Do You Sound Like a Japanese Girl?

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, iyadaa! “ 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.

Sounding “Foreign”

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.

50 Replies to “Do You Sound Like a Japanese Girl?”

  1. “[…] otherwise we’d all be living in mud huts and poking anthills with sticks. The red ones go great with beer.”

    Well that probably solves the breakfast conundrum.

    Urayamashii!

  2. Just learn deep Osaka ben. When I go to Costco in amagasaki I have no idea if it’s a bloke or a bird talking behind me until I turn around. My wife’s best friend, kobe uni grad, sounds like she gargles with broken glass every morning. Osaka ben…it’s the real thing!

    1. You do realize you’re not making the women of Osaka sound particularly appealing. But yeah, if you want to acquire the Texas accent of Japan, that’d be a top choice.

  3. My Japanese wife always spoke to our two boys in masculine Japanese growing up so they would know how boys speak. That was important as they were raised in the US and not surrounded by other Japanese boys, or girls for that matter….

    1. So now they sound like two half-Japanese boys who were raised in the U.S. by a masculine woman? Jeez, that’s sounds complicated.

    1. Congratulations! Not too many people recognize where my photos were taken, and that’s a pretty obscure place. But scones and British tea? Yeah no, I’m more of a grilled fish and green tea kind of unmanly man.

  4. Very true squire…many Osaka women have the outwardly appearance of a delicate flower, hiding a very very different character underneath. I could easily imagine chewing tobacco being popular here in the big O if certain Osaka celebs started using it! My wife is a typical Osaka women and throughout our marriage I have adhered to the expression ‘ one up the bum , no harm done’ … sorry, not that one…what I meant to say was ‘ hell hath no fury like an Osaka woman scorned’

    1. I get that the whole bit was a joke, but there was a bit of inaccuracy in it. Just to be clear, in Japanese, both men and women utilize the ability to speak in a low register as well as a higher voice, depending on situation and intention. If you want to be heard above background noise, regardless of gender, you use a higher pitch. Stores and train stations often exaggerate this effect so customers can clearly hear announcements.

  5. i gave up on learning more than rudimentary japanese and now just focus on out eating, drinking, and smoking every last man until their puking and passed out.

    Respect earned.

  6. I have been studying Japanese the last three years through italki, and I have had both female and male teachers. My suggestion is to pick female teachers EVERY SINGLE TIME. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but man, did I not respond well to passive aggressive behaviors of Japanese men. Perhaps I’ve just been unlucky …. but then again I gave 5 Japanese men a chance …. and I didn’t like a single one of them.

    I’d rather have good progress sounding a bit feminine rather than deal with “rude” people. And I know my progress has been pretty good since nowadays I barely use English in my lessons. Once or twice every couple lesson or so and that’s it.

    1. Sorry to hear about those negative experiences, although they strike me as unfortunately common. Well, least you know what to expect when dealing with men in Japanese society.

  7. “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 sure if you are aware of this, but this issue has a specific English aspect to it. In German it’s much easier to pronounce words correctly because they are usually read as they are written and not: “I read a book today” vs. “I read a book yesterday” and so on. In German – in general – only words borrowed from other languages, such as French or English cause trouble.
    It is a specialty of English to pronounce words according to whimsy, not logic.

    “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.”

    Shame on you, making me snort at work!

    1. “It is a specialty of English to pronounce words according to whimsy, not logic.”

      If you had to pick a good universal language, you’d never pick English. It’s really unfortunate that the world ended up having to adhere to such a senseless language.

      Of course, Japanese is arguably worse, with over 2000 “letters,” most of which are pronounced two different ways. The astonishing thing is that modern Japanese has supplemented its already complicated language by adding thousands of foreign words—taken from English—converted to Japanese pronunciation. You couldn’t have devised a more effective way to screw up a language.

      1. The best part of Japanese is “English” only for Japanese (和製英語), the meaning of which no native speaker of English would ever guess. E.g. セフレ、ファミコン、コンビニ

        And if you want even more, then mix up actual Japanese and English. E.g. リア充、電子マネー

  8. Mouth position
    Tongue position
    Vowel elongation
    Consonant placement
    Nasal air control
    “r” sound tounge placement.
    Lowering the voice vox to sound deeper.
    Learning to emote with different pitch for emphasis
    Putting it all together in a coherent package while keeping up with natives

    Those are the things you need to learn to do for English not to sound terribly foreign. And that’s ON TOP of learning the language of English, and it’s sounds and it’s grammar. It’s really no wonder that most world leaders who even studied abroad are at best have annoying accents that grind the ears or at worst are barely understood.

    Learning a second language not as a child is certainly “easy”. lol

    1. Well put. And it’s not just speaking. In order to have a conversation, you need to clearly what other people are saying, in a variety of accents and intonations. I often have trouble understanding people of other nations in English, even if their grammar is perfect.

    2. I think this has changed with the younger generations in Germany and globalization advancing rapidly, but when you hear some of the German politicians speak English it can be very, very cringy.
      I this respect Chancellor Merkel is actually one of the more bearable ones, luckily.

      1. Merkel is okay. But just hearing speeches is decieving. You just have to read every word and pronounce it correctly. The real chips are down when you are having an active conversation and you have to come up with what to say yourself in the context of a conversation. Expect long awkward pauses, accent slip ups and grammar mistakes as the mental taxation is increased.

        I always think about the following. Even Hollywood actors struggle with a different accent with a premade text of what to say. And that’s in their mother tounge. Imagine if you didn’t speak it. All in all, just as Ken said, pulling a native accent is almost unheard of. I’ve only known one famous person who can pull of a Native accent in English. Alexander Skarsgard, who is a full time actor with access to dialect coaches for his work. Plus he’s scandinavian which after hearing a lot of them, I’m conviced they have a way easier time with intonation. And he lives in the US. I don’t think most people, even more so the Japanese can have those advantages.

        I don’t know if “dialect” coaches exists for the Japanese langauge Ken? By the way, Ken, could you tell your experience on how losing the Olympics has affected the Japanese morale? I’ve heard that’s been a big thing recently.

        1. To the best of my knowledge, the Olympics are currently delayed until 2021, and 85% of people believe they will eventually be cancelled. (https://news.yahoo.co.jp/articles/d630d3c5996ecf5a7b28e91dd348080207c3e869)

          The delay or loss of the Olympics is just one more unfortunate thing for us to be bummed out about. The coronavirus has changed life for a lot of people—some work and schools have moved online, people have lost jobs, a trip to a bar or restaurant puts your life in danger. We were looking forward to the Olympics, but they’re far from the most pressing concern. Nobody is happy about this situation, but Japan is resolved to hunker down and survive while waiting for a vaccine. It’s currently unthinkable to gather thousands of people from around the world for a sporting event.

  9. Back in the 8th Century Japanese adopted with some 400 Sanskrit words, which have Kanji, eg Kusa, Sora, Tenno, etc. I wonder when Japanese is “English” only for Japanese (和製英語 will also have Kanji and not just Katakana?

    1. I’ve been thinking about this for some time now.

      Practically, The Japanese language died shortly after World War II, a decline that began with the Meiji Restoration. Kanji was steadily abandoned as too slow and labor intensive to keep pace with concepts from overseas and technological advancements. Nowadays, almost all new words are rendered immediately into katakana. Even things that used to have kanji, like tobacco and coffee (煙草、珈琲) are written in katakana. We will never have kanji for “Microsoft Word” or “Android Operating System”—or the thousands of words introduced since the end of the war (most from English, although other languages make appearances too).

      I’m not saying it’s a good thing, only that’s the way it is. The shit of it is that Japan would’ve been better off simply adopting English, instead of Japanizing the words by rendering them into katakana. As it currently stands, Japanese folks who’ve learned katakana can’t effectively use English, and Westerners who know English can’t understand katakana. Japan chose the worst of both worlds.

      1. At least it’s an improvement from before. Till now I still don’t get how stapler came to be ホッチキス. Supposedly there was some confusion about whether it’s the guy who had invented the machine gun vs the actual guy who had invented the stapler. The thing is ホッチキス doesn’t even remotely sound like … stapler.

        Now that I think about it, the Japanese language might be one of the worst languages on the planet. It has some Chinese characteristics. It has English characteristics, and there’s this Japanese grammar bit. At least the Koreans finally made up their mind they didn’t want to use Chinese characters …. mostly. Apparently their entire judicial system is still written using Chinese characters.

  10. hey, yeah it’s me. Excellent blog.

    Something popped into my head about this and, even though it’s off the topic of Japanese per se, I have often wondered how on earth the Chinese language manages without katakana given all the terms that have appeared in this technological age, such as those you mention. This is “Microsoft Operating System” in traditional Chinese for example (according to Google translate).

    微軟操作系統

    Even though I gave up a long time ago becoming fluent in Japanese – a situation I don’t see changing perhaps until I retire or win the lottery- at least we have katakana to help with communication, we can be thankful for small mercies. It’s just a shame that whoever the person who sits in a lair somewhere with the title “Person In Charge Of Katakanaising New English Terms” chooses to do it mostly on how word are spelt and not how they’re spoken, but that’s a different story.

    Just to finish this thought, something that made me laugh aloud somewhere where I read it (I forget where) was the advise that when saying a katakana word either go full out katakana or full out native because in-between is a dog’s breakfast. Hahaha. Unfortunately I struggle to follow this sage advise.

    1. Hey Gin n’ Juice, thanks for the comment. Yeah, I’ve heard that Chinese actually bakes up fresh kanji for every new word. I wonder how that’s working out? I’ve also heard their kanji have only one pronunciation, as opposed to the usual two in Japanese, so maybe that makes it easier? Who knows, but it all sounds terribly and unnecessarily complicated.

      As for the katakana pronunciation, I agree. Either go all the way or do not, and then at least 50% of the people will understand you. If you half-ass it, nobody’ll know what the hell you’re saying.

      Of course, I’m still trying to find a decent breakfast in this country, so I’d be intensively curious as to what the dog’s having.

      1. “Yeah, I’ve heard that Chinese actually bakes up fresh kanji for every new word.” This is not true. They actually reuse existing Chinese characters quite a bit. In fact I would say it’s very rare now that they would add a new character. When you have 60 thousand plus characters, or perhaps more (one dictionary contains 100K entries), one better has a REALLY good reason before adding a new one. But do not be afraid, one only has to know between 3500 to 5000 characters to be able to read newspapers. If you are just thinking about daily life then 2000 and above would be enough.

        What I like about the Chinese language is that unlike Katakana, new words/terms aren’t the result of a simple conversion (if any) from English/Latin/other language ones. New words/terms in Chinese are often an evolution of existing ones. Add one or two new Kanji character to an existing term, and voila you get a new one.

        Chinese characters mostly have one pronunciation, but there are exceptions. Chinese though is a tonal language i.e. they use tones instead of Oon/Kun reading.

        I think you’ve mentioned this before when you were commenting about Khatzumoto, but knowing Chinese helps you somewhat when learning Japanese. I was lucky to be exposed to Chinese from a young age since one of my best friends (till now) had parents who didn’t neglect his Mandarin education. I am not a Chinese myself :).

        Oh, one interesting thing about the Chinese language is there’s no past tense for verbs, adjectives, etc. I actually like this quite a bit.

        TLDR: I would say the Chinese language contains a high degree of reuse and the grammar is relatively simpler when compared to English/Japanese. The flip side of the coin is the YUGE number of characters (3500 to 5000) and idioms (around 500 to 600) you need to be somewhat fluent, and the tonal nature of the language.

    2. Gin’N’Juice, let me break 微軟操作系統 for you.
      微 means Micro
      軟 means Soft
      操作 means Operating. Actually this can also serve as the verb “To Operate”. In Chinese, verbs and nouns are often interchangable. This is another feature of the language that English/Japanese speakers will find confusing.
      系統 means System.

      Here’s one way the Chinese language copes with progress. The word/term for computer in Chinese is 电脑.
      电 = electronic, electricity
      脑 = brain

      Makes sense if you think about it :). At least better than コンピューター (konpyuta). That’s just lazy.

      1. I am all for lazy! In fact I’d prefer to have even fewer characters than the kana, let’s say 26, that can be morphed in an infinite number of ways to make an infinite number of words if necessary- seems to cover all the bases. Then kids would be able to spend time in school learning other things than just endlessly copying out a list of thousands of unnecessary characters too.

        I know, I know, kanji are a beautiful connection with ancient culture and of course shouldn’t go anywhere and they won’t- it’s just that they’re a ludicrously inefficient way to put together a written language and a real obstacle in the way of the learner unless you can find a spare 10,000 hours or so of study time. If few Westerners are mastering Japanese I imagine even fewer manage to master Chinese.

        1. My perspective is different. But then again as I said, I was lucky to have “teachers” (my friend’s parents) who taught me the proper way to read/write Chinese characters. This is something no Japanese teacher will ever teach a Gaijin. I am sure there are exceptions, ….. nah not really, not a single one of my Japanese teachers ever mentioned this to me. A Chinese teacher though would tell you this … oh let’s say within the first 5 lessons.

          An example : you’ll see many Chinese/Kanji characters starting with 扌, which means hand i.e. even if you don’t quite understand the actual full character, you can bet that it’s most likely a verb involving the hand like pushing, picking something up, etc. In English however, you either know the word, know the etymology or you are just shit out of luck. There’s no way for a person to guess the meaning of ramen if he/she doesn’t know it. Alphabets convey very little meaning.

          So practically what does this mean? To me studying Chinese is like climbing a hill but once you’ve reach a certain level, it’s pretty much flat. Sure once in a while you don’t know one or two characters, but it’s no big deal because you can guess the meaning just from the character. English on the other hand allows you to make faster progress in the beginning, but new words would come in and unless you know their meaning/etymology, you are out of luck.

          1. “This is something no Japanese teacher will ever teach a Gaijin.”
            “An example : you’ll see many Chinese/Kanji characters starting with 扌, which means hand i.e. even if you don’t quite understand the actual full character, you can bet that it’s most likely a verb involving the hand like pushing, picking something up, etc.”

            Learning using “radicals”? This started in first semester at my university…

  11. Thanks for the reply, 肯·西罗伊

    The best the internet can give me is “pooched eggs”. Dear me!

    Point taken re the kanji, though not sure I’d say ‘easier’ rather than maybe ‘slightly less formidable’, though that’s before you start considering the tonal nature of Chinese of course. Anyway, personally when struggling with Japanese I think “at least we have katakana and it’s not tonal”, thankful for small mercies.

  12. Seeroi kun,to pronounce Rilakuma try having your mouth in an E shape not U, then lift your tongue from the floor of your mouth and land the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth where they intersect with your gum,in no time you will be speaking native sounding English,and with your big round eyes you will fit right in any country you like.
    Cheques in the mail.

  13. Hi,
    This is my first comment here.
    I am from India and have the typical Indian accent in English.
    Have you met any Indian who can speak Japanese? I was wondering if I too would have an accent in Japanese like I have in English.
    Hindi is my native language, which is a derivative of Sanskrit. I actually studied Sanskrit for 5 years from 5th grade(Don’t remember much now)
    Anyways, I honestly think it is easier to study Japanese from Hindi then it is from English because the pronunciation is actually very similar. There are about 45 alphabets in Hindi which can cover all sounds in Hiragana plus even more. All without those Kanji.
    I have been learning Japanese seriously for about 6 months now. If using Anki decks counts as seriously, that is. Anki though only helps in reading, so I haven’t been able to test my speaking skills.

    I am actually a final year Mech Engineering uni student in New Delhi, so I feel like learning Japanese would be a good step for some employment opportunities in Japan.

    BTW I have been following your blog for about 2 years now, and I have also read your book. Needless to say it was very funny!

    1. I know several Indian people here. Their Japanese sounds fine. I wouldn’t say it was heavily accented with Indian, and they generally sound better than the Americans. For that matter, their English doesn’t have much of an accent either. Certainly better than most Texans.

      You are correct in assuming your Japanese accent will be better if your native language is more similar to Japanese, so coming from Hindi is probably an advantage. One thing that trips a lot of people up, including myself, are the elongated vowels in Japanese (大橋 Oohashi versus お箸 Ohashi). Does Hindi use both long and short vowels?

      Definitely, learning Japanese can open doors for you here, so keep it up. I think that’s great. Do little bit every day and you’ll be fluent, in about fifty years.

      Oh, and thanks much for buying the book! Leave a comment on Amazon if you can—that really helps.

  14. Your Japanese evolve in steps: First you sound like a girl, then your Japanese gets better and maybe even good enough that Japanese stop telling you how good it is. In the last phase, you only have foreign friends because you are tired of hearing the same stereotypes for 20 years, and the good Japanese fades away.

    And thanks for your stories, Ken, they always cheer me up!

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