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  • Gender, Maturity, and “Going out into the World”: Self-Referent Term Choice at Ogasawara Middle School
  • Nona Moskowitz (bio)

The belief that women and men should use different first-person referent terms in casual, everyday contexts in Japan is a linguistic ideology based on the ideological construct that “women’s language” does and should exist.1 While women’s language is imagined to have been an eternal feature of the Japanese language, it is, in fact, a contemporary construct, an ideology about gender and gendered expression that assumed a particular form during the Meiji period. What constitutes women’s language or other linguistic practices is not static, however, and the symbolic meanings particular terms assume continue to be reworked. At the same time, particular meanings that persist do so because they are actively reproduced.

Historically, perceived linguistic corruption has been linked to moral corruption in Japanese women. Because women stand as symbolic barometers of cultural change and the loss of tradition, the perceived waning of women’s language presents an overt sign of (national) disorder.2 As Shigeko Okamoto, Hideko Reynolds, Miyako Inoue, and others have found, both men and women continue to monitor and evaluate the degree to which women’s actual speech follows the norms of women’s language.3 At the root of the critique and monitoring of women’s speech are ideas about who women are and should be. Public fear over the corruption of women’s language takes various forms, illustrating that the construct of women’s language is alive and well in Japan today.

In this paper, I examine how middle-school girls navigate the gendered world of self and self-reference through their choice of self-referent terms. The students’ exegesis [End Page 73] regarding their choice(s) illustrates that self-referent terms connect with the self vis-à-vis an understanding of that self (or identity). Here, I explore the ways in which student selves connect with mainstream Japanese ideologies and local ways of being or doing.

Both mature and maturing women eschew “female” self-referent terms because the terms create for the speakers identities that they do not want to appropriate. Some maturing women who avoid “female” self-referent terms feel uncomfortable with the identities the terms evoke for them. As will be explored below, some are in the process of recognizing or coming to terms with a feminine idea of self. They are not ready to use a given term because they are not ready to adopt the version of self they feel the term encodes. These explanations constitute a different narrative than the ones given by women who purposely choose to appropriate other identities through language. These women may reject the identities that they feel the terms evoke because they do not agree with them, for political or other reasons. In contrast, young women who are in the process of “growing into”—that is, accepting and identifying with—a gendered identity may eschew female self-referents because they are not yet comfortable with their own feminine identity.

It is this latter group, maturing women, who are the subject of this analysis. I explore the way in which the gender encoded in the self-referent terms intersects, for some young speakers, with another dimension: maturity. Although the gendered meanings indexed through self-reference are both publicly salient and a frequent topic of linguistic exploration, my analysis here illustrates that gender is not the only dimension indexed. Maturity is also revealed to be indexed through meanings associated with or the act of choosing terms. Recognizing these two dimensions informing self-referent indexicals adds coherence to the interviewed middle-schoolers’ exegesis.

This study was conducted with ninth graders at Ogasawara Middle School on Chichijima Island. The ninth graders’ explanations drew upon and danced between both systems of meaning (maturity and gender) because, in terms of age and social maturity, they are at the transition point of the changing system. As middle-schoolers, they should be ready to appropriate an (adult) gendered self. Not appropriately gendering themselves through language was read as immature, rather than political. Thus, this inquiry into linguistic choice reveals that to be mature is to be gendered. It further reveals...


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pp. 73-99
Launched on MUSE
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