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Female Gender Identity in Japanese Girl’s Comics

For some reason, I found myself looking through old documents on my computer. It didn’t take me long before I found some documents that not only caused much stress my senior year of college, but also put me off reading any manga for almost an entire year: my thesis. I started to re-read my thesis after not looking at it for several years and still found myself impressed at just how much work I had put into it. For that reason, I felt like posting it here. My actual thesis is somewhere around 30 – 40 pages, so I am just going to share my thesis presentation with you all.


Language reflects social identity and it is though language use that certain social identities are created and maintained to both to oppose or correspond to social norms. One such form of this language use is found in Japan’s manga industry (graphic novel industry) an extremely popular pastime among Japanese people regardless of sex, age, education, occupation, and social class and will serve as the focus of my study. Manga are an extremely. My thesis is a study of the linguistic behavior of female characters in shôjo manga (Japanese girl’s comics) and discusses the portrayal of female gender identities presented in this form of popular print media. The word shôjo itself is translates to “young girl” in English, and refers to girls between the ages of 10 and 18. Shôjo works cover a wide range of subjects from historical drama to science fiction, but is by no means a genre, but a target demographic. Its readers and writers are almost entirely female and are essentially written about women, by women, and for women. The number of shôjo manga increased as women seemed to become more concerned with their own lives. There were only two ladies’ comics in 1980, but that number went up to 8 in 1984, 19 in 1985, and 48 in 1991. In summary, shôjo manga have become the voice and a vehicle for the representation of women.

Gender differences in Japanese are usually marked both syntactically and lexically. An example of this is the manner in which both Japanese men and women are expected to use particular sentence final expressions and certain words that are different from each other in order for them to be considered “feminine” (such as wa or wane) or “masculine” (such as zo or ze). It is these linguistic differences that make Japanese women’s speech sound softer, politer, less assertive, and submissive while male speech becomes more aggressive, assertive, vulgar, and less polite. Such differences are sometimes called “gendered language.” The use of “gender” here refers to gender roles, not grammatical gender. A man using feminine speech might be considered effeminate or homosexual, but his utterances would not be considered grammatically incorrect. The clearest difference in male and female forms is rooted in how the speaker addresses the self and the other. In Japanese, the words for “I” and “you” can change greatly depending on the speaker’s association with those they are speaking to and the level of politeness the situation demands.

Despite the gender indexing associated with Japanese, recent studies have shown that the speech styles of Japanese women have been changing to confirm the significance of the speaker’s identity. It is not only the use of language, but also the stereotypes associated with women’s language that have begun to change in contemporary times.

Table 1 shows the percentage of gendered forms in the shôjo manga used. Table 2 shows the percentage of gendered forms in shôjo manga divided by magazine title. SF refers to strongly feminine forms, MF represents moderately feminine forms, SM stands for strongly masculine forms, while MM refers to moderately masculine forms. N is neutral forms. According to table 1 there is also a clear distinction between age groups in regards to the use of speech. Within the context of shôjo manga as a whole, younger women will tend to use more masculine speech than older women while older women will lean more towards feminine forms. When we examine table 2 the younger the target audience, the more likely its characters are to use feminine speech or those utterance endings that are now associated with Japanese women’s language. On the other hand, the older the target audience becomes, the less likely these feminine forms are to appear and instead speech will become more neutral and this will in turn become more masculine.

Regardless of the shôjo manga in question, the majority of female characters’ usage of feminine forms appears sparingly throughout conversation settings and is frequently mixed with N and MM forms. In contrast, SF forms are use with less frequency and while no real generalizations are implied here, SF seem to appear in particular settings in shôjo manga magazines. The first trend we see among SF use, specifically young female characters, is their usage of SF when they wish to stress their femininity. This usually implies that the female character is seeking some sot of favor or behavior from the person she is speaking to while SF. The following is an example of high school student’s speech found in Ribon in which she pretends to seduce her friend. In this example, she uses SF, kashira, wayo, and the feminine way to refer to oneself, atashi.

There are also countless examples of young female characters exploiting their use of women’s language to snag a boyfriend. To attract boyfriends, American girls will pretend to be women, while Japanese girls will pretend that they are girls. These falsely cute types are called burriko (the pretenders). Examples of burriko appear throughout the selected magazines, but the following example also comes from Ribon. In the story, the main character, a 15 year old first year high school student, is Maju, but many people tease her and mistakenly call her majo (witch). It is because of this that she changes her lifestyle and speech to essentially desensitize herself from other’s words and her speech is predominately MM with her uses of da and all its variants mixed with N and the occasional SM in order to mask her inner suffering and make herself appear strong. Maju asserts her individuality and strength by speaking mainly in N and MM. however, in the above examples, Maju is depicted using SM speech, da and the vulgar form of you omae, to not only show her strength, but also to express strong emotion.

However, despite her strong outward appearance marked with masculine speech, by the end of the chapter she reverts to SF and MF forms in hopes of catching the attention of a boy that she is falling for. Maju even goes as far as to change her appearance b dying her hair blonde while completely changing her speech. As was mentioned previously, the uses of final sentence particles associated with Japanese women’s language indicate submissiveness to males and shows more respect. Furthermore, by now associating her speech acts and actions with burriko, she is downplaying or masking her adult sexuality and displays a bogus innocence that appeals to her male peers.

SF also appears in shôjo manga when girls are talking with their friends about sensitive subjects or in slightly more formal situations. Due to SF and feminine forms in general soft and gentle nature, it has become apparent that in shôjo manga female characters will revert to this form when wanting to comfort a friend. Thus, female readers become socially conditioned to expect a serious conversation or delicate details when their speaking partner switches their form to SF. Likewise, readers learn how to do the same and in what situations they are expected to speak more femininely. The following example is taken from Nayayoshi’s “My Fiancée is a Monster?!” where Lulu is confronting the main character Miku about her apparent monster fiancée. The SF pattern is also seen when girls are giving directions to friends, those higher than them, as well as those lower than them within the context of Japanese social hierarchy.

Older female characters, typically mothers or teachers, were found to use SF forms very frequently. The following example is taken from “Ultra Maniac” in Ribon and is the speech of the mother of the main character, who is guessed to be between the age of late 30’s or early 40’s. It was also not uncommon for women in their 20’s to use strongly feminine sentence final particles such as wane. In “The Boy Next Door: Holy Sexy Night” found in Betsucomi, Satomi, who is 22, using SF often in her speech. Therefore, it is concluded that female characters older than high school age are frequently depicted as using SF in shôjo manga.

In the world of shôjo manga, N foms are used very frequently along with MM and MF throughout the stories. Moreover, this unconventional speech style appear to be the linguistic norm for female teenage characters and indicates that they do not consider themselves linguistically restricted by culturally encouraged gender norms. In general, SM is rarely used in shôjo manga and when it is used it usually indicates a female character expressing strong emotion. In such cases, their use of masculine speech is provoked solely because of confrontation. Cookie’s most famous shôjo manga at present tells the story of two girls with the same name, Nana, who have completely different personalities and, likewise, different speech patterns (see Figure 10). Nana (pictured left) is considered to be a clear example of the ideal modern Japanese girl. She is polite, kind, dreams of becoming the perfect housewife, emotional and overall, very feminine in her appearance, lifestyle, and general speech. On the other hand, Nana (pictured right) is a heavy smoker, crude, outspoken, rebellious, a rock star, and overly masculine in her speech and habits. The following example is a conversation between the two girls where “Nana (F)” indicates the more feminine Nana and “Nana M” designates the more masculine Nana. In the above example, “Nana (M)” uses a variety of SM speech forms such as dazo and the command form of kaeru (to go home) kaere instead of the plain request form of kaette. Furthermore, she even utilizes forms of words and verbs that are associated with masculine speech and reserved only for male speakers. These forms are tsu-ka (SM) instead of te iu ka, surya instead the conditional form sureba, and the use of the verb kuu instead of taberu as a very crude way of saying “to eat.” “Nana (M)” is a character that clearly defies the enforced gender norm in Japanese society. It has already been mentioned that when female characters will use SF and MF in their speech, it is used in situations where more maturity or acting older is appropriate for the situation. Therefore, when a shôjo chooses unconventional speech, in this case SM, they are indicating their opposition to act according to gender stereotypes.

The results of examining shôjo manga magazines shows that the language use of young girls has and is diverging from traditional language use and shôjo’s speech contains multiple gendered forms, specifically N, MM, and MF. During the Meiji period, domestic novels placed a heavy emphasis on traditional gendered roles such as ryosai-kenbo. The shift of female gendered speech to one that uses inconsistent female language shows the current female population in Japan has a desire to rejected and oppose fixed gendered roles and instead seek to redefine their gender identity in Japanese society. Manga aimed at teenagers shows more of how young people are speaking – a mix of gendered speech. This could either show girl’s defying social standards in attempts to create a new gender identity, or show that they are losing focus and therefore experimenting with language use as a means to find their individual/group identity as the “new” Japanese modern woman. However, as if to counteract this inconsistent female language usage, the younger the target audience, the more traditional feminine forms appear as a means to introduce gender and social ideals at an early age and to begin young girls’ socialization process. Still, if shôjo manga was really trying to send this message, all female characters of all ages should use either unconventional speech or feminine forms. While it cannot be proven either of these theories are correct, what can be inferred is that unconventional speech style is uttered exclusively by younger characters. What can also be assumed about non-traditional forms is that they show the “youthfulness” and “playfulness” of the female characters. The category shôjo functions as an ideological apparatus for women to be free from social obligations. Also, the knowledge of women’s speech is regarded as an unavoidable pat of social knowledge in Japanese society. This means that women’s language is a social obligation that all young girls must adhere to (hence why SF and MF appeared in more formal and mature situations). However, young girls, the shôjo, are not completely expected to perform this obligation yet because they are still young. Therefore, it would make sense that their speech be a reflection of this. Still, it can also be assumed, such as the case of “Nana (M),” that their unconventional speech patterns indicate Japanese women’s opposition to act according to gender stereotypes, but it could also mean their lack of or escape from social obligations due to their age.


About three years later, I am kind of interested in doing the same study again now to see what sort of speech patterns have changed. I have noticed the same sort of patterns with my Jr. high school students that I noted in my thesis, but I am curious how girls are being represented in manga. Maybe I will do some research during the summer where my days are spent sitting in the office for three hours doing absolutely nothing. If nothing else, at least the reading and translating won’t take as long this time around.

12 thoughts on “Female Gender Identity in Japanese Girl’s Comics

  1. Wow, I knew a lot of the gendered speech differences in Japanese were literally untranslatable, but I didn’t realize it went this far. The differences between the speech of the two Nanas in the Ai Yazawa series “Nana” really sum up the distinction between how a “proper,” traditionally feminine girl speaks and the way a more rebellious female teen might talk. In retrospect, I’m kind of surprised that I can’t particularly recall anyone in the manga commenting on what in context must be considered punk-rocker Nana’s conspicuously rude and gender-inappropriate speech, especially in the arc when her band debuts and the tabloids keep trying to dig up dirt on her and criticizing everything she does. Maybe they figure that her bluntly “masculine” speech is all part of her outrageous punk image, so making a big deal out of it would be like acting shocked that a Gothic Lolita wears a lot of ruffles.

    Would it be safe to assume that in manga like “Hana-Kimi,” “Power” (retitled “Girl Got Game” in the English-language version), and “Ouran High School Host Club,” in which girls attend high school disguised as boys for various complicated plot-related reasons, the cross-dressing girls use conspicuously neutral and/or masculine speech forms while posing as boys? Although if this happens in “Ouran Host Club,” it would probably be more of a relatively subtle personality indicator like punk Nana’s rude speech patterns. “Ouran” heroine Haruhi in fact isn’t deliberately masquerading as a boy at the beginning of the story. She’s just mistaken for one because she’s a very practical, matter of fact girl with a rather asexual personality and little interest in girly things or dating. So she cuts her hair short and buys the boys’ school uniform with pants and a blazer instead of the flouncy-skirted girls’ one because the boys’ uniform costs less and is easier to take care of.

    Of course, once the eccentric rich boys in the host club have taken a fancy to her and decided that they have to have her join the club in order to have the full array of male types that supposedly appeal to Japanese girls (I think Haruhi is supposed to be the earnest bookworm type, or something like that), they insist that Haruhi actively pretend to be a boy in order to further this plan. This leads to plotlines such as an entire episode in which the boys in the club freak out about how to prevent everyone from discovering that Haruhi is really a girl on the day that all students at the school have to undergo their annual physical by the school doctor.

    Anyway, to bring this back to the varying linguistic presentations of girls in shoujo manga, I suspect that, in keeping with her un-girly personality, Haruhi uses mostly neutral/moderately masculine speech even at the very beginning of the manga, back when she’s just wearing pants for practical reasons and not intentionally trying to make anyone believe she’s a boy. Although, naturally enough, this unfeminine language would confirm the host club members’ initial visual misapprehension about her gender. I wonder if Haruhi actually changes her speech at all to go along with her newly-assumed “male” identity once she joins the host club, or whether this is another of the many ways in which she cooperates with the boys’ wacky plans as perfunctorily as possible.

    1. Unfortunately, I have not read or seen Ouran High School Host Club, but from what you wrote it seems to be on par with what I wrote in my thesis. I have noticed that most female characters, even outside the manga world, will do exactly what you mentioned at the end of your comment: Haruhi actually changes her speech at all to go along with her newly-assumed “male” identity once she joins the host club. Whether this is pretending to be a boy or trying to create a more powerful persona. If you have ever seen Hana Yori Dango, the latter is exactly what the lead character, Makino Tsukushi, does.

  2. Wow, that was ridiculously detailed. Katherine, I’ve never truly understood your level of Japanese, but it must be pretty damn good for you to be able to notice this stuff going on around you~

    1. thanks

      I really started noticing the language differences between male and female speech while I was a JSP student because I was the only female member a soccer circle. I started mimicking the way my friends spoke and it greatly amused my host family who then started calling me the big brother instead of big sister. I then took a Fujiwara-sensei class that kind of brought all this gendered language to light more and thus a thesis was born. Now, I can’t watch anything without noticing it.

  3. Hello,

    I just stumbled onto this while I was looking for a topic to write about for my Jap linguistic paper and was thinking of doing a similar topic but it’s more of female speech (in general) used in shojo manga and comparing it to an interview. I’m still thinking of what to write about at the moment, but that’s what I have so far. Anyways I was wondering if I might be able to read your paper and look at your powerpoint for statistical information. If not I can understand.

    Thank you. =)

  4. Wow. Concratulatens. I have to agree that this is really interesting. I stumbelde over it while looking for something about manga and gender and I was awandering if there is a possibility to read your thesis.

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