Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan

Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan

Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan

Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan

Synopsis

This highly original study provides an entirely new critical perspective on the central importance of ideas about language in the reproduction of gender, class, and race divisions in modern Japan. Focusing on a phenomenon commonly called "women's language," in modern Japanese society, Miyako Inoue considers the history and social effects of this language form. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in a contemporary Tokyo corporation to study the everyday linguistic experience of white-collar females office workers and on historical research from the late nineteenth century to 1930, she calls into question the claim that "women's language" is a Japanese cultural tradition of ancient origin and offers a critical geneaology showing the extent to which this language form is, in fact, a cultural construct linked with Japan's national and capitalist modernity. Her theoretically sophisticated, empirically grounded, interdisciplinary work brilliantly illuminates the relationship between culture and language, the nature of power and subject formation in modernity, and how the complex nexus of gender, language, and political economy are experienced in everyday life.

Excerpt

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
’Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, “Stairway to Heaven”

“Japanese women’s language” (onna kotoba or joseigo) is a socially powerful truth. By this, I do not mean that the phrase refers to the empirical speech patterns of women but that Japanese women’s language is an obligatory cultural category and an unavoidable part of practical social knowledge—for both women and men, urban and rural—in contemporary Japan. By using the phrase women’s language, I refer to a space of discourse—understood as a complex ensemble of practices, institutions, representations, and power—in which the Japanese woman is objectified, evaluated, studied, staged, and normalized through her imputed language use and is thus rendered a knowable and unified subject both to herself and to others. Doxic statements, such as “Women and men speak differently,” “Women speak more politely than men,” or “Women are not capable of speaking logically,” are commonly heard in daily conversation. Scholars, too, have perennially produced a highly reflexive and abstract— and therefore privileged—knowledge of how women speak differently

1. the indigenous terms are onna kotoba (onna = women, kotoba = speech/language) or joseigo (josei = women, go = language). Although neither of the Japanese phrases includes a term specifically referring to “Japan” or “Japanese,” I affix the term Japanese in my English translation because of its specific connection with the development of the Japanese nation-state since the late nineteenth century.

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