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Politically Indirect: Using More Inclusive Japanese Words

Political correctness isn’t limited to the West so pay attention to these Japanese words.

By 6 min read

This article investigating Japanese politically correct terms started its life in the weirdest way. Recently, I’ve noticed that the word 子供こども (child) is starting to be replaced with “子ども” in a lot of documents. I decided to do some research on this trend and one of the first sources I hit upon was an October 2016 News Post Seven article suggesting that the reason was likely an anti-discrimination measure (Japanese).

Wait! What? 子供 is discriminatory?

Apparently — the articles I was reading assured me — it’s because the second kanji in the word is also found in words like そなえる (sacrifice or offer), which is kind of an offensive way to talk about your beloved child.

Further research on the Nikkei website (Japanese) revealed that this may likely be an overreaction by “over-enthusiastic” bloggers and YouTubers. The reason seems to be more about the “look and feel” of the word rather than necessarily politically correct reasons.

(If anyone has any reputable sources to back this story up, please let us know in the comments).

This doesn’t change the fact that a lot of Japanese people were willing to believe that this far-fetched story was true. That’s because recently, Japan has been cautiously experimenting with 言葉狩ことばがり(using words in an appropriate way) and taking steps against 人種差別じんしゅさべつ (discrimination) and so changing a word — even for the most bizarre reasons — was somewhat believable.

While the children themselves are likely not being subjected to extreme political correctness, the words used for the people who look after them may skew that way according to some. Traditionally, kindergarten work was performed by women, but recently a lot of men have been entering the profession. The original terms used for these caregivers were 保母ほぼ for female and 保父ほふ for male kindergarten teachers. However, this was widened to 保育士ほいくし (childminder) as a gender-neutral term that included both genders.

This is indicative of a general trend whereby, much like in the West, there have been efforts to make some careers more inclusive. Intriguingly in Japan, this has manifested itself mostly by getting rid of the female endings to jobs that were traditionally associated with women.

Including women

Originally, 看護婦かんごふ was the most common word for a nurse. As anyone familiar with kanji knows, the final character “婦” is typically feminine as it’s found in words such as 婦人ふじん (lady). It’s counterpart, 看護士かんごし, is the word typically used for a male nurse and has the more masculine “士” ending that is found in such manly words as 武士ぶし (samurai warrior) and 騎士きし (knight). As a result of these different endings, nursing as a career is now simply referred to as 看護師かんごし (note the different, more gender-neutral kanji character at the end).

Once traditional references to nurses started changing, it wasn’t long before other careers followed suit. Much like English-speaking countries, in order to combat falling recruitment numbers, there has been a move away from 助産婦じょさんぷ, for midwife, due to its female ending and toward the more gender-neutral 助産師じょさんし is now more common.

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Japan has followed the English-speaking West in getting rid of the word スチュワーデス (stewardess) and replacing it instead with キャビンアテンダント (cabin attendant), although フライトアテンダント (flight attendant) is also used.

While these terms were changed to be more inclusive for women in the Japanese workplace, other job titles have changed to avoid negative connotations contained within them. A famous example is 小使こづかいさん that used to be the word for a caretaker. This has evolved to 公務員こうむいん (civil servant). The reason for this change is that the characters involved — 小使こづかい — have a meaning closer to that of “small use” or “odd jobs” or “grunt work” in English.

Including foreign people

One of the big challenges for Japan — apart from integrating both women and men into the workplace lexicon in a sensitive way — has been dealing with issues related to immigration. A bizarre example of this was the changing of 肌色はだいろ or the “skin color” tone associated with crayons and pencils. This used to be a pasty pink color, however as times changed this was changed to うすだいだい in an attempt to be inclusive for both Japanese and immigrant families.

This leads to addressing the elephant in the room — 外人がいじん or 外国人がいこくじん — which my colleague Yumi Nakata discussed at length in her GaijinPot post on the word “gaijin.”

There has been a move towards using 外国人 to refer to foreign people living in Japan. The reason for this is that the kanji “外” basically means “outside.” In 外人 it is 人 (the person) who is outside, therefore having a meaning more akin to “outsider” in English, but in 外国人 it is 国 (the country) that’s outside — not the person. A subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.

Invisible Gaijin: Postcards from a Non-Japanese Japanese Person Living in Japan

Another one of the places where old attitudes clash with new ones is with the prefix 在日ざいにち. For the most part, this was attached to Korean immigrants to make compound nouns such as 在日韓国人ざいにちかんこくじん (for South Koreans) and 在日朝鮮人ざいにちちょうせんじん (for North Koreans) who came to Japan to escape the violence associated with the division of Korea — although these days it is often simply used by itself without the suffix.

There has been a slight backlash against the use of 在日 lately as it has a slightly negative connotation that carries the meaning of someone who is only a temporary visitor and not a real person. Instead, 韓国系日本人かんこくけいにほんじん and 朝鮮系日本人ちょうせんけいにほんじん are becoming favored for people who come from Korean roots but now have Japanese nationality — something similar to the way the term Asian American is used for similar groups in the U.S.

Traditionally, the Korean language was also referred to as 韓国語かんこくご. You may have noticed that ハングル語 is becoming more common. This replacement is due to increased recognition of North Koreans and that the word is more inclusive of them as 韓国 is mostly associated with South Koreans.

Including disabled people

Moving from the thorny issues of 在日 to another group that faces a lot of challenges in Japanese society (albeit for different reasons): disabled people.

Take, for example, a backlash an editorial backlash written about in 2016 by popular women’s lifestyle and online news magazine An An (Japanese) against the term 障害者しょうがいしゃ. The reason for the backlash is the first two characters of the word “障害” that mean “an obstacle.” While the intention was likely supposed to mean “a person who faces challenges,” it could also be understood as “obstacle person” — obviously highly offensive. As a result, しょうがいしゃ is becoming more common.

Working Towards a Barrier-Free Japan

While it can be shocking for learners to discover that their idyllic image of Japan as a utopia doesn’t align with reality, it’s worth noting that these 言葉狩り show that the country is trying to address some of these imbalances — even if it’s just at the level of more inclusive vocabulary.

We’d love to hear about your experiences with political correctness in Japan. Do you think the current level is about right? Or is a lot more needed as Japan becomes more international? Let us know in the comments.

We’d love to hear about your experiences with political correctness in Japan. Do you think the current level is about right? Or is a lot more needed as Japan becomes more international? Let us know in the comments.

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