Language and Sexuality in Japan - Discovering Voices, Discovering

Language and Sexuality in Japan:
An Introduction to Linguistic Relativity
Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison
University of Jyväskylä, Kielikeskus
Forming hypotheses
About Japan
Birth of the study
Linguistic relativity
Stories/Data samples
• First, let’s form a hypothesis…
”I’m not gay in (insert
language), I’m only gay
in (insert other
• For example, ”I’m not gay in
Japanese, I’m only gay in
• Next, let’s define our main concepts…
– What is Langauge?
– What is Gender?
– What is Sexuality?
1. a. Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of
arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols.
– b. Such a system including its rules for combining its components,
such as words.
– c. Such a system as used by a nation, people, or other distinct
community; often contrasted with dialect.
2. a. A system of signs, symbols, gestures, or rules used in
communicating: the language of algebra.
3. Body language; kinesics.
4. The special vocabulary and usages of a scientific, professional, or
other group: "his total mastery of screen language camera
placement, editing and his handling of actors" (Jack Kroll).
5. A characteristic style of speech or writing: Shakespearean
6. A particular manner of expression: profane language; persuasive
World Health Organization:
The word gender is used to
describe the characteristics,
roles and responsibilities of
women and men, boys and
girls, which are socially
constructed. Gender is related
to how we are perceived and
expected to think and act as
women and men because of
the way society is organized,
not because of our biological
World Health Organization:
The definition of sexuality is: “A
central aspect of being human
throughout life & encompasses
sex, gender identities and roles,
sexual orientation, eroticism,
and social well-being that relates
to one’s sexuality” (WHO, 2002).
The way people experience and
express sexuality is different for
each individual & can be
psychological, social, cultural,
and religious factors (Southard &
Keller, 2009).
Some facts about Japan:
…”I ask him if he is ‘out’ and he looks at me, moves his head
slightly forward and asks, ‘Pardon?’”
“Are you out of the closet?” I explain.
He shakes his head from side to side a little, leans in and says
slowly, “I’m not gay in Japanese, I’m only gay in English.”
The above excerpt introduces Marlen Elliot Harrison’s “Discovering
Voices,” an examination of language, sexuality, and identity in 21st century
Japan. After living and teaching in Western Japan for 4 years, Harrison
returned to the United States to complete a doctoral program in applied
linguistics. When considering a dissertation topic, he recalled a
conversation in which a friend discussed being gay in one language and
not in another (above) and wanted to further explore why this might be.
By weaving together his own narratives about Japan and sexuality with the
autoethnographic narratives of queer Japanese individuals, Harrison
showcases the intersection between linguistic repertoire and those critical
moments when we conceptualize, reveal, and perform our sexualities.
Many thinkers have urged that large differences in language lead to large
differences in experience and thought: each language embodies a worldview,
with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that
speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways.
This view is sometimes called the Whorf-hypothesis or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, after
the linguists who made it famous. But the label linguistic relativity, which is more
common today, has the advantage that makes it easier to separate the hypothesis from
the details of Whorf's views…
The suggestion that different languages carve the world up in different ways, and that as a
result their speakers think about it differently has a certain appeal.
But questions about the extent and kind of impact that language has on thought are empirical
questions that can only be settled by empirical investigation. And although linguistic relativism is
perhaps the most popular version of descriptive relativism, the conviction and passion of
partisans on both sides of the issue far outrun the available evidence…
(Swoyer, 2003) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
• Do you agree that language has an
effect on cognition?
• Think about how you view the world
and how the languages you use affect
those views…
• Do you ever feel like a different person
when using a second language?
“The most comfortable thing in speaking in English was that I call myself
“I”. In Japanese, there are so many words refer to yourself and it differs
by their sex and age. For instance, women usually call themselves
“Watashi” or “Atashi” or sometimes “Uchi” (Osaka dialect) and men call
themselves “Boku” or “Ore” or “Washi” (older men ). When I was in
Japan, I hated and refused to call myself “Watashi” because I did not
recognize myself as a girl. But I did not want to call myself “Boku”
either because it was too weird. In Canada, the problem was easily
solved. I just call myself “I”. Everybody call themselves “I” regardless of
their sex or age. Through using English, I was able to become “a person
with no sex”. The words “She” or “Her” were kind of new words for
me, so I accepted them naturally. People around me, mostly Canadian,
Hong Konger, Korean never minded what I wore or how I acted. They
accepted me as I was. I was true me in a little town.”
Rika, 36 year old female, English instructor from Osaka, Japan
Three examples:
“On my third day in New York, I met one of my roommates for the
first time. After a while, he asked me if I was gay. I was totally at a
loss but tried to be cool about it and said, “Did I give you a hint? He
said it was just because of my [theater] major. This could never
come up if I had been in Japan and been talking in Japanese. By
saying, “Did I give you a hint? I somehow admitted that I was gay. I
would never reply, “Doushite wakatta no? (How did you know?)” if
someone asked me of my sexuality in Japanese. It’s the language,
atmosphere of New York, and my excitement in the foreign city that
made me admit my sexuality so naturally. I had come out to my
close friends in Japan but that coming out to the roommate I had
just met was by far the smoothest one.”
Akihito, 34 year-old male, university instructor from Nagoya, Japan
“Speaking Japanese put me a hesitation to be honest. It may be
because of my inborn personality, of my childhood experience, or of
my having developed defense mechanism. It was long after I
started studying English when I realized it’s much easier for me to
express my honest feelings in English. Even after having studied
hard, not being perfectly fluent left me a protection because I still
had to intellectually “think” before putting the emotion into words
or words into the emotion. Since I’d found out that English was an
easier way for me to express emotions, I had an obsession to learn
more about it. For quite a long time, I just kept studying without
knowing why I had to study, but it was a path to re-integrate myself,
and probably sexuality resided in the emotional part.”
Katsuya, 28 year old male, mental health counselor from Saitama,
Throughout the narratives and analyses, all of the participantresearchers mention their perception of English-speaking
communities as more accepting of sexual diversity. As such, speech
acts such as the coming out proclamation, are reported to have
been easier or less fearful in non-Japanese communities.
Moreover, English proficiency and the quest for greater proficiency
have been reported by half of the participants to have been
motivating factors to reveal sexuality to others. Yet two other
participants find their motivation to acquire language directly
mediated by their desire to perform their sexualities. In all eight
examples, participant-researchers reported the perception that it is
easier to perform queer sexuality in all of its manifestations in
English-language or non-Japanese environments, supporting
Moore’s (2007) conclusions about extending oneself via
imagination and participation into another community. I have
labeled this phenomenon linguistically-contextual sexual identity.
• You can find these slides by visiting either or
• More on Linguistic Relativity:
– Rethinking Linguistic Relativity
– Linguistic Relativity, Whorf, Linguistic Anthropology
Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison [email protected]

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