Japan is often described as the most developed, westernised country in Asia and with its economy being the third largest in the world – falling behind the United States and China (Nagano 2014) – it faces many of the same issues those of us in the western world are familiar with. One such issue, not limited to the western world, disadvantages roughly one half of the population, that of sexism and gender equality. Seeing as ideas, beliefs and stereotypes are all spread through language, the Japanese language itself is argued to be the greatest contributor to sexist notions. In the essay to follow I shall examine the roots of the modern Japanese woman and modern women’s language; the effects sexist language is having on Japanese women; and efforts made largely by Japanese women to combat the gender inequality present in Japan and form their own identity.
Origins of the Modern Japanese Woman and Women’s Language
Japan is a country steeped in tradition. Ideas of how the modern woman should speak, act and present herself were formed and solidified in the late Meiji Restoration period, in the years spanning roughly from 1888-1910 (Inoue 2004). These deeply ingrained attitudes contribute to how women are perceived and treated today (Nagano 2014). The expectation for women was to present themselves as soft, delicate and live up to the role of ryôsai kenbo, “a good wife and a wise mother” (Inoue 2004, p. 397).
Within the Japanese language, the particle wa directly indicates the speaker’s softness. In order to live up to expectations placed upon them, women incorporated wa into their speech which, in turn, cemented the notion that wa also indicated femininity (Inoue 200...
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...ange in the view of Japanese women being submissive, delicate and innocent, moving towards a more assertive, authoritative female identity. Such a change will render such notions as a woman’s duty being a “good wife and a wise mother” outdated and grant them greater opportunities in their careers.
However, language reform has been described as slow and some scholar’s note this reform as too little too late. It remains unclear as to what Japanese society as a whole can do to speed up this process. Continued, regular ethnographic research and surveys of Japanese youth, working women and housewives will provide further insight into what can be done to further address the gender gap present. Providing greater access to childcare centres to ease the effort of raising children may grant housewives more time to pursue career aspirations or join the language reform movement.
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