The Language of Feminine Duty

Articulating Gender, Culture, and Covert Policy in Modern Japan

by Rika Saito (Author)
©2021 Monographs XII, 208 Pages


This book examines "women’s speech" as a policy of constructs expressed in official and unofficial discourse from the 1880s to the 1920s in Japan. It analyzes specific language policies that were incorporated through governmental gender policy to perpetuate "women’s speech," asymmetrical gendered speech styles and concepts in the Japanese language. It also seeks to develop cross-cultural approaches to language and gender theories initiated in the United States and Europe by proposing new concepts of language policy. This work contributes to ongoing interdisciplinary scholarship on gender, language, and policy by reconsidering the relationship between the Japanese "national language" and "women’s speech."

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Prologue: Theorizing Women’s Speech and Covert Language Policy
  • Chapter One: Modernizing Variegated Japanese Speech
  • Chapter Two: Systematizing Women’s Active Agency in Nation Building
  • Chapter Three: Conceptualizing Women’s Place Through Instructive Texts
  • Guidebooks for Spoken Japanese Grammar: Kōgo Bunten
  • Instructions for Manners in Feminine Speech Through Textbooks
  • Instructions for Manners in Feminine Speech through Jogaku Zasshi
  • Chapter Four: Resisting the Gendered Style of Women’s Writing
  • Epilogue: Predicting the Future of Women’s Speech
  • Appendix: Character List
  • Index

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Since finishing my graduate work, I’ve never stopped thinking about my research on women’s speech and language policy in modern Japan. At its core is a problem I call “feminine duties” that various institutional and societal pressures imposed on women for decades. I would have liked to complete this book sooner; nevertheless it provides me with great satisfaction to see it published now. I offer sincere thanks to Peter Lang Publishing for taking on this project and Meagan Simpson, Jackie Pavlovic, Naviya Palani, and Philip Dunshea for their guidance in the editorial and production process. I also give special thanks to Caitlin Adkins who worked with me to polish the manuscript. I thank the editorial board of the academic journals, The US-Japan Women’s Journal and Nihongo to Jendā [The Japanese Language and Gender], for their permissions to reprint revised sections of my previously published articles “Constructing and Gendering Women’s Speech: Integrated Policy of Language through School Textbooks in Meiji Japan” and “Was Women’s Speech Included in the Official Language Policy of Meiji Japan?–The Case of Kōgo Bunten, Guidebooks for Grammar in Spoken Japanese.” The issue of women’s speech is still active in the present day, and women’s speech may be currently undergoing a transformational change. I hope that this study will contribute to the ongoing discussion about gender politics and women’s language issues.

There are three major groups of people and institutions whom I wish to thank for their various kinds of support. First, I wish to thank Western Michigan University (WMU), the College and Arts and Sciences (CAS), and the Department of World Languages and Literatures (WLL), my home department, for their financial support. I would like to express my deep gratitude to my current and past department chairs, Vincent Desroches, Molly Lynde-Recchia, and Cynthia Running-Johnson. I could not have completed this project without their generous guidance and encouragement. I am also grateful to my WLL colleagues for their collaboration, dedication and friendship: Jeffrey Angles and Carlos Pimentel with whom I work every day in the Japanese section, and Peter Blickle, Olivia Gabor-Peirce, Rand Johnson, David Kutzko, Mustafa Mughazy, Viviane Ruellot, Vivan Steemers, Xiaojun Wang, Li Xiang, and Shu Yang, who do research and teach in five other language sections within the same department. I am also very thankful for many other departmental and WMU colleagues, especially Noriko Tanaka, Jinko Oyake, and Yumi Takahashi-Ede, who teach or have taught Japanese courses at WLL with me, and past and recent staff members Laura Large, Jen Morrow, Jenaba Waggy, Nancy Landsberger and Mathew Alonso. I am very pleased to have opportunities to work with many CAS colleagues who share with me their academic passion and diligence, in particular, the colleagues and staff at the Michitoshi Soga Japan Center: Steve Covell, Takashi Yoshida, Priscilla Lambert, Ying Zeng, and Michiko Yoshimoto, who are engaged in promoting Japan, and colleagues in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, particularly Cathryn Bailey and Susan Freeman, who supported my research on gender at every possible opportunity. I am grateful for having many WMU undergraduate students who major or minor in Japanese, or take Japanese for fun, and am especially thankful for the students in my 2008 advanced course who showed an interest in women’s speech issues.

I owe a debt of thanks to the professors, colleagues, and staff with whom I worked as a graduate student and junior faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and the University of Delaware, and also at institutions where I collected research materials and data. Thank you to Ayako Kano, Linda Chance, Kathy Uno (Temple University), and Lee Yeounsuk (Hitotsubashi University), who were my dissertation advisors and readers; to Harold Schiffman and Nancy Hornberger who taught me language policy research at graduate seminars; to William LaFleur, Victor Mair, and Liliane Weissberg who inspired me through their academic expertise. My gratitude also goes to Nancy Steinhardt, G. Cameron Hurst, Frank Chance, Hiroko Kimura Sherry, Tomoko Takami, and Yoko Makishima, who helped me when I taught as a graduate fellow in the Department of East Asian Cultures and Civilizations at Penn; and to my fellow and senior ←x | xi→graduate students and friends at that time: Max Dionisio, Jeff Graves, Michael Laver, Sayumi Takahashi, Nona Carter, Jiajia Wang, Jia Si, Kyoko Waseda-Hida, Denis Gainty, Robin Orlansky, Kate Baldanza, Krinstin Williams, Gavin Walker, Jen Criss, Chuck Anderson, Hilary Smith, Eli Alberts, Tom Radice, Sungshin Kim, Megan Tracy, Maki Isaka, Noriko Horiguchi, Yoshie Endo, and Seiko Yoshinaga. I am grateful for support I received from Richard Zipser, Monika Shafi, Mutsuko Sato, Chika Inoue, Mark Miller, and Mayra Bonet at the University of Delaware. Penn’s Van Pelt Library and Japan’s National Diet Library were the main places for the primary source documents. In addition, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to use archival materials for my research at the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University and the National Institute for Educational Research of Japan Library of Education [Kokuritsu Kyōiku Kenkyūjo Kyōiku Toshokan].

I would like to thank my colleagues, family, friends in Japan and significant other. Prior to coming from Japan to the United States, I had the good fortune to be acquainted with scholars studying women’s speech and Japanese language policy, including Katsue Akiba Reynolds, Endō Orie, Usami Mayumi, Nakamura Momoko, J.V. Neustupný, and Yasuda Toshiaki. I was stimulated by academic discussions about the Japanese language and gender practices with colleagues from Nihongo Jendā Gakkai (The Society for Gender Studies in Japanese) and from Gendai Nihongo Kenkyūkai (The Modern Japanese Language Research Group). I could not have continued my research without also spending time with my friends and family in Japan: Fujimiya Masako, Takagi Takeshi, Kajiwara Toshiko, Ozai Masakazu, Kita Naoko, Kuroo Yukie, Murayama Kazue, Kobayashi Tetsuo, Okamoto Ena, Ishida Junshi, Arita Tsukasa, Katō Junko and Hiroshi, Kaneko Sawako and Isao, and Saitō Tatsuki. Finally, I thank David Langlitz who always inspires and encourages me to think and write, and my cats Rafa and Runa who play and sleep next to me.

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Prologue: Theorizing Women’s Speech and Covert Language Policy

The Language of Feminine Duty: Articulating Gender, Culture, and Covert Policy in Modern Japan assesses the cultural constructs of gendered language as a policy of constructs expressed in official and unofficial discourse from the 1880s to the 1920s in Japan. This book analyzes specific language policies that were incorporated through governmental gender policy to perpetuate asymmetrical gendered speech styles and concepts in the Japanese language. In so doing, this work contributes to ongoing interdisciplinary scholarship on gender, language, and policy by reconsidering the relationship between the Japanese “national language” and “women’s speech” (josei-go or onna kotoba), a normative concept of language used by women. In addition, this book seeks to further our understanding of cross-cultural approaches to language and gender theories initiated in the United States and Europe by proposing new concepts of language policy.

Conceptualization of gendered language accompanied modernization, a process that created a sense of the unity among peoples within a nation and reconstructed the hierarchical order of individual positions in the family, community, and the state. In Japan, gender differences in language use existed prior to the modernization period at the end of the nineteenth century, but it was then that they were reemphasized and popularized as part of modernized control systems of the state aimed at turning women into integrated subjects of the nation. Thus, women’s speech became an issue in modernizing Japan.←1 | 2→

In examining this problem, I have asked three questions which structure the content of this book:

(1) How did the modernization/civilization process promote the gendering of language in Japan? This question seeks the role of gender in the restructuring of language during the modernization process. Language used in a modernized country needs to be standardized since modernization calls for more integration of the nation-state as represented by a single, common language. Standardized language in theory ought to exclude linguistic characteristics that indicate a speaker’s social status, occupation, hometown, and gender. However, women’s speech—when seen as gendered language—seemingly developed along with the standardization of the Japanese language. And so, in answering the question of modernization’s promotion of gendered language, I uncover a double-standardized mechanism of linguistic modernization and gendering, using concepts of overt/covert language policies which will be discussed in detail later.

(2) To promote a governmental gender policy for language, what types of discursive materials were prepared? Several kinds of written materials, such as school textbooks, guidebooks for colloquial grammar, women’s magazines, and newly developed modern literary texts, included instructions for women’s use of language in a ‘modern’ era. I analyze specific texts within these writing genres, arguing that the Japanese discourses that did progress along with the modernized state included the infusion of strict gender distinction policies into general language use.

(3) How did women react––in resistance and/or conformity—to governmental policy aiming to control of women via a gender-distinct language policy? Reactions were certainly a modern phenomenon in that it overlapped with what is now called the first wave of the feminist movement in Japan from the 1890s to the 1920s. Women demanded improvements to their status in family and society, and sought opportunities to get involved in the public sphere. I examine women’s reactions to the government language policy through analysis of the modern literary development of female writers—in particular, by analyzing works of Shimizu Shikin (1868–1933), one of the pioneering feminist writers in early Meiji Japan. During the transitional period when the pre-modern Japanese writing styles changed in the name of modernization, women writers who sought their own modern literary style were bound by a ‘gender code’ in writing, namely josō buntai or a “female drag writing style.”1 The restraint that gender code imposed potentially incited resistance from women writers ←2 | 3→to the status quo in modern literature while also helping to produce a unique writing subjectivity.

In this modernization process, complex formations of power are observed in the state similar to that which Michel Foucault called “governmentality.”2 Governmentality, which originally emerged in sixteenth through eighteenth centuries Europe, is a comprehensive notion of plural, organized exercises concerning governing (government) and being governed (people and things). In other words, this is not merely a one-way, top-down system of power. Instead, as described in Foucault’s texts, power is exercised rather in a bottom-up direction and the target of such power, the governed (people), may accept it or be in favor of submission to the governing (government). Governmental effects of power, for example sovereignty, discipline, surveillance, observance, etc. are somehow self-controllable and monitorable by the governed (people).

In Japan governmentality seems to have progressed in the late nineteenth century when governmental sovereignty shifted from the feudal system to the centralized one. This change encouraged Japanese women to find and hold on to their own modes of speech while simultaneously participating in promoting the government’s control over women’s habits and language. In addition to this mechanism that constitutes “women” of the state (who will be more specified in the later chapter) and their speech based on the power structure explained by Foucauldian perspectives, I also consider another perspective of gendering mechanism: that is, as Judith Butler initially suggested, the body being an agentive act in the discursive structure.3 The “women” I cite are not merely appropriated by the disciplinary power but are also positive agents who could potentially reverse the dominant discourse.

Japanese Women’s Speech

In this study “women’s speech” (josei-go or onnna-kotoba) has to be carefully defined as it does not mean the language that women actually use; rather, the focus is on the language that others (men in particular) expect women to use. Women’s speech can be described more accurately as a certain category of characteristic forms, patterns, and manners that women are expected to use to adhere to the prescribed norms of society. A definition like this, connected to studies on language ideology,4 will be discussed further in the next section about approaches. Women’s speech in this mode is ideological, constructed as it is by a belief system based on prescriptive norms. When discussing the terminology of overt/covert language policy, I will ←3 | 4→further define the term “women’s speech” as I examine women’s speech through Japanese language policies and consider it as part of a specific policy in this study. At this point, I will demonstrate the prescriptive norm itself through past Japanese discourses such as dictionaries and Japanese linguistic research.

What are these forms, patterns, and manners of “women’s speech” and what are women expected to do in using them? The speech’s characteristics are most commonly present in certain grammatical elements such as personal pronouns and sentence-final particles, as well as the frequent use of honorific expressions. Women in Japan are even still expected to use the first-person pronoun watashi (“I”) in both formal and informal situations, whereas men may use the formal watashi or the informal boku (“I”) and ore (“I”). This means that, even today, women have a limited variety of first-person pronouns. Sentence-final particles –ze and –zo, which express insistence or assertion (“I tell you that …”) as well as expressions of ‘vulgarity’, are generally considered socially inappropriate for use by women. There is also a general belief that if women use a particle of mild insistence (–yo), they should do so after adding another particle (–wa) that softens that insistence. These features are associated with socially desirable “feminine” or “womanly” attitudes and behavior.

Dictionary entries typically show that these expectations for women have a cultural legacy. For example, one of the most widely used Japanese dictionaries, Kōjien (1991), explains women’s speech (josei-go) in the following way:


XII, 208
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 208 pp.

Biographical notes

Rika Saito (Author)

Rika Saito (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) is Associate Professor of Japanese at Western Michigan University. Her research interests include feminist literary criticism in modern Japanese texts, language and gender, and language policy. She published several articles, including "Writing in Female Drag: Gendered Literature and a Woman’s Voice."


Title: The Language of Feminine Duty
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222 pages