By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagata-ken, 2008-10) for JQ magazine. A former head of the JETAA Philadelphia Sub-Chapter, Rashaad is a graduate of Leeds Beckett University with a master’s degree in responsible tourism management. For more on his life abroad and enthusiasm for taiko drumming, visit his blog at www.gettingpounded.wordpress.com.
Sometimes, I might come across a book that makes me feel as if I don’t know anything about Japan. Not that I didn’t learn a lot about the country during my JET days, but that the book contains so much information, it puts to shame what I’ve learned about Japan.
Such is the feeling I experienced while reading Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women. First published in 1987, the book examines Japan through the language used to describe women and the terms frequently employed by women. This new 30th anniversary edition of Kittredge Cherry’s work seems to be the perfect setting to learn about women’s issues I had never thought of.
And it certainly was, although I got a feeling from the book that I once experienced while observing the fashion sense of people attending a flea market in Yoyogi Park: everything is stuck in the ’80s. (More on that later.)
Womansword is divided into seven chapters that address themes such as motherhood, sexuality and aging. It provides relevant information before reaching the first chapter as the “Preface to the 30th Anniversary Edition” includes several details on how the landscape for women in Japan has changed—and hasn’t changed. The good news: In 1991, for the first time in history, more than half of Japanese women had entered the workforce. And in 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced several measures to reverse the country’s shrinking birth rate as part of his Abenomics economic plan. On the other hand, Japan ranked 105th out of 136 countries in the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report and in the following year—more than 30 years after the Equal Employment Law was passed—Japanese women still earned lower pay and fewer promotions on average.
Okay, but what about the main subject matter of Womansword? Cherry mentioned her goal was to present women-related aspects of Japanese language and culture to English-language readers. She excels in that regard as she provides detailed explanations of the etymology and nuances of the terms analyzed. For example, take a look at kashimashii, which means noisy. Its kanji (姦しい) is comprised of the female ideogram repeated three times, which, according to Cherry, represents an example of linguistic sex discrimination. A long-held belief in Japan indicated large groups of women gathered would cause a hubbub, as evidenced by the proverb onna sannin yoreba kashimashii (“put three women together and you get noise”).
Somewhat surprisingly, Womansword also includes terms that could be insulting towards men, such as otto o shiri ni shiku—“to sit on a husband” (referring to a henpecked spouse) and “sen’en teisu—“thousand-yen husband” (a slang term for a subservient partner). But Cherry does stay on track of sorts by explaining how those terms are actually are related to women in general: the former phrase condemns bossy wives and the latter term reflects the belief that women control the purse strings (in addition to being insulting because the husband not only lets his wife control the money, he accepts a stingy daily amount).
Prior to starting Womansword, I was hoping that Cherry would support the meanings of the words and phrases she examines with (a) extensive information of their connotations and (b) examples of their uses throughout Japanese history. For the most part, Cherry explains how the connotations have affected everything from government policy to culture to history. For example, although fukei has been a common term for “guardian,” its kanji (父兄) is comprised of the characters for father and older brother. It has been generally assumed throughout Japanese history that a guardian would always be male and thus, the law protected male guardianship, granting it precedence in the law. In fact, women were not permitted by law to pass on citizenship to their children until the mid-1980s (1984, to be exact).
Speaking of the above-mentioned decade, many of the statistical figures Cherry uses in Womansword come from that period. The presence of seemingly outdated statistics symbolizes a major difficulty the author encountered while researching material for the book: the lack of up-to-date, detailed information about Japanese women in English. Cherry stated she had to resort to using the same sources she used in the 1980s to gather material for Womansword.
One might wonder if Cherry has a good grasp of Japanese (which, at the very least, she indicates she does), why couldn’t she have utilized sources in the language? If she did, you would think she would have found more updated information. Thus, Womansword is certainly lacking in modernity—not just in the statistics, but in the language aspect. It’s uncertain how the language used by women (and to describe women) has evolved throughout the years. But as languages generally change, it’s worth wondering if some of the terms are outdated and if newer words should have appeared in this new edition. Certainly, this anniversary edition would have been greatly strengthened with updated statistics and information.
In addition, as new issues affecting women may have emerged and the debate about certain topics Cherry addressed in Womansword may have taken a different turn, one might wonder how the language would reflect those changes. For example, terms used to address lesbians do appear in the book, but it would be interesting to find out what words (if any) has the ongoing debate about same-sex marriage contributed to the Japanese language.
Even if Womansword is an unintended trip back to the ’80s, it is a fascinating read and a striking reminder of how language can reflect the general mindset and culture of society.