SBP Blog

Excerpt Wednesday - "Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women" by Kittredge Cherry

Intern Intern - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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:

onna-rashisa: Femininity

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.



Like our blog? Please share it!


Subscribe to the SBP Mailing List

New Releases

Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan

Going to Japan? This unfussy modern guide guarantees you keep it polite and get it right!

Easy and Fun Katakana

Learn the second key Japanese syllabary from every angle: reading, writing, and real-world examples.

Exploring Kyoto

This revised and updated edition of the Japan travel classic and cultural guide gets you wandering from downtown quarters to remote mountaintop temples and features expanded information on new museums and gardens now open year-round for viewing.

My Year of Dirt and Water

Married to a Zen monk in training, an American woman in Japan chronicles her own year of growth and discovery.

Tag Cloud

no longer human bowing in japan Okinawan literature shamisen japanese Basho Second World War musical tracy franz China classic japanese literature japanese travel min kahng book review Olympics ningen shikkaku UCLA japan food astrology yukio mishima holocaust suehiro maruo how to order in japan publicity pottery my year of dirt and water four immigrants stone bridge press kansuke naka Nikolas Bunton tricycle magazine Japanese aesthetics hitler The Colorado Review behavior Japanese art Japanese holidays peace 2020 Olympics Travel books in the woods of memory Asian Studies leonard koren World War Two 1960's Japan matcha Ukiyo-e japan guide Chinese history t.k. nakagaki william f sibley History blurb bookstore Interview Basho's Narrow Road book book hoarding wife takuma sminkey japanese etiquette japanese drunk japan restaurant understandind china through comics chinese comics china history what do in japan religion buddhist Spring Festival journal' monks wife the buddhist swastika literary review tourist washington dc Japan book publicity the silver spoon frederik schodt eating in japan a shameful life japanese customs Chinese culture comic history jing liu how to travel in japan Anime/Manga/Comics journal Tokyo Olympics swastika japan memoir new books michael emmerich Chinese Astrology asia reviews zen manga book tour guide koun Children's Literature Japanese literature memoir, tracy franz, zen monk, buddhist literature drinking in japan author suicide award japanese culture Coming of Age Day World War II journal of a zen monks wife in japan Chiune Sugihara announcement review the japan times hiroaki sato otakuusa politics and prose university of chicago seppuku Christianity in Japan non-fiction shun medoruma japanese bath monks wife tea garden Korea japanese book AAS illustration author tour Chinese New Year stone bridge cafe danica davidson gaijinpot rachel manley internment WWII Language japanese people how to expat etiquette japan etiquette haibun student teacher japan travel zazen diary Shoah amy chavez gaijin pot poetry of consciousness manners green tea Year of the Dog purification eastern and western philosophy Poetry world literature today photography japan custom sensei center of east asian studies Christianity travel Japan book blurb tea haiku Culture zen monk Korea photography monk memoir 1960s Korea ritual mark gibeau Translation gratitude in japan comics literary prize Spirituality Children's Books osamu dazai henry kiyama Art/Design anime janet pocorobba the fourth string