Seiko Noda is Japan’s minister for gender equality. Photo: Wikipedia

The latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap rankings was another humbling experience for Japan. The country scored 0.65 out of 1 in gender parity, putting it at 116 out of 146 countries ranked, by far the worst among the Group of Seven and all Asia-Pacific countries.

The low score in Japan, the rankings noted, can be attributed to low economic equality, in which the average female salary is only 57% that of the male, and low political equality, with less than 10% of elected legislators and cabinet ministers being female. Indeed, ever since the WEF first published the gender gap report in 2006, Japan has never scored above 0.67.

Japan’s persistently low gender parity score has prompted soul-searching over the years, with many blaming the country’s sociocultural factors as the main reason behind the lack of improvement.

Seiko Noda, Japan’s minister for gender equality, criticized her male colleagues’ “ignorance and indifference” toward female-related issues for the government’s failure to enact policies that fundamentally close the gender gap.

Even what some would consider small measures toward signaling equality, such as allowing married couples to retain their respective premarital surnames and legalizing female inheritance of the imperial throne, have been rejected by lawmakers on the grounds of violating Japanese tradition.

However, in discussing the role of Japanese culture in hindering attempts at gender equality, one factor that is often missed is the very nature of the Japanese language in degrading women as secondary in their social status. The everyday words used to describe women in the Japanese language ensure that people subconsciously accept them as below males in the social hierarchy. 

Consider the Japanese word for “wife.” While the regular vocabulary is a neutrally toned tsuma (妻), in the honorific language used during conversations to show respect for the listener and deference for oneself, the word “wife” quickly becomes a shorthand for “a husband’s appendage.”

The term used to show respect to another man’s wife is oku-san (奥さん, “inside person”), harking back to the days when the man worked outside while the woman stayed at home.

Kanai (家内, “within the house”), the term used to describe one’s own wife in deference, is even more straightforward in the same connotation. Unfortunately, no honorific language equivalent of the neutral tsuma is available. 

Even for the unmarried female, condescending word usage is never far away. While the neutral term joshi (女子) simply means “female,” it is often added to the titles of professions that highlight that the person is female, in a way that the male equivalent danshi (男子) is never used.

For instance, while a male news anchor in Japan is just an announcer (アナウンサー), his female colleague is popularly known as a joshi-ana (女子アナ), short for a joshi announcer.

In a slew of jobs traditionally seen as male-dominated, from wrestlers to programmers to scientific researchers, the use of the joshi prefix has only entrenched the image that female professionals in these fields have gotten where they are first and foremost because they are female, rather than their professional skills.

Females have trouble getting away from patronizing jargon even in their daily lives. While boys and girls are respectively addressed with the diminutive suffix -kun (くん) and -chan (ちゃん) during kindergarten and primary school, -chan can persist long after -kun gives way to the unisex adult suffix -san (さん).

While the risk of being called out for sexual harassment in the workplace means male superiors calling their female subordinates -chan is no longer common, in the world of casual friendships and entertainment, an older male referring to a younger or similarly aged female by -chan remains very much socially acceptable. Few see -chan as a term that subconsciously places the male above the female in status during a casual conversation. 

In English, female empowerment has led to concrete language changes that reflect great concerns for gender equality. In particular, neologisms such as womxn and Latinx, albeit unsuccessfully, have been introduced as symbols of female independence from a male-dominant narrative. 

For Japan to shed sociocultural factors that subliminally assign less value to women than men, it should also actively revamp everyday word usage about women. The male-dominated government, for instance, could set up a language governance council akin to the Académie Française to coin new words and ban old phrases to ensure gender equality is at least more possible in a verbal sense.

If men talked differently, they might be gradually prodded to see women around them as social equals.

Xiaochen Su PhD is a business risk and education consultant in Tokyo, as well as the founder and managing director of the Study Abroad Research Institute, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization promoting international education. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.