You may have heard a lot of people say that men and women speak Japanese in completely different ways, almost as if they were speaking different dialects. Surely many of you have also heard the all-too-common anecdote of ‘that guy who learned Japanese from his girlfriend and ended up sounding like a chick’. While it is definitely true that gender differences exist in spoken Japanese, they’re actually not nearly as pronounced as the rumors would have you believe. But the thing you have to understand is that such rumors exist because they are based in truth: Gender differences in spoken Japanese used to be very pronounced, but recently (over the past 30 years or so) they have become much more subtle as the language has evolved. What’s happened is that young women have gradually adopted a more gender neutral form of speaking. Their speech does still have some characteristically feminine aspects, but those aspects are much fewer and more subtle than they are in the speech of older women. So yes guys, you can still end up sounding a bit effeminate if you learn all your Japanese from your girlfriend, but not nearly as much as you would if you learned it from her grandmother. Distinctively masculine speech, on the other hand, is still very much alive and well. It’s mostly used by men speaking to other men, who often switch to a more gender neutral style when speaking to women. However, some aspects of what was once strictly masculine speech have now become commonly used by young women and girls as well, making this whole thing quite confusing. Basically, there are now three different types of colloquial Japanese speech: ‘traditional feminine’ speech (which is now only used by women in their 40s and older), ‘modern feminine’ speech (used by women and girls in their 30s and younger), and ‘masculine’ speech (used mostly by men and boys of all ages). The first one is quite distinct and unique, but the differences between the latter two seem to be growing more and more blurred as the language of young people continues to change. To help you see the differences between these different speech types, I’ll show you the same hypothetical conversation taking place between three different pairs of people: two older female friends, two younger female friends, and two male friends. I’ll also explain the main characteristics of these different speech types and the ways in which they’re used. But first, two important caveats:
- Since gender differences are basically non-existent in formal Japanese, all examples are in casual Japanese. In other words, people only talk this way with their close friends, family members, and social inferiors.
- The information in this article applies only to the Tokyo dialect, or so-called “standard Japanese.” Other dialects are completely different.