Recently, a reader posed an interesting question:
When you speak Japanese is it men’s version or women’s? I’ve known a few Americans who were taught by women and live and work in Japan. They usually get no respect in the business world because they sound effeminate.
This brought to mind a conversation I had with the fearsome Sachiko. Now, some people say the truth is elusive. Clearly, those people have never met The Sachiko.
“Look what I got you,” I beamed, “A Rirakkuma handkerchief! Check out the embroidering—see the little bear? He’s so cute! Eating a tiny stack of pancakes! Do you love it?”
“I hate it,” she said. “You keep the damn thing.”
“What am I supposed to do with a Rirakkuma handkerchief?”
“Shoulda thought of that before you bought it,” she replied.
From now on, I’m never giving a girl a gift that isn’t a six-pack of my favorite beer.
Still, you gotta appreciate the honesty. So when I wanted to confirm that my Japanese was indeed as awesome as I think it is, I consulted the Oracle of Sachiko.
“Is my Japanese indeed as awesome as I think it is?” I queried.
“Pretty good,” she acknowledged, “for you people.”
“So my speech doesn’t sound, you know, a little feminine?” This is something random guys on the internet worry about—sounding like a Japanese girl, since men often learn the language from women.
“Nah,” she said, “it’s okay.”
“Hmm,” I noted, “there’s kind of a wide range between okay and awesome.”
“Look,” she replied, “your grammar’s shit, vocabulary’s limited, and you speak with an accent.”
“Jeez, I’ve only been working on it for sixteen years! Well, at least I don’t sound like a girl, right?” I pleaded.
“You wish you sounded as good as a Japanese girl,” she said.
After which I spent an hour crying into my Rirakkuma hankie. Turned out to be pretty useful after all. Quite absorbent.
Maybe You Sound Like a Japanese Girl
So this is a persistent internet rumor, that you have to lose sleep over sounding effeminate. And it’s certainly true that Japanese, like English, has different ways of speaking depending on gender. But that’s far from your biggest challenge.
Japanese Female Speech
So what makes speech sound “male” or “female” anyway? Glad you asked. Because that’d be things like word choice, levels of politeness, and intonation. For example, some phrases just sound more feminine than others, such as declaring pickled squid innards either “yummy” or “icky.” And in case you’re wondering, they are in fact yummy as fuck when paired with a wooden cupful of sake.
In Japanese, you may sound a bit feminine if you end too many sentences with ne, wa, no?, da mon, etc., although at times these are used by men as well. More obviously feminine words like atashi and kashira are frankly so girly that guys are unlikely to use them at all. You should probably also avoid saying, “Oooo, that looks and smells like worms, iya～daa～! “ Just cowboy up and slurp down your squid innards like a man.
Then there’s the issue of politeness. Men speak the way dogs sniff tails. They mumble, grumble, trail off their senten… And routinely utter phrases unprintable in newspapers. Somehow this is considered okay, because… Who knows? Probably if you’re female, it’s either deal with it or move to the Isle of Lesbos. Although, true, lately you can get a good deal on a cruise. Well, send me a sexy postcard. But for now, men are lucky to have the presence of women in the world, otherwise we’d all be living in mud huts and poking anthills with sticks. The red ones go great with beer. Very spicy. Hey, don’t just take my word for it.
On the real though, you’re far better off erring on the side of politeness in your Japanese, even to the point of sounding a bit soft. Strangers and coworkers will overlook feminine phrases or intonation, but come across as uneducated or rude and, well, that’s your ass.
Do You Sound “Gay”?
A lot of how unmanly you sound comes down to, well, how unmanly you sound. Which is to say some guys speak in a higher pitch than others, or use more of a sing-song-y rhythm. That ain’t helping nobody sound butch. Though ironically some of the most masculine Japanese comes from Japanese women. Get caught holding hands with a girl you just met in the park and you’re in for an episode of Robot Wars, as the previously composed Sachiko transforms into hellish demon of Japanese profanity, complete with a handbag whirling like nunchucks. But baby—Ouch, stop it! Her hands were just cold—freaking quit that! She had frostbite!—Okay now that really hurt! I was being a concerned citizen! The women in this country are terrifying, seriously.
Sounding less than macho isn’t simply limited to Japan, of course, as men anywhere who’ve learned their speech patterns primarily from women occasionally get labeled as sounding “gay.” Hey, we’re all just products of our influences; nothing wrong with that. Which is why when I make a phone call I’m variously mistaken for an old drunk living under a bridge, a husky transvestite, every Starbucks barista you ever met, and two farmers from Kyushu.
Sound Like a Japanese Girl? That’s Not the Problem
Truth be told, it’s absurd to suggest it’s an issue to sound like a Japanese girl. How many dudes lose respect because they have a slightly feminine intonation? Do you really think Japanese folks are that petty?
Hell yeah they are. But it doesn’t matter that you sound like a little bitch. Nobody’s gotta work that hard to disrespect you, because above all, you sound foreign. And look foreign. And are foreign. That’s three strikes right there. In America, you ‘d get twenty-five to life. Cussing like a dock worker is unlikely to improve matters. Basically, some people will respect you and some simply won’t, no matter what. Hey, that’s life. Yin and Yang. Those are two Chinese guys.
Growing up, I knew an old Russian named Yoseph who’d lived in the U.S. for about fifty years. And guess how he sounded? Yep, exactly like an old Russian named Yoseph. We all know how non-native speakers sound—the accents of Indians, Mexicans, the Irish. Is it racist? Eeyeah, probably. Just remember, every time you order a Guinness, that’s cultural appropriation. But even sober, a proper accent is bloody hard. Which is why I try to avoid the condition; then at least I have an excuse. Sure, you might manage some decent pronunciation if you start learning the language at three, or maybe thirteen. But at thirty? Hey, I’m not here to crush your dreams. You can do that all on your own.
It’s insanely difficult to be even competent in a language. President G.W. Bush couldn’t pronounce “nuclear” and Vice President Quayle spelled “potato” with an “e.” And that was in their mother tongue. I’m not even going to tweet about the current administration.
I’ve heard hordes of “foreigners” speak Japanese, and the number who sounded anything like a native was about zero. For starters, you need thousands of words, assembled together in a myriad of grammatical constructions, and spoken with a rhythm and intonation almost impossible to master after puberty. People telling you to fret over sounding effeminate are usually the same ones talking about how Japanese is easy to learn. Sure it is. Just redefine “easy” and “learn” and presto, there you are.
When Should I Use Ore?
There also seems to be some consternation over whether to use watashi, boku, ore, or one of the other peculiar ways of saying “I” in Japanese. Allow me to suggest this problem resolves itself, along with most traces of girliness, simply through improving one’s Japanese. That is, in the years it takes to dial in the grammar, vocabulary, and everything else, you’re naturally engaged in thousands of hours of native speech, and unconsciously get a feel for when to use which, along with -masu verb forms, keigo, teineigo, and all that other ridiculous minutia of the language. The same way you learned to navigate the maze of politeness levels in English.
Get the Respect You Deserve
Over time, we naturally gravitate toward speaking more like whatever gender we affiliate with. Focusing on any one aspect of speaking Japanese is like obsessing over which Nikes you need to play basketball. You don’t make it to the NBA by surfing Amazon for Jordans. You get there by being on the court, every day, for hours. And being seven feet tall. Unfortunately, the problem’s not localized to one convenient thing like Japanese female speech. The problem’s evadamnthang. Which is to say that if you sound like a Japanese girl, it’s really because your overall Japanese still needs work. Polish that turd nice and shiny. Mastery requires tons of exposure and repetition, in all areas. And being born in Japan. But with only several tens of thousands of hours practice, you can become passably average and the small stuff will take care of itself. Just in time for Google Translate to make it as useful as a slide rule. But at least you won’t sound like a Japanese girl. Then everybody’ll finally respect you.