Opinion guest column

When the Japanese language is no longer “kawaii”

International Women’s Day edition: a deeper look at the sexism woven into the fabric of Japanese “kanji” characters

9368 japanese character
Pseudo-kanji submission meaning strong-willed and spirited, containing the female radical.
Courtesy of Sousaku Kanji Contest

Disclaimer: Japanese is the language of focus in this article because my background is Japanese. The content is based on observations I made when speaking and writing this language. 

As the routine went on Saturday mornings during middle school, I crammed for my Japanese vocabulary quiz on the hour-long drive to the Japanese Saturday School I attended. Attempting to pound the complex strokes into my head, I scribbled down hundreds of characters, one after another in a robotic fashion. In the rushed and rhythmic push, pull, flick of my pencil, it was seldom that I would take a moment to actually consider the meaning of the characters I was writing. Yet, on an otherwise mundane Saturday morning drive, something changed. I was learning the character for “slave” (奴), going through my typical chicken-scratch routine, when I paused. It dawned on me that this character was composed of two others — the characters for “female” (女) and “hand” (又). Suddenly, I wanted to tear up the paper I was writing on. I looked at my trembling hand, that of a girl, stained with the matte silver of lead rubbed off page. My fingers curled tight. 

Quite recently at MIT, the term “freshmen” was replaced with “first years.” In an effort to promote equality across all genders, many universities like MIT are motivating the academic community to use neutral terms instead of words with gendered origins. For some, such a transition in language is perceived as petty and even meaningless. After all, no one says the word “mankind” with the purpose of excluding women from humanity; no one refers to something as “man-made” with the intention of stressing that that something was built solely with testosterone-pumped strength… right?

While it’s true that many people of all genders use such terms without any consciously sexist motive, this is beside the point. What is paramount is the realization that language uncovers the basic perception and biases of a group. In using words chosen by those in power, language reflects a world of how the authority wants the group to be, consequently shaping the very group that uses that language. A growing body of research suggests that gendered language contributes to sexism. In one study by the Rhode Island School of Design, of 111 countries investigated, countries that spoke languages with gendered grammar systems, such as Spanish and German, evidenced more gender inequality compared to countries with other grammar systems. 

Yet, this does not go to say that countries without gendered grammar systems have negligible sexism. At a more basic level than grammar, an examination of Japanese words, as well as the characters that make up those words, reveals that even languages without gendered grammar systems can be insidiously gendered.

Unlike the alphabet, Japanese uses kanji (漢字), an ideographic writing system developed in China around 3,000 years ago that combines visual symbols to create a word. In fact, kanji were what I practiced on my drives to Japanese school. For instance, 人 is the kanji character for “person,” and 木 is the character for “tree.” Combining these two characters creates the character for “rest” (休) with the “person” character on its side up against the “tree” character. Each kanji tells its own story; it is this nature that sheds light on the embittering roots of discrimination in Japanese society. 

While kanji were exclusive to upper-class men, “hiragana” (平仮名), a phonetic letter system, was later created by the few females in the upper class who could read kanji. Mostly used by women, hiragana letters were called “onna moji” (female lettering), while kanji characters were called “otoko moji” (male lettering). While “kan” (漢) in kanji means “man” in Japanese, “hira” (平) means level, flat and peaceful — perhaps this alone sheds light on the perception of women during the inception of Japanese writing. 

The dawn of hiragana deepened the divide between men and women. General communication matters, news, and business information were written in kanji, while hiragana were used by women for personal purposes. The historical exclusion of women from writing kanji made it possible for men to develop words and revitalize characters with sexist meanings behind the backs of the very people they talked about. 

Like Latin and Greek roots in English words, Japanese characters are often created based on radicals, or “hen” (編), used for categorization of the character’s meaning. For example, the “person” hen (人) is used three times to create the following character, 众, which means “crowd”. The “tree” hen (木)used three times in one character (森) means “forest”. Yet, the female hen (女) used three times in one character (姦) means both “loud” and “rape.” 

Some common kanji words include the following:

These characters suggest that it is most safe and effective for men to have women remain domestic beings. 

While there does exist a handful of kanji associated with women with positive connotations, most kanji for women have a negative connotation, while kanji for men award power and leniency in their actions. Combining the female hen with the “disease” hen creates the character for “jealousy” (嫉), implying that envy is a sickness inflicted by women. Even the character for “dislike” (嫌) contains the familiar female hen. On the other hand, the character for “man” (男)is that of dignity and hardwork, composed of the character for “field” (田) and “strength” (力). The character for “bravery” (勇) looks almost identical to the character for “man”.

Both of the characters 嫐 and 嬲 are comprised of only the male (男) and female (女) characters. The former character (嫐) is two female characters enclosing a male character and translates to “flirting.” The latter (嬲) is two male characters enclosing a female character and means “to tease and bully,” “toy with,” and “make fun of.” These characters imply that when there is a female majority, they seduce the male, yet when there is a male majority, the men can have a good time at the expense of female suffering. Granted, even my mother who is a native Japanese speaker, had never seen these characters, showing that although these characters exist in the Japanese language, they are not heavily used. 

Perhaps even more elucidating of the male-female discrepancy is the nefarious description of sex crimes. The kanji for “molester” (痴漢) is made of characters meaning “foolish” (痴) and “man” (漢). This insinuates that message that perverted men are indulgently stupid in their sexual desires rather than criminal abusers. While 30 different words prevail for female prostitution, I could not find a single one that exists for men who buy their services. Kanji portray women as objects, and men can use these objects with little shame and social repercussion.

While these kanji convey stereotypical notions of women, people do not use these words on a daily basis with the thought that the characters are discriminatory. When learning kanji, the emphasis is placed on learning characters as a whole, rather than their components, making it almost automatic to bypass thinking about their sexist meanings. Yet, given that so many kanji relating to women are demeaning, is it a surprise that sexism is still widespread in Japan? According to The Japan Times, in 2019, only 13 percent of managerial positions were held by women in Japan. Japanese is just one example of a language that reflects underlying gender bias, embodying cultural thoughts and values. 

As I continue to learn kanji, I am amazed at the potential for a single character to convey both meaning and sound. Yet, as times progress from the nativity of kanji, its evolution and adaptability is required to suit the modern times, instead of depict an inaccurate, insulting perspective.

There exists a yearly competition in Japan to create pseudo-kanji; one such submission replaced the male character (男) in bravery (勇) with the female character (女) to symbolize one who is strong-willed and spirited. Seeing new characters like these brings me hope that language that excludes or demeans women, or anyone for that matter, is a reality we may one day no longer have to bear. While changing a language from its most basic component, its characters, is perhaps idealistic, the first step to making progress is by being aware of the sexism inherent in our world.