years, some linguistic means of highlighting gender have gone slightly out of vogue in Japanese (stylization of speech), while other means (greater use of pronouns) have increased. The ability of the Japanese language to adapt to shifting cultural norms will surely continue into the future.


    (This is Part 40 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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