The Listening Subject of Japanese Modernity and His Auditory Double

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From approximately 1887 through World War 1, a surge of commentaries were written and circulated in the Japanese print media about the "strange" and "unpleasant" (mimizawarina) sounds issuing from the mouths of schoolgirls. Male intellectuals of various affiliations located the source of their dismay in verb-ending forms such as texo, noxo, dawa that occurred at the end of schoolgirl utterances. They called such speech forms "schoolgirl speech" (jogakuseiko- toba). It was jarring to their ears; it sounded vulgar and low class; its prosodic features were described as "fast," "contracting," and "bouncing with a rising intonation": and it was condemned as "sugary and shallow." Using the newly available modern textual space of "reported speech" (Voloshinov 1973), male intellectuals cited what they scornfully referred to as "teyo-dawa speech" (texo- duwii kotoba) in an effort to convince parents and educators to discourage it as a corrupt form of speaking. The irony here is that main of the speech forms then identified as schoolgirl speech are today associated with "women s language," or the "feminine" speech style, indexing the figure of the generic urban middle-class woman. The contemporary discourse of Japanese women's language erases this historical emergence from social memory to construct women's language as an essential and timeless part of culture and tradition. Public opinion, responding to a perceived social change toward gender equity recurrently deplores what once again is described as linguistic corruption and the cultural loss of an authentic women's language.

Shueisha Inc., "Jogakusei in Taisho Period." via

Editorial Footnotes

About the Author

(Uploaded from her Stanford University Profile)

Miyako Inoue teaches linguistic anthropology and the anthropology of Japan. She also has a courtesy appoitment with the Department of Linguistics. Her book, titled, Vicarious Language: the Political Economy of Gender and Speech in Japan (University of California Press), examines a phenomenon commonly called "women's language" in Japanese modern society, and offers a genealogy showing its critical linkage with Japan's national and capitalist modernity. Professor Inoue's articles include "The Listening Subject of Japanese Modernity and His Auditory Double: Citing, Sighting, and Siting the Modern Japanese Woman" (2003), and "What does Language Remember?: Indexical Order and the Naturalized History of Japanese Women" (2003).

Additional Work by the Author


Inoue, Miyako. Vicarious Language : Gender and Linguistic Modernity In Japan. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2006.


"Stenography and Ventriloquism in Late Nineteenth Century Japan." Language & Communication 31.3 (2011).

"Things that Speak: Peirce, Benjamin, and the Kinesthetics of Commodity Advertisement in Japanese Women's Magazines, 1900 to the 1930s." Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, 15.3 (2007).

"Language and Gender in an Age of Neoliberalism." Gender and Language 1.1 (2007).

"Temporality and Historicity in and through Linguistic Ideology." Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14.1 (2004).

"What does Language Remember?: Indexical Inversion and the Naturalized History of Japanese Women." Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14.1 (2004).

"Speech without a Speaking Body: "Japanese Women's Language" in Translation." Language & Communication 23.3 (2003).

Toyohara Chikanobu, "A Young Woman Practicing the Kanji." via

Related Readings

Eitan Wilf. "Sincerity Versus Self-Expression: Modern Creative Agency and the Materiality of Semiotic Forms." Cultural Anthropology 26.3 (2011).

Francis Cody. "Inscribing Subjects to Citizenship: Petitions, Literary Activism, and the Performativity of Signature in Rural Tamil India." Cultural Anthropology 24.3 (2009).

Paul Hanson. "Governmentality, Language Ideology, and the Production of Needs in Malagasy Conservation and Development." Cultural Anthropology 22.7 (2007).

Sonja Luehrmann. "The Modernity of Manual Reproduction: Soviet Propaganda and the Creative Life of Ideology." Cultural Anthropology 26.3 (2011).

Webb Keane. "Knowing One's Place: National Langauge and the Idea of the Local in Eastern Indonesia." Cultural Anthropology 12.1 (1997).  

Editorial Overview

On the face of it, language may seem innocent enough—nothing but a passive and transparent means of communication: a convenient way to transmit a “message” from one person to another. Yet closer inspection reveals that language involves much more than this; language actively creates social worlds, identities and relationships. It does not passively reflect on a pre-given world, but actively fashions it according to historical conventions. And, as Pierre Bourdieu points out, language also reproduces social relations of dominance and inequality; it is intimately bound to the production of subalternity: to the making of social relationships which are structured in dominance.

Miyako Inoue’s essay, “The Listening Subject of Japanese Modernity,” critically examines the relationships between language, identity and subalternity. It documents the construction of Japanese modernity by focusing on what was then called “school-girl speech”: a type of speech that emerged among upwardly mobile women as they gained access to higher education. School-girl speech was characterized by certain grammatical and stylistic features, not unlike “slang” is today. Many elite male intellectuals at the time found the features of this speech to be extremely troublesome and were highly critical of it.

Inoue’s essay carefully analyzes the political implications of their expressed disgust. She unpacks the ways in which this category—“school-girl speech”—became the stigmatized Other in relation to which the modern Japanese male intellectuals’ sense of self was produced and consolidated. She shows how the intellectuals’ criticisms of this speech form aligned modernity and reason with figures of the masculine while the irrational was aligned with those of the feminine. And she explains how school-girl speech worked as an “index” of women’s purported irrational and depraved character. “Senseless” speech was seen as an expression of senseless individuals.

In addition to the rich historical material Inoue’s essay provides, it also sheds light on the relationship between language, power and subalternity. Her analysis gives a concrete example of how ideology works though indexical inversion. And the questions she raises are certainly relevant today: who can speak, using which language, and expect to be heard and respected by others? What kind of language gives individuals access to an ostensibly free and democratic civil society while necessarily excluding Others to an exterior domain of the irrational--of that which cannot be heard?

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