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Opinion

Japan's language gender divide hurts women at work

They are expected to use separate vocabulary and more demure tones

| Japan
Office workers head to their workplace in Tokyo: who says women cannot be both direct and attractive?   © AP

Nobuko Kobayashi is Ernst & Young -- Japan -- transaction advisory services managing director and partner.

In Japanese, men and women eat differently. This is not a comment on table manners but on language: a man would ku-u, with connotations of devouring his food, while a woman may taberu or, even better, itadaku to humbly consume.

Similarly, a man would call himself boku or ore, whereas a woman would say watashi. A woman might say ii-wayo for "that's OK," but from a man that would sound extremely feminine. Real men would mutter succinctly ii-yo.

This is not just a matter of linguistics: these gender-specific forms, with their different levels of assertiveness and politeness, and the societal expectations behind them, put women at a huge disadvantage against men, in life and particularly in the workplace.

Beyond specific words, gender language differences in Japanese are evident in how and what women say. Women are softer spoken and use more euphemisms. Unwritten rules around women's language reflect the acceptable features of women in Japan: never direct, always respectful.

Momoko Nakamura, professor at Kanto Gakuin University who studies the relationship of gender and language, points out that women's language in Japan is strongly tied to the myth that women deserve their own expressions because they are different from men. The notion flies directly against the modern understanding that social expectations, not nature, shape gender stereotypes.

Classifying women as a different species implicitly justifies unequal treatment of men and women, from promotion in careers to role divisions at home. Moreover, for women, believing that we are naturally more delicate beings, as language tells us, becomes a self-imposed ball and chain for those who wish to explore the full potential of life and career.

This gender distinction presents a great handicap. Compared to Western languages, Japanese is inherently higher-context, favoring innuendo instead of plain-speaking. If women's Japanese is subtler than its male equivalent, it ends up being almost cryptic to untrained ears.

In a business context, even a senior-ranking woman would intentionally speak demurely to a male peer with a soft, soothing tone. Sadly, this is our survival tactic as well as our charm offensive. No wonder many educated Japanese women find English-speaking liberating. It allows us to be blunt even with men, a tall order when speaking the female Japanese language.

As effective as this demure speaking may seem in the short term, this strategy hurts Japanese women in the long run. First, it simply takes longer to coo "I'm afraid I am not good with numbers. Could they be really correct?" instead of saying, "These numbers are wrong."

Second, it forces us to trade off between being articulate and being demure. While many women hone their skills over time, this is an exhausting exercise. Finally, acting in a "ladylike" manner can take you only so far in business. Without being vulgar, we should be able to shoot straight and not feel sorry about it.

It is therefore high time that we consciously parted with our irrational expectation of how women should speak. Its underlying assumption is that women need to be subtle to be attractive. But who says that they cannot be both direct and attractive?

Interestingly, Nakamura observes that the Japanese female language is most prominently represented in the Japanese translation of women's remarks in Western literature. For example, Hermione in the Harry Potter wizarding novels sounds much more ladylike in Japanese than a girl her age in Japan today would. In fact, Hermione speaks as briskly as her male peers in the original English.

Emma Watson, center, who plays Hermione in the film "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" poses with fellow actors in November 2005: Hermione speaks as briskly as her male peers in the original English.   © AP

But the translation sends a subliminal message that all women, even Western ones, should be speaking demurely. Intellectually we know that this is not true. Western professional women are much more outspoken, but they are not any less charming for that.

Some even argue that the delicate Japanese spoken by women represents the "true" Japanese because it embodies the sublime intricacy of the language. Indeed, one attribute of the female language is the abundant use of honorary speak, keigo, a reflection of the Japanese culture of respect and humility.

So is this a rare manifestation of diversity and inclusion? No, it is more of the same setting apart of the genders.

Japan's fight for gender equality is subtle and deeply cultural. In contrast to the Hollywood-style #MeToo movement, we have #KuToo, where women protest the mandatory wearing of high heels at work. But even more deeply ingrained in society than dress codes is our language. As the air around us quietly affects our health, the language we use influences our psyche.

Speech should help us advance, not tie us down to stereotypes. It is time to face up to the discriminatory ways in which our words shape our worlds -- and change them.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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