Gender differences in modern Japanese

Gender differences in modern Japanese

You may have heard a lot of people say that men and women speak Japanese in completely different ways, almost as if they were speaking different dialects. Surely many of you have also heard the all-too-common anecdote of 'that guy who learned Japanese from his girlfriend and ended up sounding like a chick'.

Gender in Japan

While it is definitely true that gender differences exist in spoken Japanese, they're actually not nearly as pronounced as the rumors would have you believe. But the thing you have to understand is that such rumors exist because they are based in truth: Gender differences in spoken Japanese used to be very pronounced, but recently (over the past 30 years or so) they have become much more subtle as the language has evolved.

What’s happened is that young women have gradually adopted a more gender neutral form of speaking. Their speech does still have some characteristically feminine aspects, but those aspects are much fewer and more subtle than they are in the speech of older women. So yes guys, you can still end up sounding a bit effeminate if you learn all your Japanese from your girlfriend, but not nearly as much as you would if you learned it from her grandmother.

Distinctively masculine speech, on the other hand, is still very much alive and well. It’s mostly used by men speaking to other men, who often switch to a more gender neutral style when speaking to women. However, some aspects of what was once strictly masculine speech have now become commonly used by young women and girls as well, making this whole thing quite confusing.

Basically, there are now three different types of colloquial Japanese speech: 'traditional feminine' speech (which is now only used by women in their 40s and older), 'modern feminine' speech (used by women and girls in their 30s and younger), and 'masculine' speech (used mostly by men and boys of all ages). The first one is quite distinct and unique, but the differences between the latter two seem to be growing more and more blurred as the language of young people continues to change.

To help you see the differences between these different speech types, I'll show you the same hypothetical conversation taking place between three different pairs of people: two older female friends, two younger female friends, and two male friends. I'll also explain the main characteristics of these different speech types and the ways in which they're used.

But first, two important caveats:
1. Since gender differences are basically non-existent in formal Japanese, all examples are in casual Japanese. In other words, people only talk this way with their close friends, family members, and social inferiors.
2. The information in this article applies only to the Tokyo dialect, or so-called "standard Japanese." Other dialects are completely different.

Traditional feminine speech

As explained above, this speech style has now fallen out of use by younger generations, but you will still hear it used by women in their 40s and older. You'll hear it in older movies and TV shows as well. And for some strange reason unbeknownst to me, it's also still widely used in Japanese dubs and subtitles of foreign films even today. (Japanese movie translators, don't you know how weird it is to hear a modern 16 year-old American girl talking like a 50 year-old Japanese woman?! Please get with the times, already.)

The basic characteristics of traditional feminine speech include dropping だ, adding the particle わ (which can be used either for emphasis or for a softening effect), and using the feminine pronoun あたし.

How to use Japanese emphatic particles

There are also some words specific to this type of speech, such as the expletive あら ("Oh dear!") and the ending particle かしら ("I wonder if ~?"). Traditional feminine speakers tend to use the polite prefixes お and ご more often as well.

Now let’s take a look at our hypothetical conversation. This time the speakers are two female friends in their 50s:

あれ…中村さんのお誕生日、今日だっけ? Are… Nakamurasan no otanjoubi, kyou dakke?
Wait a minute… Is Nakamura-san’s birthday today?

そうよ。 Sou yo.
That’s right.

あら、あたし忘れてた!いけないわよね〜。今プレゼント買いに行けば間に合うかしら? Ara, atashi wasureteta! Ikenai wa yo ne~. Ima purezento kai ni ikeba ma ni au kashira?
Oh no, I forgot! This is bad. I wonder if I’ll make it in time if I go buy a present now?

きょうこちゃんったら、ほんっとに忘れっぽい人だから。 Kyoukochan ttara, hontto ni wasureppoi hito dakara.
Geez Kyoko, you’re such a forgetful person.

だって、覚えることが多すぎるのよ。 Datte, oboeru koto ga oosugiru no yo.
There are just too many things to remember!

Modern feminine speech

Women and girls in their 30s and younger have mostly abandoned the traditional feminine speech characteristics explained above, opting for a more gender neutral style. However, there are still some things that distinguish the speech of young women from that of young men. The most noticeable difference lies in the choice of first-person pronouns. Most women in their late 20s to 30s tend to use the pronoun 私 (わたし), while younger women and girls are more likely to use うち.

Interestingly though, some girls have started to refer to themselves using the masculine 僕 (ぼく), and a few will even use the extreme masculine 俺 (おれ). With the way things seem to be going, I really wonder if gender differences in speech will disappear completely in the next 50 years or so.

Here's our conversation again, this time between two female friends in their early 20s:

あれ…中村さんの誕生日、今日だっけ? Are… Nakamurasan no tanjoubi, kyou dakke?
Wait a minute… Is Nakamura-san’s birthday today?

そうだよ。 Sou da yo.
That’s right.

いやだ、うち忘れてた!やばいよね。今プレゼント買いに行けば間に合うかな? Iyada, uchi wasureteta! Yabai yo ne. Ima purezento kai ni ikeba ma ni au kana?
Oh no, I forgot! This is bad. I wonder if I’ll make it in time if I go buy a present now?

ゆうきちゃんったら、ほんっとに忘れっぽい人だから。 Yuukichan ttara, hontto ni wasureppoi hito dakara.
Geez Yuuki, you’re such a forgetful person.

だって、覚えることが多すぎるんだよ。 Datte, oboeru koto ga oosugiru n da yo.
There are just too many things to remember!

Masculine speech

I always want to laugh when I hear my brother talking with one of his male friends on the phone, because his way of talking changes completely: He starts saying "dude" or "man" in every other sentence, and swearing more often than he does with me. I'm sure everyone knows what I'm referring to: It's ‘guy talk’, a style of speech guys just seem to naturally fall into with their guy friends.

Well, there's ‘guy talk’ in Japanese too. It's characterized by the use of the first-person pronoun 俺 (おれ) and the second-person pronoun お前 (おまえ). (Although お前 can be quite rude in other contexts, it’s actually more like a term of affection when used between close male friends.) Adjective endings are also often changed to えぇ (for example, たかい→たけぇ、ない→ねぇ、きたない→きたねぇ、やばい→やべぇ), and the words やつ、こいつ、そいつ、and あいつ may be used instead of 人 (ひと)、この人、その人、and あの人 respectively. The agreement particle ね is usually changed to な. The masculine particles ぞ (which adds emphasis) and ぜ (which elicits agreement) may be occasionally used as well.

Nowadays, some of these speech patterns (especially the えぇ endings and ぞ/ぜ) are actually used by girls as well. However, they are still most commonly used by male speakers.

Let's look at the example conversation one last time, now between two male friends (who could be any age):

あれ…中村さんの誕生日、今日だっけ? Are… Nakamurasan no tanjoubi, kyou dakke?
Wait a minute… Is Nakamura-san’s birthday today?

そうだよ。 Sou da yo.
That’s right.

いけねぇ、俺忘れてた!やべぇよな。今プレゼント買いに行けば間に合うかな? Ikenee, ore wasureteta! Yabee yo na. Ima purezento kai ni ikeba ma ni au kana?
Oh sh*t, I forgot! This is bad. I wonder if I’ll make it in time if I go buy a present now?

お前ったら、ほんっとに忘れっぽいやつだから。 Omae ttara, hontto ni wasureppoi yatsu dakara.
Geez man, you’re such a forgetful person.

だって、覚えることが多すぎんだよ。 Datte, oboeru koto ga oosugi n da yo.
There are just too many things to remember!

Conclusion

I know all these differences are confusing. But if you’re just starting out, the best thing to do is to talk with Japanese people of your gender and around your age. Pay attention to the way these people speak and try to emulate them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to people of the opposite gender or of other generations, but you should be aware that it may not necessarily be a good idea to copy the speech of these people. Don’t be that guy who ends up talking like his girlfriend (or that girl who ends up talking like her boyfriend)!

Cover photo by jamesjustin