This Wednesday we’ve pulled our quote from Kittredge Cherry’s Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women, an intriguing portrait of Japanese womanhood that offers linguistic, sociological, and historical insight into issues central to the lives of women everywhere.
“A delightfully insightful read,” writes Tofugu in their review, “[Womansword] remains one of, if not the best, English language resources for learning about the women of Japan through the language they use.” Thirty years after its first publication, Womansword remains a timely, provocative work on how words reflect on female roles in modern Japan. Short, lively essays offer linguistic, sociological, and historical insight into issues central to the lives of women everywhere: identity, girlhood, marriage, motherhood, work, sexuality, and aging. A new introduction shows how things have—and haven't—changed.
This passage is a prime example of how Cherry contextualizes the linguistics of femininity within Japanese culture, history, and society. Here she dissects the concept of femininity and how colloquial Japanese language uses the natural world to summarize the character of the sexes, for better or worse:
One way to chart the meaning of femininity (onna-rashisa) in Japan is to listen to how the landscape itself is described. A “male hill” (otoko-zaka) is the steeper side of a hill, while the more gentle sloping grade is termed the “female hill” (onna-zaka). This seldom-used phrase was resurrected by author Fumiko Enchi as the title for her novel about a wife who waits decades to get revenge for her husband’s infidelity, though the English translation of Onna-zaka is titled simply The Waiting Years. Another way of using nature to summarize the character of the sexes is the proverb “Men are pine trees, women are wisteria vines (Otoko wa matsu, onna wa fuji), which means men are the strong base to which women cling.
The positive traits associated with women are bundled up and tied together in the word onna-rashisa. Dictionaries define it in terms of being kind, gentle, polite, submissive, and graceful. Sometimes “weak” is included, spurring feminist scholars to protest in the 1980s. Many people would also add cheerfulness to the list of what gives a woman onna-rashisa.
On the other hand, the Japanese have several insults based on the linking of women with certain character faults. “Rotten as a woman” is an insult hurled at Japanese men by accusers of both sexes. Onna no kusatta yo na is a standard reproach for guys whom Westerners might call wimps or sissies. These fellows may also be assaulted with a negative word built from two “woman” ideograms, memeshii (effeminate). Both men and women are offended when someone denounces them as “womanish” (joseiteki). The trait that often shakes loose this avalanche of abuse is mealy-mouthed indecisiveness. Sometimes the criticism is cloaked in poetic imagery. “A woman’s heart and the autumn sky” (Onna-gokoro to aki no sora), croons a proverb. The connection is that fall weather in Japan shifts quickly, just as the moods of a woman’s heart. The word onna-gokoro is usually used in the context of love, where such fickleness is generally unwelcome.
To learn more about Womansword or to order a copy for you or a loved one, click here.