I focus on what is called “women’s language” in Japanese, a set of speech forms associated with femaleness accompanied by specific ideas about the essence of womanhood. While Japanese women’s language has a history associated with modernization, nation-state formation, and capitalist growth–and with the gender relations associated with that history–women’s language also is flexible enough as a language/gender ideology to track specific developmental moments in Japanese political economy. Thus, I will examine how women’s language reproduces gender inequality in the specific context of Japanese society over the last two decades–in the wake of the bubble economy that disappeared in the early 1990s, and the low rate of economic growth every since.
At the peak of the bubble economy from the mid 1980s through early 1990s, the discourse of women’s language proliferated in popular culture, such as mass media targeting women (women’s magazines and TV programs, for example) and the culture of self-help books and workshops. The effect was simultaneously to discipline women as mothers, wives, daughters, and (often informal) workers, and at the same time to incentivize and to seduce them with the promise of upward mobility through aestheticized and consumer self-making.
In the post-bubble economy, however, public discourse on women’s language lost steam in the media. This does not mean that somehow the reign of gender identity in language practice, or its role in marking gender distinction, diminished or that the population of women—in a demographic sense—who speak women’s language decreased. Nor is it to be taken as any indication that sexism has lessened. Rather, I will discuss how the ideology of the relationship between language and gender has shifted in the context of a changed political and economic context. Taking a cue from Gilles Deleuze’s notion of control societies, I will ask what has happened to women’s language as Japan has shifted from disciplinary society (Foucault) to a control society (Deleuze). In control society, language re-emerges as a robust site in which, and by means of which, gender inequality is performed and reproduced. We then need to forge a new mode of critique that undermines and disrupts this new mode of linguistic sexism.