“My plan is to get married before thirty-five.” I was taking my Japanese friend, Aki, on a tour around Orlando, Florida when we got into a talk about marriage in Japan. She had just turned 29 and was starting to feel the pressure of settling down.
I asked her why. She shrugged her shoulders in response.
“Because the clock starts once you get into your 30s.”
For many Japanese women, finding a husband is still a major life goal. In the 1980s, a woman was expected to get married at or around twenty-five years old. Now? That expectation eases a bit towards thirty.
For a single woman touching thirty-one? Congrats, you’ve made it to “New Year’s Eve noodle” (toshikoshi soba) status. Just like the noodles eaten during the New Year’s celebration, one becomes worthless after prime time.
While gender expectations are nothing new, it’s interesting to unearth their connections in everyday language.
In this blog post, I’m going to explore the subtle influence the Japanese language has over the women that speak it.
Japanese women are the source
“In the beginning, women was the sun. An authentic person.”
– Raichō Hiratsuka
Remember that badass wolf that brush-stroked its way to victory in the Playstation 2 game, “Okami”? That wolf was the reincarnation of the Sun-goddess in Shinto, Japan’s homegrown religion. Seen as the supreme god in Shinto, Amaterasu is said to be the creative source of all Japanese people.
In the academic world, Shinto is referred to as the roots of the Japanese people. These roots go so deep, even the Japanese emperor traces his lineage directly back to this Sun-goddess. What this means then, is that the “feminine” sits high in Japan.
So, why did Japan come in 111 out of 144 (the last among industrialized countries) in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Report?
There are plenty of factors that contribute to why women still lag behind men in Japan. So let’s stick with one that we can address immediately: the Japanese language.
I assume most of you reading this aren’t Japanese natives (wajin). Considering that, let’s establish that we (gaijin), who are outside this power structure, cannot change the way Japanese use their language.
Instead, we can bring awareness to how we use the language and how it shapes our perspective in everyday life.
“We can change our own behavior and, consequently, our relationships when we acknowledge how the words we use shape our reality.”
Japanese phrases that shape Japanese women’s lives
Here are a few phrases that create expectations for women in Japan. You might be familiar with some:
Carnivore women (nikku shoku joshi) : In recent years, more and more men are becoming less interested in mating, sex and eating meat. Their passive behavior birthed the “herbivore men” phenomenon. Japanese women have become more proactive and hunter-like, seeking out their next meal. Thus, “carnivore.” Women with aggressive, assertive, dominant, or independent behavior usually get tagged with this word.
Demon bride (oniyome): Women who dominate their husbands.
Dried-fish women (himono onna): young women who stop looking for love, start wearing comfortable clothes and don’t bother with makeup.
Marriage hunting party (konkatsu party): playing off the infamous job-hunting season for fresh college graduates (shuukatsu), this type of event has gotten more popular as women put off marriage for later in life.
A combination of financial freedom, different relationship values, and wider access to information has left many women putting deep effort into finding “the right one.” A recent variation of this event is the “big sister marriage hunting party”. Here, older women in their 30s are paired with younger men in their 20s.
In the video below. some of the women participants give their thoughts on the process. They say they like younger men because they have more personal freedom (choice of job, etc.) and less disappointment. Why expect much from a dude that still can’t find time to make his bed in the morning?
On the other hand, the men speak on feeling more relaxed and at ease with older women. The financial stability that comes with a mature partner is also noted as a major plus. Demand is high for these events, with an average price of $3,000 for six months.
My first mentor, Mori Louis, was a retired cop from Tokyo that moved to a small island off of Hiroshima to begin her entrepreneurial life. In the video below, she speaks about divorcing her husband after realizing that she was outpacing him. She describes him as a “burden” (futan) to her growth. Her story is a common one in Japan of women reaching beyond what is expected of them.
Speaking Japanese with Awareness
So, what do we do with these words? We simply become aware of what they mean for women, men and society at large.
When we notice them in conversation, we can question their use. Despite modern women delaying marriage for career and self-investment, the burden of marriage still lingers. What this means for larger societal problems such as population decline and the economy, we cannot fully know now.
In the meantime, it’s more useful to understand efforts already being made inside Japan to level out the playing field for Japanese women. The Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office made their efforts official with their Fourth Basic Plan for Gender Equality.
Outside of the government, this organization has been contributing to women’s advancement in Japan for years.
To redefine our behavior towards each other, we must change our communication. That starts with language. Not just honoring what you think “should” be said, but understanding the context and history behind the words you use. Stay aware. Stay communicating.
Brandon Chin is a Jamaican-Chinese hybrid, and sees the world just the same: a mash-up of different stories. He spends his time asking questions through his writing. Music is his blood and he uses it to fuel his work. While working on permanent residency in Japan, he is currently writing a novel per month for 2017. You can see more of his work at: brandonchin.net.