August 28, 2023
Navigating Gendered Language and Inclusivity in 2023
The SWET Talk Shop held as a Zoom session on May 13, 2023 focused on how linguistic practices in Japanese and English have evolved to become more gender inclusive. Linguistics professor Claire Maree of Melbourne, trans rights activist and neuroscience researcher Tanomi in Okinawa, and moderator Emily Balistrieri in Osaka, discussed the sobering real-life implications of not using inclusive language. They also explored examples of language shifts and ways for SWET members to examine their practices. Co-hosts for the event were Lynne E. Riggs and Winifred Bird. A list of resources for navigating gendered language is included at the end of this article.
Note: The audio of the event is available on SWET's YouTube channel here.
Lynne E. Riggs: As translators, editors, writers, teachers, and others who negotiate the boundaries between cultures, communication styles, and people, we are always striving to hone our sensibilities and awareness about language. We are sure today’s speakers will help us deepen that awareness.
Before we start, we want to make clear that this meeting is not intended to be a debate about whether or not to use gender inclusive language. The premise is inclusivity, and we’ll discuss why and how. We intend for this meeting to be a safe place for constructive and supportive discussion. This is the norm when SWET members come together. But as we see, there are many non-SWET members present. It is important for everyone to know that discriminatory or abusive language of any kind will not be tolerated. We ask for your cooperation.
We would like to thank Emily Balistrieri in Osaka and Winnie Bird, Michigan, USA, for organizing this Talk Shop, and Claire Maree, Australia, and Tanomi in Okinawa for taking time out of their busy schedules to speak to us today. I am looking forward to a stimulating and fruitful discussion. Let me introduce Winnie Bird, who worked to organize this meeting. Yoroshiku.
Winifred Bird: Thank you, Lynne. And thank you to everyone who has joined us today for this event. As writers, editors, and translators, we have in a sense the power to write people’s identities into or out of the public discourse and into fiction, stories, advertisements, all of the materials that we are handling.
Language, written language, matters. It affects how people think and how people act. I feel that that power gives us a responsibility to be inclusive and to respect all people’s right to define themselves and to be seen. So I am grateful for our guests to hopefully help us increase our awareness and our skills around inclusive language and language relating to gender. Our guests have devoted a tremendous amount of time and effort to these issues. So we’re lucky to have them with us. And with that, I will hand it over to Emily, our moderator.
Emily Balistrieri: Hi everyone, thank you so much for coming. I’m Emily Balistrieri. I’m a translator, but today I’ll be moderating here.
Just to introduce our speakers real quickly, Claire Maree is Professor in Japanese at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, and President of the International Gender and Language Association. Claire completed master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Tokyo and taught Japanese linguistics, multicultural studies and gender/sexuality studies at Toyo University and Tsuda University before taking up her current position. With extensive experience in the study of contemporary Japanese culture and society, Claire is actively involved in queer studies and qualitative approaches to language, gender and sexuality. Her key expertise lies in linguistic analysis of identity and the mediatisation of language styles. The key themes of her current research are (a) the reproduction, negotiation, and contestation of identities in language, and (b) the interconnection of gender and sexuality in everyday language practices.
Tanomi is a community organizer and neuroscience PhD student at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, studying how testosterone hormone replacement therapy (HRT) affects ADHD-like traits in rats with ovaries. With a handful of other queer activists, he organizes a quasi-monthly demonstration in Tokyo called Arienai Demo, where people gather to protest the transphobic laws and practices that violate gender autonomy in Japan, including the invasive legal transition requirements of the so-called Seidōissei Shōgai Tokureihō or “Gender Identity Disorder Special Cases Act.” Arienai Demo strives to be an accessible welcoming space for people with diverse intersecting identities to express their dissent. Tanomi has advocated for the use of the masculine neo-pronoun kanodan (彼男) to challenge the male centricity inherent in the use of kare (彼) as a masculine pronoun in modern Japanese.
Real-World Repercussions of Not Using Inclusive Language
Emily Balistrieri: The first thing that we should make clear at the outset is why we care about inclusive language. Why do we care? Because we do, we care a lot. So if you could speak to that.
Claire Maree: Tanomi, do you want to start?
Tanomi: Okay. So I was actually reading this interesting article about the English pronoun he/him, and how it was commonly used as a generic pronoun indicating people of all genders. And so it was just talking about this history and how in the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century in the US, people were . . . arguing that the pronoun he applied to everyone because in prescriptive grammar, the masculine, the received linguistic prescription at the time was that the masculine embraces the feminine. So it was considered okay to use he/him to refer to everyone.
But also, when it came to giving women access to the vote or to practice law or to run for elective office, people also argued that when it came to interpreting laws that were written with he/him, that only applied to men. And that latter argument was actually used in several court rulings to justify barring women from those positions.
And I thought that was an illustrative example of how non-inclusive language might seem like a technicality on the surface, but people can and will weaponize that technicality against minorities when they start demanding equal rights.
A similar situation can be observed in Japan right now. In Article 24 of the Japanese Constitution, there’s a part that says “mutual consent of both sexes” (ryōsei no gōi 両性の合意) is a prerequisite for marriage. And that was written in the 1940s. That phrase was meant to counter the traditional practice in which the patriarch determined who his children would marry, against the wishes of the actual couple.
And so, it was only intended [to mean] “the couple themselves” or “the partners.” But now that language is being weaponized by conservative politicians to say that “marriage is only between the sexes”—that is, between a man and a woman.
And in a similar vein, the Japanese family registry system (koseki 戸籍) system) is also designed with a binary gender system in mind. So there are many fields that contain information like wife or husband or mother or father that are mandatory.
And you also have to be listed either as a daughter or a son—first daughter, second daughter, and so on. That’s how your relationship to your parents is listed in the family registry, and that’s quite rigid.
And so, because binary gender is built into the koseki system through its language, that is presenting problems for trans people. There was a trans woman in 2021 who lost a court case about legal recognition of her child. She wasn’t able to have her parenthood recognized because she’s legally female, and the child was her biological offspring produced by artificial insemination. She had preserved her sperm prior to undergoing gender-affirming surgery and changing her legal gender. And she used that sperm to have this child with her wife.
So both she and her wife are biological parents of the child, but because of the language of the koseki, she wasn’t able to be recognized as a parent because that would mean the child would have two mothers, which is not permitted, and as a woman, she can’t legally be a father. So this kind of binary language, this kind of language that assumes everyone fits neatly into one or the other gender that’s assigned at birth, from which many trans people are excluded—this kind of language is actively depriving people of basic human rights.
So these are just some examples of the consequences of not using gender inclusive language. But these are only the legal consequences. There are many more practical consequences in everyday life that make it really stressful and painful for people whose identities are not included in medical language and in legal documents; even if someone isn’t legally excluded from certain services, there might be considerable barriers to access to those services.
I can give you so many other examples. I think that’s what erasure means.
So saying, for example, people with uteruses, in addition to or instead of women, doesn’t erase women—doesn’t erase cisgender women with uteruses specifically—because they’re still included . . . Because people already include women by default. As an aside, we often also say women in addition to people anyway, for example in the article that JK Rowling attacked for using the expression people who menstruate. This is arguably redundant, but might be helpful for readers who are unfamiliar with the more inclusive expressions.
But when people say women, when they’re actually talking about everyone with uteruses, they’re excluding men like me who have uteruses and other people who aren’t women who also have uteruses. So it’s an asymmetrical situation. And the consequences of excluding people like that can be really serious. It has far-reaching implications in legal contexts, healthcare, and access to basic social services.
Claire Maree: Tanomi has given some really great examples that link the interface between the cultural, legal, and medical realms and the work that language does. And, as Winnie mentioned, our choices around the language that we use are often the result of power that has been institutionalized, or solidified—it’s just so firmly established.
Looking at the latest ridiculous mess seen in Japan with the discourse around LGBT recognition laws—Will it go? Will it not go?—the appeal that we see there coming out at the last moment is this differentiation between seijinin (性自認) or seidōitsusei (性同一性), which is gender identity, a concept that was kind of translated within feminist gender studies and also within legal, medical discourses. Now conservative forces are trying to separate these two, to say that these are completely different unrelated things. Seidōitsusei is the medicalized version that’s used more within medical discourses . . . and it has a completely different meaning from seijinin. When they’re both coming from a translation, a crossover of gender identity into Japanese.
Japanese itself has that wonderful word sei (性), which—Is it gender? Is it sex?—which has long been under discussion within gender and language studies.
So the legal point there with the conservative arguments is around how bodies are medicalized. And that pushes into what Tanomi was talking about around the koseki family registration system, which doesn’t actually include anything around a gender identity. It says, you are a wife or a mother or a daughter or a son. There’s no actual gender or sex there. It’s embedded within your relationship with the other people on the koseki. And that’s a really important part of any discussion that happens around that particular law and how it filters out into the other ones. It’s related, for example, to why it’s so hard for people to argue to have their own separate surnames, right? It’s all tied to the family registration system. It’s also why it’s so difficult to have joint legal custody of a child. It all has to do with the koseki, and the koseki is very much tied to ideas of what it is to be a “Japanese person,” and also tied to the imperial system itself, which is far more than perhaps we want to talk about at the moment. But when we do, when people do broach these issues, it’s important to understand the conservative forces behind that concept of the family. The family registration system, in many ways, is very, very difficult to alter.
So the issue of inclusive language—often, you know, people will say, “This is just words.” “It doesn’t matter, it’s just words.” That’s so annoying and also incorrect.
Emily Balistrieri: Yeah, I find that a lot of people try to reduce it to: “Oh, you want people to validate your bizarre choice of gender by using your pronouns.” But it’s not just pronouns; it’s tied to so much more, as both of you have just explained to us.
Gendered Language in Society and Work
Emily Balistrieri: I wanted to invite a little bit of participation in the chat from everyone with a couple of questions to get our brains moving on these things. One thing, is to ask you to suggest some societal habits we have that are not inclusive . . . regarding gender and language.
And the second thing is where you anticipate encountering gendered language in your work. I know some people think they don’t have anything to do with it. So I’m curious to hear what you might all have to say about that. We’ll give you a couple minutes.
Also, Claire and Tanomi, if you want to jump in and mention some things that come to mind for you, please do.
Claire Maree: I was on a bus the other day and there was not anywhere near the [current] amount of bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual signage just even a couple of years ago. But now there’s a lot that we find, for example, on public transport. And I was really interested to see around the seats that are reserved for people who may require to sit down due to physical capabilities, et cetera, et cetera. And they all had kata (方)—karada no fujiū na kata (体の不自由な方), you know, all of the ones ended in kata. And the translations in English were all people except for one instance.
And I thought, Oh, that’s really interesting. So it was people who might need to sit down for these reasons. There was just one instance when it was translated to women—women rather than people. So that I mean, that’s kind of, that’s one example. I thought, Oh, I should take a photo of that and, and post it on Saturday morning.
Winnie Bird: And what . . . was the one pregnant women?
Claire Maree: Yeah, pregnant women.
Winnie Bird: Okay, that’s what I was guessing.
Claire Maree: I suppose, well, like it’s a very long time ago that I did a research project that looked into . . . gender in dictionaries that Japanese language learners were using. And at the time—there still aren’t very many dictionaries or resources that are aimed at what we might call second language users, right? It’s mostly dictionaries that are aimed at people who were brought up in Japanese and they’re studying or using English. It’s not the other way around. So there’s kind of a gap anyway in the information provided.
There was a huge feeling that the gender norms that were embedded in English were being used in the translation, whereas in Japanese, they wouldn’t be there. So there’s kind of a mismatch, not to say that there are none in Japanese, but where those gender norms were appearing was a mapping of stereotypical cis-heteronormativity of the time. The word cisgender wasn’t available as much as it is now. But that was being mapped onto the Japanese in translations, example sentences, and stuff like that.
So . . . where [gender] appears in those two languages can sometimes align and sometimes it’s very, very different. And I think that’s what can often make translation challenging as well.
Emily Balistrieri: I’m going to read some of the comments from the chat for our recording.
[Reads comments from chat.] “Japanese doesn’t always have a gender in text. Using gender neutral pronouns makes it all easier in [English] translation.”
“I am intrigued by cases in the media where very little gendered language is used in the original Japanese material, but translators have historically made gendered decisions about these characters.”
“I find it frustrating when women in the media are emphasized, like”—is it onna shachō (女社長), is that how they say it? Um, “joshi ana (女子アナ), particularly using joshi (女子) when that sort of language isn’t used for men.”
“As a translator of games, I’m helping the Japanese developers think about how their characters are depicted, what kind of language they are using, how those language choices are represented in English, and then how that English is translated into other languages.”
“I work in the Yamagata Prefectural Government and one of my job roles requires me to be a supervisor for assistant language teachers and to help them out when they are struggling. One of the current teachers is transgender and is currently taking HRT. I have encountered a lot of pushback when translating documents about or for this person and using their preferred pronouns.”
So there’s definitely a lot of interest in the translation of Japanese, which as many people are noting, makes it really easy to obscure the gender of characters in stories and things like that. I mean, it makes it easy to obscure it if you want to. And it also makes it easy to just completely ignore gender by convention almost. They’re just not needing to use gendered pronouns to describe people.
I guess we should move on to talk about what then are some good inclusive practices we can use when writing?
For the transcript of the talk, we’ll put together a list of resources at the end. Almost every organization, like the UN and many universities have gender inclusive language guidelines. It’s interesting to see what they have in common and what’s different.
There are, of course, many strategies for avoiding, you know, the he that just refers to everyone. That’s an easy one. I think more and more people are getting used to doing that.
Whether or not they want to use singular they or not is still pretty controversial. But there are also other strategies for getting around that, like how switching to refer to a plural category instead of a singular category allows you to get rid of the he or she aspect entirely.
Translations Fueling Debates: Seijinin (性自認) and Seidōitsusei (性同一性)
Tanomi: Someone had a question in the comments about the difference between the words seijinin and seidōitsusei. Claire, could you provide some more context on this? My understanding is that these are originally both translations of the same English term, gender identity. And I guess they’re used in slightly different contexts in Japanese and people advocate for the use of one or the other according to their political beliefs about how to acknowledge trans people in society.
And you could say that the nuance of seijinin (性自認) is like. . . gender or sex self-identification or self-cognition, self-recognition.
Seijinin seems to emphasize more the person’s own perception or possibly their own decision about their gender, whereas seidōitsusei (性同一性) shows up more in medicalized contexts.
Dōitsusei (同一性) is a medical/psychology term for identity. I guess dōitsusei kind of implies a sort of fixed identity in a way, like you’re constant, you’re this one thing, which is not always the case. For example, there are gender fluid people who may not identify so much with the concept of gender identity being something immutable. So dōitsusei is potentially a narrower concept.
There have been discussions on Japanese Twitter and social media about which term is preferable. I have seen many people argue that seidōitsusei doesn’t really work for them because they don’t consider their gender to be something that’s set in stone. They have qualms—they have issues with the sort of medicalized history of this term.
And now, the LDP/government/ruling party is trying to limit the gender identity that will be respected by law (though it’s not even a legally binding law) in Japan to seidōitsusei, not seijinin.
This appears to be a sort of conscious move to try to limit, like Claire said, the trans people who are worthy of being recognized to only those who have sort of passed the test of this medicalized diagnosis procedure for “gender identity disorder,” or now called gender incongruence or gender dysphoria.
Emily Balistrieri: Just a quick question: do you think seijinin specifically maps pretty neatly onto the idea of self-ID in English?
Tanomi: I guess, yes, with sort of all the baggage associated with it. It’s also a word that’s been kind of weaponized by transphobic people to argue that, “Oh, like those trans people and like their hundred genders, like they’re making this up as they go, like you can, one day you can just call yourself a woman and go into the women’s onsen.”
They’re kind of deliberately interpreting seijinin as a sort of caricature or demonized image of trans people imposing their whimsical genders on other people. I think the word self-ID—at least in the UK—has also been weaponized in that way, which is totally detached from the reality of many trans people who are going through their lives with their own embodied gendered experiences. It paints them as these privileged people who can just do whatever they want. So I agree that there is a similarity there with self-ID.
Just to clarify: my own position is that, of course, gender autonomy is a basic human right that everyone should have access to. It’s wrong to paint self-identity in that way. But in terms of the context, there is a similarity between self-ID and seijinin.
Emily Balistrieri: When I saw they were trying to change the term, I wondered if that might be part of it. Because the kanji (性自認) kind of leap out at you as being “self-determined identity.”
Tanomi: Right, right, right.
Emily Balistrieri: Claire, did you have anything you wanted to add on that point?
Claire Maree: Yeah, I think the historical background with seidōitsusei (性同一性) is also really integral to understanding what’s happening in that particular argument by the conservatives.
And that’s around how the laws—what we refer to in English as the GID laws—say dōitsusei shōgai (同一性障害). So there’s the shōgai, the idea of a disability, there, which is, I think, what Tanomi is saying in regards to the people. If it is a disability, then, you know, this society has to kind of attend to those needs, right? And that’s very different from seijinin (性自認), in which the characters themselves kind of suggest: “I am selecting or choosing” or whatever. And it’s assumed that is something only trans and non-binary people do, and not cis people, right; which is a fallacy. But that’s a gender studies sore point that I won’t go into.
There was a lot of debate within, from what I know within trans communities, around that at the time the law was being drafted and submitted to the Diet. And it had to do with whether you take the approach that using the term is a form of compromise. So, “That’s the term that we’re going to go with in order to be able to have some kind of legal right.”
We know that, as Tanomi is doing in the monthly demos, people are demonstrating against the ludicrousness and the violence of the requirements, right?
But it’s a compromise that we use that language. The “disability" then enables things to happen if we categorize it as that. So the categorization and classification on the legal [level] is done through the terminology, done through language.
And that issue’s really important on many levels, because it has also enabled some things to happen within the education system, right? When trans/non-binary identity is called seidōitsusei shōgai (同一性障害), that means that in compulsory education, you cannot, you must not ignore those children.
So that kind of has a little bit of a filtering effect. Now I’m not saying that that’s 100 percent, that everything is robust and done really well. It’s not. But it does allow something to happen. At what expense, though, you know? At the expense of a lot of suffering of a lot of people.
So the debate about “which one” (seijinin or seidōitsusei) is resurfacing now, in a slightly different way, and being, as Tanomi said, weaponized, because of the history. And I think the histories of how translated terms are kind of taken up and the way that they’re used and the way that they’re given new meanings within the new arenas in which they circulate is—to me, that’s absolutely fascinating.
And . . . I do translation work, I work on queer activism, I also work within language education. So all of what I do is related to what we’re talking about. So I’m finding it quite difficult to know what I want to say, kind of branching out a little bit. But I think those histories of translation are really crucial to understanding, you know, how words are given new meanings at different points in time. And this is one time that is really happening right in front of us.
Pronouns and Neo-Pronouns: Third-Person Singular
Emily Balistrieri: Absolutely. And that’s actually a perfect segue into talking about kanodan!
So, Tanomi, please tell us about your pronoun.
Tanomi: Okay, so my pronouns in English are he/him/his, and in Japanese I ask people to use the word kanodan (彼男), which is basically—so it’s not something that I was the first to come up with, it was sort of in existence since the nineteenth century actually, as I found out—it’s basically a neo-pronoun in Japanese that I’ve been advocating the use of.
And so it’s meant to be sort of symmetrical to kanojo (彼女) in the sense that kanojo means that woman and it corresponds to she/her in Japanese. Kanojo is a third-person singular pronoun for people of feminine gender.
Currently in modern Japanese we use the word kare (彼) for he and him, but kare itself didn’t actually, originally have a gender. If you’ve learned a bit of classical Japanese, you might have heard this, but the word kare or are [was] used to just talk about people and things of any gender in the third person. It had a really broad meaning as he/she/it/they. But starting in the late nineteenth century—well, really kind of starting in the early twentieth century, it slowly morphed into an exclusively masculine pronoun.
And so, I just wanted to propose the use of kanodan (彼男) to designate people of masculine gender because using this originally gender-neutral word, kare, for men, for people of masculine gender, comes from the assumption that males are the default gender. The male is the default gender, and only the female requires this extra mark. It’s a marked trait. Sorry, I don’t know the English term for it. But so only women are referred to as kanojo (彼女), whereas men are referred to as kare (彼).
So I wanted to propose . . . to make it symmetrical so that men are referred to with a word that specifically refers to their gender, just as women are also referred to in that way.
The history behind kanojo is also fascinating because it’s basically sort of like, by English standards, also a neo-pronoun. It really entered common usage only in the early twentieth century, and now it’s so widespread that we don’t even think about it anymore. We just take it for granted that women are referred to as kanojo whenever we use third-person pronouns in Japanese, which is not that often. But when we do, it’s taken for granted that it’s gendered.
But originally that was actually not the case, and it took like a few decades for people to accept the new set of pronouns. So my idea is to bring back kare as a gender neutral, they/them kind of third-person pronoun. And in order to do that, I feel that he/him has to have a specifically masculine pronoun.
I’ve been advocating, but it hasn’t really caught on. And I think there are still many discussions to be had about how to reintroduce gender-neutral third-person pronouns in Japanese. There are several ideas floating around. Using kare is one option. Kanoto or kano hito, written as that person (彼人), is another option. Again, these haven’t really caught on quite yet. But these are conversations that people are having more. I don’t really know how it’ll play out—but I feel like it’s okay to have several options in parallel, just as we’ve always had in Japanese for other pronouns. We have many options for first-person pronouns, all of which have their subtle gendering.
I would say we don’t have to choose one pronoun for gender-neutral . . . third-person. We can have like kare and kanoto, kano hito in parallel, and that could work.
But also, I feel like it would be useful to sort of divorce the masculine connotation from kare as much as possible by using a more specifically masculine pronoun.
Claire Maree: Yeah, I love that you called it a neo-pronoun because essentially that’s what it is. With the translation of so-called European literature into Japanese, Japanese writing completely changed; the way that it’s represented completely changed around that time.
And there was no—I mean, ano hito, kono hito is the equivalent. It doesn’t occur in writing that much. Pronouns don’t need to be there on the surface, and a classical Japanese researcher, one of my sensei, used to kind of say that, pronouns, we shouldn’t use that word to refer to what it is in Japanese. And within linguistics, there’s a huge debate around this.
And within, for example, languages from what’s now called Southeast Asia, the idea that there is like one singular pronoun that you can just use is quite absurd.
So within linguistics, we often talk about interlocutor reference, and there’s a lot of research that’s coming out now that’s looking into how the European model of the one singular I doesn’t cross over well into other languages.
There’s always a positioning within. And that’s why it makes it so hard to talk about the pronouns within Japanese. And I’m constantly saying to people, “Step away from the pronouns!” Because it’s not only gender that is mapped there; pronouns don’t need to occur in many places, and when they do, they’re doing a lot of things that are relational between what’s happening within a scene, with what’s happening within a group of people, with how you’re feeling in the moment. So there’s all of this indexing, there’s different senses of self that someone who’s using the language will be expressing that is tied to the context they’re in, the person they’re speaking to, and also how they are going to get through that interaction.
So I’ve talked a lot about negotiation in my work, which is this idea that you’re kind of negotiating your stance, how you’re relating to people. And the way that people do that a lot of times is to just stick it out, to just take on the gender identity or the sexual identity or whatever identity and just grin and bear it so that they make it through, in a safe way, the interaction that they are in. —that is kind of stereotypically deemed to be for them [rather than] reclaiming [their preferred style] and using it.
So there’s lots of different strategies that people use on the ground. People are so frigging creative, and the way they can do these things is really amazing.
But at the same time, when it’s an issue of personal safety—“I just want to get through this shitty experience”—oh, sorry, I’m [an] Australian [English speaker], I swear a lot—then it might be the choice to take on the stereotypical cis-heteronormative way of doing things. And that’s what everyone’s doing, right? That choice to take on the stereotypical cis-heteronormative is also something that cis-heteronormative people are doing.
That’s one way of framing negotiation as well. Negotiation isn’t just people who are being projected into that norm, trying to resist it and doing alternative things. It’s also people keeping going by, you know, grinning and bearing it, and going through [the motions] because in many cases it’s easier, safer. Don’t have as much stress to your day—that kind of thing.
Translations Fueling Debates: Gender-Free (ジェンダーフリー)
Claire Maree: So there’s a question in the chat around -kun and -chan, and you’ll find a lot within address forms.
And in, for example, educational situations at the moment, -san is used regardless. So for children, all children are referred to as -san, but there’s also a big backlash against that.
So the backlash against this kind of gender approach to language really kicks off in the late 1990s in Japan . . . when there was one of the original backlashes against what is referred to in English as the laws for an equal, gender-equal society. Danjo kyōdō sankaku (男女共同参画).
So around that time there was all of this talk about making education “gender-free” and they borrowed a term from the U.S. that was about being “gender-free” [free of negative gender stereotypes]. And that was brought into Japanese in katakana, ジェンダーフリー, and the conservatives took it and said, “Oh, that means that you’re trying to make all of the kids, like, queer.”
And the educators went, “No, no, no, we’re talking about gender-free, which is like getting rid of the stereotypes.”
And that force was very, very strong.
It led to a very—if you’re interested, there’s quite a bit of writing on it. Books were taken out of libraries; there was also at the same time [a backlash] around sex education, a famous legal case against that [too]. And this idea that the way that we refer to children—if you’re a girl, you’re doing this, if you’re a boy, you’re doing that—needed to be changed or that education should be less stereotypically gendered, they weren’t even thinking about non-binary. And that was the backlash that happened in the 1990s.
Former prime minister Abe Shinzō, now deceased, was one of the major players in that conservative backlash, and the players who are now kicking a fuss around trans rights and around LGBTIQA+ were also part of the original backlash that occurred then.
All that controversy erupted around the term gender-free that was used in the context of American education, translated into Japanese for use in a specific way within education, and then [it] being brought out into a whole different arena. So it’s kind of similar to what we’re experiencing now.
And you can tell that I’m getting really passionate about this because it’s so frigging important in that these things get translated a certain way and they get used in specific spaces, and then they’re pulled out for reasons that, as you can see are removed from the original context, like gender-free.
What the backlash sounds like is, “Oh my goodness, we have to be really careful about this. We have to protect our children!” You can see how it can be extracted into that discourse. As translators or people who are working in language, we just need to be aware of the power that translation has, and articulating against mistranslation, I think, is really important.
Sorry, I got a bit passionate then, didn’t I?
[Encouragement from fellow speakers.]
Forms of Address (Suffixes)
Claire Maree: -Chan is gender neutral. -Chan is gender neutral in the way that -kun is gender neutral. So when I, way back in the 1990s, when I was a research student, the professor who was arguing that, you know, pronouns don’t occur in Japanese; it’s all in the verbs: “Maree-kun, it’s all in the verbs.” It was Maree-kun, because everyone who was junior was -kun, right?
So one of the things that I’ve argued a lot is that it’s not inherently in the words themselves, right? It’s the way that they’re used in the histories of those usages and the way that one part of them—often gender only—is extracted for discriminatory purposes, right?
So the -chan bit, I mean, is something that—boys are called -chan, men can be called -chan, non-binary people can be called -chan. It’s not in the word itself, it’s in the way that it’s used so that more young girls are called -chan. And because of that, it’s because they seem to be younger or lesser, right? And so then if a young man is called it, he may push back against it because he doesn’t want to be classified as that, right? So those kinds of address terms are quite filled with power that’s not just gender. I think that’s the thing that is often missed.
In self-reference as well, there’s lots of ways people negotiate that by just not using [pronouns] or referring to themselves by their first name. And that’s not as unusual as it might seem. It happens a lot in intimate relationships [and] within the family. You might refer to yourself as your first name or call yourself big sister or whatever. But when you step out into the formal world, that dissipates because the setting is not so intimate. So often what happens is that [the use of -chan by boys and/or men; the use of first name as a self-reference by boys or men] doesn’t come to light in the way people think.
So people who don’t have that experience in intimate relationships don’t see that [the above kinds of self-reference are] part of a dynamic within intimacy that can happen. That doesn’t get onto the more formal stage.
Tanomi: Thanks for providing that really nuanced discussion of Japanese—well, the closest equivalents we have to pronouns and also terms of address are -chan and -san.
And yeah, I just wanted to add that I think it’s important to remember that those words can and are used in gender neutral ways, and sort of across genders that they’re typically used for. And like Claire said, there are many subtle contextual meanings associated with those words that aren’t just about gender.
That said, I think there are also genders associated with such words, typical genders, that make it harder for some people, people of a certain gender to use one or the other, or they might feel uncomfortable doing that.
Pronouns and Neo-Pronouns: First-Person Singular and Third-Person Plural
Tanomi: For example, take ore (俺), which is a first-person pronoun that I use commonly in my private life. And it’s actually a word that’s also used by many women, even today. Originally it, too, was much more gender neutral. I was reading about the history of ore, and it was really interesting to find that it was used a lot by female sex workers in the late Edo-period Japan, early modern Japan, and that the association with sex work translated into an association with rudeness, which was then considered masculine. And then some more guys started using it and it became gendered more and more male. Now, it has a very masculine connotation.
So even though some women use the first-person ore and . . . I’ve heard many non-binary people use it as well, they don’t necessarily think of it as a masculine first-person pronoun. They each have their own interpretation of it. But also it is—it has this kind of widespread masculine feel to it that makes it harder for some more feminine-identifying people to use it or to feel that it’s meant for them.
And similarly for kare, I think somebody posted a question about whether, should kanodan become more common, would kare or kareshi (彼氏) be used in the meaning of lover—like koibito (恋人)—a gender-neutral word for lover as opposed to boyfriend as it is used today? And yeah, I think that’s possible.
But also, there’s a lot of baggage with masculinity that needs to be overcome before the word kare can be used in such a gender-neutral way by many people. We could argue that it’s already gender-neutral, but many people will resist having it used for them because they don’t identify as men and, to them, it just has too much of a masculine ring.
Clare Maree: So we can use karera (彼ら) as they/them referring to other people. The hypermasculine may not have any problems with that if there are hyperfeminine people included in that group, but the opposite, kanojora (彼女ら), is not going to work in that way. So that’s the kind of generic issue with English he/him, how it operates. So it could be all-encompassing, but when we put it in contrast with the alternative, then the kind of gendered nature of structures suddenly becomes clear.
Tanomi: Yeah, and I think there are also debates well, more like discussions—about the plural karera (彼ら), and like, what genders that encompasses. I’ve seen people spell it out in hiragana (かれら) to sort of get rid of the association with masculinity—I mean it doesn’t really make a difference in terms of like the actual meaning, because the kanji was also gender-neutral to begin with—but just to kind of indicate that it’s being used in a gender-neutral way for everyone—not just a collection of he/him pronoun people.
And also, as you said, like, for kare, there is still this strong association with masculinity. And I think for many people, just spelling karera out in hiragana is not enough; it doesn’t sound neutral enough. So, if they are included, they would prefer to be referred to as something like kanotora or kanohitora (彼人ら), or kanohito-tachi (彼人たち), just, to get rid of the kare thing altogether. Those discussions are still kind of playing out. We don’t really have a consensus yet. And then, the plural is also a potential option.
Claire Maree: So anything that really is like a binary is, can be put into that binary to become inclusive; we need to step out from that.
Stay Open, Keep Learning
Emily Balistrieri: Now, maybe we can talk a little bit about what we as writers, editors, and translators can do to promote inclusivity and be more inclusive and kind of challenge some of these habits that we’re in. I can talk a little bit about that too, since I translate, but I wonder if you guys want to just . . .
Claire Maree: Yeah, sure. I think that it’s really crucial to be flexible and responsive. And I don’t want to sound wishy-washy here. But as a queer woman, my trajectory of learning and coming to—I don’t even want to use the word—understand trans challenges, requires me to be open, reflexive, responsive, and to challenge myself to actually use language in different ways than I might have imagined.
You know, being a language specialist, thinking about gender, language and sexuality, already feeling that you had a handle on things, you suddenly become aware of what we often talk about in pedagogy, about your ignorance, right? So ignorance—Why is it that I don’t know about this?—is usually because of a position of privilege that has meant that you haven’t been forced to attend to the issues, right?
So acknowledging that kind of ignorance is part of what I am and how I express myself and then reflecting on the challenges that are being put towards me as a language user, towards me as I’m translating or interpreting, I mostly do more interpreting—community-based interpreting—but I also translate a lot of different things.
And then trying to listen. And they’re going to sound like really abstract things, but I think they’re quite fundamental. So fundamentally, trying to understand the issue with language is part of what we need to do. So you may have a reaction, that’s fine, have the reaction in your private safe space, and try and work with others to be able to facilitate a safer space for a wider kind of collegial group, right?
So when you’re making a decision about the specifics of language, you have to try and tap into that vulnerability and understand who could be excluded or what might be missing. And if I feel that I’m being excluded, what is it that is making me feel that? What is it that’s challenging me, or perhaps scaring me? And is that feeling coming from a position of privilege? If so, then we need to think about it, right? I’m standing (I’m sitting actually) in front of you as a white Anglo-Australian queer woman. So you have to take that with a grain of salt as well, because that’s my position.
Emily Balistrieri: As you were saying about feeling like we need to start learning and educating ourselves about these things, it’s not only cis people or straight people who have to learn.When I came out as trans, I had to—I’m still—learning a ton of stuff, like, you can notice that I autopiloted guys earlier. I’m really weak on guys.
I tend to use guys a lot and I really need to work on being more aware because I know it can cause some people to feel excluded or just disrespected, and I apologize if that was the case here. But that’s kind of why these points are so important. If we’re operating from the premise of trying to be inclusive, then it’s really important to not be on autopilot and to make conscious decisions about using gendered language or not using gendered language, and using it appropriately for your audience.
Because sometimes you really are speaking to, you know, cis women. Sometimes you’re speaking to a wider audience. And it really depends, I think, or it can depend, on how you make that decision. If you are doing paid work, of course,your client may make that decision for you.
Tanomi: Those are really great points. I just wanted to chime in with some things from my own experiments and struggles—attempts at being more aware of my own privileges and being more conscious of my language use.
At the beginning, Emily mentioned in my intro that I help organize this quasi-monthly protest in Tokyo demanding more human rights for trans people in Japan. And so in that protest, we have a few ground rules to make sure that people of all identities can participate safely or as safely as possible in this protest together, whether they have different disabilities or they have different racial or ethnic backgrounds, or of course if they have different genders.
And this is something that I’ve been learning myself. I default . . . as a majority, ethnically Japanese person with no physical disabilities, I tend to default to that mode of speaking and thinking. And so I need to consciously remind myself that there are people with disabilities and with other ethnic and racial roots who might come to these protests, otherwise they would feel excluded or like they can’t participate in this protest even if they’re trans, regardless of if they’re trans. Even if they’re also trans and they need those changes to the laws, if we don’t consciously talk with people of different backgrounds and disabilities in mind, they would feel disrespected, unsafe, and excluded from that space.
So it’s been important, both as basic human decency and also as an organizational strategy, to make sure that we keep learning about different minorities and the different types of discrimination people face, and try to be aware of that in our language use.
Let me give an example. Recently, there was some discussion on Twitter about another protest, a march in Tokyo—it was called the Liberation March. It was advertised as an intersectional protest against all forms of discrimination, including transphobia, and that was really great. But in the advertisement for the protest, the organizers referred to, well, they mentioned that they’re against discrimination against Ainu people and they’re also against discrimination against “people in Okinawa,” which was pointed out as too vague by ethnically Okinawan/Ryūkyūan people. And it was pointed out that there is discrimination against Okinawa as a geographical entity, but also specifically toward people of ethnic, indigenous Okinawan/Ryukyuan roots, of that background.
In Japan, this discrimination exists, although it is not acknowledged widely. But it’s there and it’s also been pointed out in the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s recommendation on the rights of minorities in Japan. But whenever people talk about Okinawa, they only talk about the American military bases and how all the people in Okinawa are suffering from the bases, which is true.Yet there is another layer of racism and colonial rule over indigenous Okinawan/Ryūkyūan people: historically that colonization has been done by Japanese, the “mainland” Japanese people.
So “people in Okinawa” is really kind of context-sensitive, and according to the context, there are different ways of referring to indigenous Okinawans or Ryūkyūans as an ethnic group. Sometimes—like it’s okay in the UN Human Rights Committee recommendation. They use the phrase Okinawa/Ryūkyū no hitobito (沖縄・琉球の人々), the people of Ryūkyū and Okinawa. But in that context, they mean specifically the indigenous people.
Whereas like in the context of this other protest, they were being vague about that, intentionally, or unintentionally, I don’t know. And even when it was pointed out that this language is too vague, and you have to specifically refer to ethnic Okinawans as an ethnic minority, the organizers kind of ignored that criticism and tried to justify it by saying, “Oh, the UN uses this language as well.”
But . . . you know . . . maybe if this criticism hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would have been able to use the proper language to begin with. Without being reminded, I myself, as a member of majority society, might be somewhat ignorant of the viewpoints of ethnic minorities in Japan.
So I have to update my knowledge and try to listen to what people are actually saying—people in the communities that are discriminated against. And how they want to be addressed and just being constantly mindful of that.
So that was one incident that reminded me that it’s important to keep learning. And at Arienai Demo like we also try to keep updating our ground rules as well, in order to enhance our awareness about issues that different minorities face.
Practice and Push
Emily Balistrieri: Yeah, I’ve been really impressed with how intersectional Arienai Demo strives to be. And I agree it’s important to remember that changing the way you use language does involve conscious practice. You can have intentions all you want, but unless you really practice, and sometimes that literally means like, maybe you don’t even need a mirror, but like repeating to yourself in your room, like when your friend changes their pronouns. Yeah, if you do that, it helps you get them right. And I think everyone has to do that. Queer people have to do that. And so we just hope that more people would do that.
I wanted to talk just a little bit before we head into questions, about some of my work translating because, for example, I do a lot of picture books, sample translations for promotional purposes. And so when you’re translating a picture book and there’s no gender for the characters, what do you do? In English, you often need to use pronouns to have a natural-sounding sentence. So obviously asking the author for their input is great, but usually there’s a step before that where I’m just drafting it. So in the drafting process, I can get creative and say, “Well, this character is exhibiting some traditionally, what we might consider as feminine traits, but there’s no gender. So why don’t I make this character a boy and see what happens,” you know? Or, you can subtly push, and if you suggest it, they might actually say, “Hey, that’s a great idea!”
Sometimes the author might not even have a gender in mind because they don’t have to have a gender in mind when they’re writing in Japanese. So as the translator, if you can make suggestions that are progressive, if you feel like it, it’s always a choice. And they can obviously say, “No, it’s meant to be a girl or a woman or a female rabbit.” Or whatever. But having that conversation is something you can do to help, you know, just keep the door open for different interpretations of gender, less conformity, and more inclusivity.
Q & A: Self-Reference
Emily Balistrieri: Before we open up for questions, Claire, did you want to add anything to this?
Claire Maree: No, I was just still kind of self-reflecting, and I hope that I didn’t give the impression earlier that when I said that there’s nothing in the language, I was actually meaning that the stereotypes and the constraints are what we put there, which wasn’t meant to negate how difficult it is to not do it as expected. I don’t know if I’m explaining, but I just reflected a bit and thought that that could have been taken out of context.
Emily Balistrieri: Understood.
There was one question I noticed in the chat earlier about using jibun (自分) as a first-person pronoun. And maybe we can talk about that along with the question asking about advice for non-binary Japanese speakers wondering what pronouns to use or feeling sort of left out in some way when everyone else has kind of a pronoun that represents themselves more accurately.
Any thoughts on those things? For me, I used to actually use jibun a lot before I came out as trans, sort of a way to just be nonconforming. I used jibun a lot.
I also, when I could get away with it, I mean, it doesn’t always work in every context, but I like kotchi (こっち). Like, kotchi wa, I used to use that a lot too.
Emily Balistrieri: Tanomi, do you know people who use other expressions? We talked about some of the binary sorts of pronouns, but just as kind of a recap, or if you know anyone who uses something else?
Tanomi: I do hear jibun a lot, and also people using their own names sometimes. And also ore, boku (僕), watashi (私)—all kind of intentionally used in a sort of de-gendered way.
I myself—so now I identify more or less just as a guy, binary trans person, I guess. But I guess I’m still, I don’t know, non-binary. When I was trying to figure out my gender at the beginning of my transition, I was more sort of agender, like non-binary. And I still sort of think of myself as not really fitting into the gender binary. Even though I don’t tell everyone, ’cause now sometimes it’s just easier to tell people I’m a guy.
But anyway, so I’ve kind of struggled with transitioning from watashi to ore. And now I find ore more affirming.
But also, I know that when I was more neutral—gender-neutral—I was more comfortable with watashi. But also, it required some mental gymnastics on my part to tell myself it’s not feminine. Like, “I’m not using this because I was assigned female and I was raised as a girl and I was taught to use watashi. I’m using this consciously in the same way that guys also use watashi in a formal context.” But I kind of constantly had to tell myself that.
So yeah, I guess those kinds of reinterpretations are sometimes necessary to negotiate the gendered connotations that each first-person pronoun has. I think people do that in different ways. And it’s important to respect other people’s reading of their own pronouns.
Claire Maree: There’s a question around the connotation of immaturity or childishness with using your name as a self-reference. And I think all of the tools that we have within Japanese to self-reference, each have layers of meaning. One of those is gendered, binary. The other is to do with levels of intimacy, with age. It’s not just one thing, which is what makes it so creative and also so difficult when you are trying to kind of address the way that you feel in the world—as opposed to the stereotypes around the classifications that fit with people who use those languages, those terms, right?
So it’s so complicated that that’s why people, I think—from the queer people I’ve spoken to and the research that I’ve done—it’s not like, you know, “I use watashi the whole time.” I mean, some people have told me that that is their strategy, because sticking with that is the safest thing, the easiest thing for them. Other people have a whole collection of different ways that they self-reference. And they are feeling okay that you can do that, and also that it’s not weird to do that because everybody does it.
Literally everybody does it, even a person who says, “I only use this term” who consciously tries to only use that term. (And they would be kind of an outlier.) Everybody is using multiple terms of self-reference. And so it’s okay to do it, but there are social norms around that. Suppose I started to talk to myself in a professional setting using my own name, そうだね、クレアはね、そういうことをね, the impression immediate becomes that, you know, obviously, I look white, I don’t know how to speak and use the pronouns, I don’t know how to do this, I shouldn’t be doing that, it’s childish. And after I’ve finished giving a presentation, someone will pull me aside—as they have in the past—and say, “You shouldn’t do that because blah, blah, blah,” right? “ABC, it’s not appropriate.”
So you need to develop an idea of what is safe and what those stereotypes are to be able to operate within it, but also experiment and see what feels right for you in the relationships that you have. Because it’s not just one thing, it’s multiple and that’s such a beautiful thing about the Japanese language, that you can do that. So I kind of think we should embrace it. However, that’s from a privileged position. If you embrace it, what dangers do you face? is something that we have to think about when we’re thinking about inclusivity.
So yeah, it does, it sounds childish. It would sound childish if I was, you know, talking to everybody and self-referring as Claire throughout this whole presentation. Doesn’t mean that I don’t do it in my private life. And when I do it in my private life, it doesn’t, it’s not construed as being childish.
Tanomi: Quickly, about using your own name to refer to yourself. You can use your first name or your last name. And I know some non-binary people who use their last names. And that can be sort of made to sound more respectable in a way. So that’s one option people have, instead of using their first name.
And I just wanted to talk about this conversation I had with another non-binary person. And they were assigned male at birth. So they used to use ore pronouns before they started transitioning. So I was telling them about how I don’t know when it’s appropriate to use ore versus watashi or boku, as a guy, because there are really complicated social protocols around when to use which one if you’re like, a “grown man.” Like in some contexts it’s too childish to use boku but watashi, too, sounds like you’re not aggressive enough. And so I was just kind of struggling with trying to learn these norms and they said they went through exactly the same thing when they were growing up, like when they were trying to learn how to be a guy . . .
So I told them about how I struggle to use ore in front of my parents. I just feel really self-conscious. So I just resort to using watashi, which I’ve always used.
They were like, “Actually, it’s not the same situation, but I also experienced something similar when I was growing up. And I wanted to transition out of using boku and started using ore. I felt really uncomfortable using that in front of my parents or friends because they would be like, ‘Oh, now you’re . . .’”
Emily Balistrieri: “You’re graduating!”
Tanomi: Yeah, exactly. And they also had to negotiate when they’re in more formal situations; in an office they’re not supposed to use ore because it’s not polite. They had to learn that kind of rule as well.
And now they just use watashi for everything. But yeah, when they had to learn how to be a guy, they had to learn all these things. And it’s the same as what I’m going through now. So it’s really interesting.
Basically when trans people start using different pronouns, sometimes we go through exactly the same things that cis people go through when they have to learn how to be their gender.
Q & A: Translating Context
Emily Balistrieri: There’s a question in the chat about translating the term ko with the kanji for child (子), I guess—like examples of kinō sugoi omoshiroi ko ni deatta (昨日すごい面白い子に出会った), or ano ko suki (あの子好き).
And I guess the key is that ko doesn’t necessarily mean a child, doesn’t necessarily mean a man, doesn’t necessarily mean a woman. It could be any of those things.
And so when I’m translating, yeah, it does tend to end up gendered based on the context. Because if you’re saying ano ko (あの子), you assume that the speaker knows who you’re talking about. And probably that includes their gender. So in English, it would be awkward to use something that doesn’t refer to that, because in English, you would naturally refer to it.
I mean, if you want to start talking about using radically gender-free English language, that’s a whole different discussion. I do mostly literary translation, and try to create natural spoken English in a lot of instances. I’m not usually trying to be super radical. I’m usually going based on the context and the relationships between the characters. As Claire has pointed out many times, it’s always about the relationships between the people that decides how they’re being referred to.
Did either of you want to add anything to that?
Claire Maree: No, I think the context and the relations really [determine what you would say], but I mean, [for ano ko suki] you could just say, “They are so hot.” And if it’s not specific, if it’s not there in the context, if it’s not relevant, then you could kind of do things like that.
“They are just so hot, I’m really into them” is, you know, you’re not doing the direct translation, you’re doing the sentiment, and if that could be relevant, then it can be used, right? So the idea that ko is not linked to anything but is contextual is really important, I think. I don’t know how I’d say it using gendered terms. “That girl is really cute.” I mean, to me that just sounds really weird.
I mean, when it gets to that level, I start thinking of how, you know, in Australian speech, all of those things would have some kind of expletive, “They’re effing hot,” or, “They’re like frigging cool,” or things like that. So, and that is where a lot of it comes through.
And then . . . [I’m] frustrated with translation where there’s all of this really good stuff that’s happening in the Japanese, and it’s kind of just blurred out [in translation]. And I suggest using like, you know, expletives or swear words or using slang and, and people kind of want to flatten it out because—but I think a lot of that, we’re talking about self-reference and other-people reference, is in the dialogue that—sorry, the dialect I speak. A lot of the heavy lifting around whether it’s aggressive or whether it’s rude or whether it’s coming across as hypermasculine is with those expletives that would be positioned there, and that’s a lot what’s going on with watashi/ore/boku.
If I use ore in this situation, you know, in the equivalent in English, I would be putting in a lot of probably inappropriate, what are termed, inappropriate terms. So how do we do that in the language that we’re working with? It’s going to operate on different parts of the language. There’s quite a big discourse about how “Japanese doesn’t have swear words.” And it’s like, “Oh, bullshit, it does.” They’re just not called swear words, right? It’s all in the way that you do the conjugation of the verb and what you do with the pronouns and that’s where it’s all happening.
Emily Balistrieri: One thing I struggle with regarding they is that . . . some people use they as their pronoun, like this person is non-binary and they use they/them pronouns. But then we also use it if we don’t know the gender. So what’s tricky is that it becomes ambiguous in a lot of cases. Like if you say that, “They are so hot,” do you know that they’re non-binary and you’re using their correct pronoun? Or are you seeing someone in the street and unsure. . . because their presentation is fluid or ambiguous or neutral? And I mean, sometimes in context, you know, and sometimes it becomes really ambiguous and that’s one thing I think about a lot.
There’s a question in the chat about strategies for making our work more gender-free when translating from Japanese. I mean I guess for me the question is: does it need to be gender-free or does it need to sound like natural English with “normal” pronouns in place.
I think it depends on the context a lot. In literature, I tend to gender things, unfortunately, because it creates natural English. But if you’re doing—if you’re translating like a gynecologist’s website, there’s a lot more to think about. And that’s a place where you can really make a difference.
Tanomi, you mentioned you could discuss more biology or stuff like that in terminology. Is there anything you can highlight there? Because I know some people translate in those academic fields.
Q & A: Sex Contextualism
Tanomi: A concept that’s been proposed relatively recently, but that I think is really important, is something called sex contextualism.
And this applies to a lot of biological and medical research that has anything to do with reproductive function and sex.
I’ll post the link later, but basically, it’s a concept that’s been proposed by researcher Sarah Richardson. She basically says that sex, biological sex, is not one thing. And there’s not any kind of essence—for example, one gene that determines if someone is going to be “biologically” male or female.
And the biological, physical phenomenon that we can actually observe is a collection of different individuals with different traits. We just happen to project this binary gender that’s normalized in society onto this phenomenon and this diverse distribution of traits related to reproduction.
For humans and many mammal species, those traits have a more or less bimodal distribution. So you can roughly divide individuals into two categories. But that doesn’t mean that they’re completely mutually exclusive. And it’s not a tidy classification. Like there are always individuals with mixtures of the traits that are commonly labeled as female or male. We need to remember that because of this inherent diversity, you can’t just talk about biological sex as this immutable thing that applies to every context.
What “sex” means, what biological sex means, depends on context, what you’re talking about. Are you talking about chromosomes? Are you talking about this gene or that gene? Are you talking about ovaries and testes and their function? Are you talking about hormones? These are all potentially independent things that can develop in a sort of mosaic fashion, but they don’t necessarily fit a neat binary. You cannot say, for example, “Oh, if you have ovaries, you always have this gene, so you will always have this trait and this level of hormones.” It’s always a mixed bag.
You have to be conscious of this inherent diversity and make explicit your assumptions about which kind of, which aspect of biological sex you’re talking about. And that applies to all sorts of medical science as well.
The real-world repercussions of people using their rough, cis-centric notions of biological sex—is that in [much] medical research, people with sexual traits that are considered not “normal” are excluded from research. We all have different sets of sexual traits, but people who are intersex, especially, have traits that are considered to deviate from the norms of the biological sexes, so they get left out even though they’re just part of a natural variation.
And in addition to intersex people, many trans people who undergo various medical interventions are also excluded from research that is geared mostly to cisgender people with a specific set of organs and hormone levels.
And so, for example, I have high testosterone levels for someone with ovaries because I do HRT. But I can’t find research about heart function or ADHD that I need for people like me, because people do research assuming that everyone with ovaries also has low testosterone levels. So that has real-world repercussions for who is excluded from medical and biological research.
It’s important to be explicit about the assumptions you’re making, about the biological variables you want to talk about, that you’re studying—and whenever possible, to actively include individuals that lie outside of these sort of traditional notions of normative cisgender heterosexual people.
Q & A: Practical Tips
Emily Balistrieri: Thanks, that’s very specific but really interesting, and I think it’ll be useful for people to think about.
I wanted to note some more general things [as well]. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a really good handout on gendered language in writing and they have a quick checklist for gender-related revisions, [which] I guess I’ll just kind of summarize because it’s useful in a basic way at least.
The first thing is, “Have you used man or men or words containing them to refer to people who may not be men?”
Two, “Have you used he, him, his, or himself to refer to people who may not be men?”
Three, “If you have mentioned someone’s sex or gender, was it necessary to do so?” That’s a good one, right? You don’t necessarily have to bring it up even.
Four, “Do you use any occupational or other stereotypes?”
Five, “Do you provide the same kinds of information and descriptions when writing about people of different genders?”
And there was one—I forget if it’s this sheet or another resource I was looking at—where they said to swap the genders if you’re wondering if something is a stereotype, because it’s really easy swap the genders and notice if something feels different, or more normal, or weird.
But yeah, also just avoiding mentioning gender if you don’t have to can be useful.
Q & A: Collective Nouns
Emily Balistrieri: Regarding terms for occupations, there is a question in the chat: “I get inquiries about mankind versus humankind and craftsmen versus craftsperson, or craftsmen versus craftspeople. The former versions are usually easier to pronounce and easier to confirm in terms of usage frequency online, which my clients like.”
That’s a thing where I would push back on the client as much as possible. Of course, you know, eventually the client gets what they want because it’s their text, but I would say that humankind and craftsperson are good to use whenever possible.
[Participant types artisan in chat.]
There’s a really good substitution [for craftsman] right there!
On this same handout from the University of North Carolina, freshman is mentioned as a gendered noun, which is one that totally flew under my radar. Freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. Sophomore, junior, senior, are neutral, but freshman is totally not, in any way.
Did either of you have thoughts about using those kinds of words? When we first see some of them—I’m also a little sad because I kind of thought we were past this one, like postal workers; I thought we could all accept that one already. But I guess there are still lots of people who prefer -man words. And I do remember feeling, “Oh, that’s kind of annoying,” and wondering why we couldn’t just agree that we know it refers to whoever. But not everyone thinks that way, right?
That’s really what it’s about—remembering that not everyone shares your opinions and it’s better to be inclusive.
Claire Maree: I mean, freshman isn’t in my dialect, so we don’t use it, we use first-year.
Emily Balistrieri: Which is the recommended substitution: first-year student.
Q & A: Feminist v. Trans-Inclusive Language
Claire Maree: So I can’t speak to that. But I think that within feminist language studies or feminist language research, these issues have been raised.
But a really important thing to reflect on is that trans-inclusive, trans-affirmative is not the same as [earlier feminist language reform]—it doesn’t match perfectly.
So because the impetus for feminist language reform, which was all around . . . So women are included in the he, him, but as soon as you refer to a group of people as she, then everyone freaks out because there’s men there. So, “What are you doing?”
And that was around cis women. So the focus was inclusion of cis women. And now we’re talking about inclusion of trans people. So the focus is different.
And I think it’s really important to reflect on that, and then to think about these issues as well, because the erasure, the anxiety around erasure is linked to that—that cis women feel that they’re being erased, and they feel that they have fought for a long time.
So the transphobic response is to go there and to say, “Hang on, hold back a minute.”
We’re now talking about inclusion that is inclusion of trans people. And that is of real importance because of the violence that is faced if we don’t do that.
So, you know, there’s a kind of a backlash [from some feminists, who think] . . . you know, “We’ve done all this before.” But this discussion is important for people like me in particular, who have been part of the discussion on feminist gendered language, to say, “This is—” I can’t find the right word because if I say “the next step,” it actually reinforces that the erasure was not thought of—but maybe that’s good. It’s understanding that that wasn’t good enough, if you know what I mean.
Emily Balistrieri: It’s so interesting in discussions going on online, too, just thinking about gender language, like with trans identities, because we say trans women are women because they are, because trans is an adjective that’s modifying women in that instance. And then you have all these so-called gender-critical feminists saying, “We are women.”
And trans women are like, well, “We are too. We’re also women, great, good, let’s get along.”
It’s interesting and depressing.
Claire Maree: Sorry, I didn’t mean to depress.
Emily Balistrieri: Oh no, I mean, it’s reality.
Q & A: Translation Quandaries
Emily Balistrieri: I might add here, as an example of a translation quandary with gender, for a long time I translated the light novel series Overlord by Kugane Maruyama and there’s a character who appears in volume 2 of this giant series who is not specifically gendered, and then way later in volume 8 you learn that this character is female, and so to get that right in volume 2 because I needed a pronoun, and realistically, I couldn’t read ahead enough to find out, so I relied heavily on the fan wiki for the series to learn these details about characters, because we often don’t have access to the authors in these kind of pop culture translation cases.
And there was another example in the same series. There’s a group of twins who are cross-dressed and so their genders are often mistaken, but very clearly they—they’re cis but just dressed oppositely, so it’s always a weird negotiation of, okay, which—who—what characters are in this situation, who knows whose gender . . . because in English we know the gender, you’re not going to have any question about it. But if the other person doesn’t know, then this person can’t talk using a gendered term, because then the other person would find out and would have to react.
So it’s like a very weird dance, sometimes, of, “Okay, how many pronouns can I keep out before it gets really awkward? What other terms can I use to talk about this person to avoid pronouns?” It’s really hard. The Japanese language allows so much freedom in creating these sorts of characters and narratives surrounding their identities that are really hard to do in English.
I translated a story once with two characters whose genders were never mentioned in the whole thing, and I don’t even remember what I did, but it was a challenge to navigate, because in Japanese especially, like maybe it was being done unconsciously but some people are writing with a purpose, you know, to . . . consciously keep gender out of it. And it’s very hard to do that successfully in English.
Q & A: Finding Community
Mei: I wanted to thank you for your responses to my questions so far about jibun and self-reference with one’s name and things like that. I was thinking I would definitely feel more comfortable experimenting with that sort of thing in a group that included more queer people.
So I was wondering if you knew of any queer-centered online spaces like Zoom meetings for this kind of language practice and community building.
Claire Maree: I, with some colleagues, have developed a network that’s called the International Network for Gender and Sexuality and Japanese Language Education, and I believe one of those people does have monthly meetings.There used to be—I’m not in Tokyo anymore—but there used to be a community with gatherings there as well. Does anyone know of any that are happening at the moment?
Emily Balistrieri: Not specifically. There is a Stonewall Japan Facebook group that is queer friendly . . . I think a lot of people are open to discussing these sorts of things on there.
Mei: Yeah, part of the issue is that I’m not in Japan anymore. I will probably go back eventually, but also with COVID safety, I’m still very high risk. And so it’s been hard to find places for language exchange because so much of that was always in person. Now I’m looking for more online spaces.
Emily Balistrieri: For sure.
Faith: I was going to say to Mei, have you tried Meetup? I don’t know about gender-inclusive spaces, but sometimes I’ve seen online language exchanges there . . .
Q & A: Family Terms
Faith: I just want to thank you all for having this talk. It was very informative. I really enjoyed listening and I learned a lot.
I am part of a community theater group that tries to talk about diversity in Japan. And we are doing a production where we have some characters who are in the LGBTQ+ community and one of the characters is non-binary.
We do have some non-binary people in our group, but those people are not Japanese. And so thinking of the appropriate Japanese terms to talk about this character, and especially when we’re doing casting, we wanted to make sure it was bilingual.
These kinds of issues came up a lot in our discussions, so it was very nice to hear a talk like this and realize that a lot of people go through similar discussions., We were like, “Oh, what kind of terms can we use? What, what can we say? What kind of language would make sense for the situation?” I know we have particular trouble with—because one of the characters has a sibling, and they are non-binary. And like, okay, so how do we refer to them as like, we’re talking about them in reference to their sibling in Japanese, because usually it’s like kyodai (兄弟), but kyōdai seems very gendered.
And so I think we just ended up just trying to look online. “OK, what can we do?” Even my Japanese co-director wasn’t confident, because like she’s not . . . in that community, she doesn’t know what to do. And so I think we just settled on—as mentioned before—putting the word in hiragana so as not to have the kanji, but it’s like we don’t really know what kind of terms to use. So it has been very interesting and informative to learn about the different terms you can use and so on. So thank you very much.
Emily Balistrieri: Do people ever use kazoku (家族) or that like just very broadly? Because that was the thing that just came to mind for me.
Faith: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that’s a good option. Yeah, I think I just have my very English mind like—Okay, got it. Got to put that in there . . .
Emily Balistrieri: I mean, I don’t know if it’s maybe . . .
Claire Maree: For sibling, I’ve heard of people using watashi yori ue no hito, ue no ko (私より上の人・子), watashi yori shita no ko (私より下の子). Shita no hito (下の人). It might be a little bit too distant, but it could be appropriate in the context.
So you know, you’re locked in with, you know, brother, sister, older brother, the younger, all that kind of stuff. But ue no ko, shita no ko. Actually, that might be able to work because the character is the older sibling.
It could be tricky if it sounds like you’re talking about your own kid. So it has to be kind of contextualized in some way. But yeah, that’s how some people have gotten around the issue. It could work.
Faith: Thank you very much.
Conclusion: Power to Change
Winifred Bird: Responding to what Emily was saying about light novel translation and the extreme commonness of characters, human or non-human, who don’t have a gender, an explicit gender—I agree, it happens all the time. And I think it’s actually like an opportunity.
When I first started translating these kinds of books, I struggled with it a lot and I thought like, “Oh my gosh, this is so awkward, it sounds so weird to try to avoid mentioning the gender.” And then I noticed over time, like it doesn’t feel weird to me anymore. Probably just because I’ve done a lot of them and I’m used to it now. And I think the light novel reading community is open to things that may not seem so natural in English; other conventions of light novels, like, quotation mark dot-dot-dot close quotation mark (“…”), or like one-sentence paragraphs, you know . . . are becoming normalized in English translations of this kind of popular genre fiction.
I would say maybe it’s an opportunity to normalize these sorts of expressions. Like maybe over time, if we just go with it and do these things that feel a bit awkward in translation, like using the name, you know, the proper name of the character or whatever over and over again, instead of he or she. I don’t know, I think just as it’s happening with myself, maybe eventually on a broader scale it will start to become normalized.
Emily Balistrieri: I mean, it definitely shows that when you repeat something over and over, it does become normalized. So, we do have the power to change.
Language changes and we have the power to change it. That seems like a nice way to wrap up. Thank you so much, Claire and Tanomi, for joining us today and giving us so much to think about. I hope that everyone has learned a lot and enjoyed the event.
This transcript was produced with the help of Zoom’s closed captioning and OpenAI’s Whisper program. Edited for clarity by Avery Fischer Udagawa and Lynne Riggs.
Guidelines for gender-inclusive language in English, The United Nations
Gender-Inclusive Language handout, The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“Sex Contextualism” article abstract by Sarah S. Richardson, Harvard GenderSci Lab
“Sex as a social construct,” a more accessible blog article about sex contextualism by Jeffrey Lockhart, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago