Where has “Japanese women’s language” gone?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Miyako Inoue. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.014


Where has “Japanese women’s language” gone?

Notes on language and political economy in the age of control societies

Miyako INOUE, Stanford University

During the 1990s Japan’s economy, inflated by speculation, collapsed and a decades-long recession began. Contributing to this special section that revisits the paradigm of language and political economy, this essay discusses the new semiotic condition that has emerged in postbubble Japanese society. Taking a cue from Gilles Deleuze’s notion of control societies, I will specifically focus on the fate of “Japanese women’s language,” or a set of speech forms exclusively associated with femaleness. This essay will ask what has happened to “women’s language” as the society shifts from disciplinary society (Foucault) to control society (Deleuze).

Keywords: Japan, language and gender, language and political economy, indexicality, control society, Deleuze, Foucault


I conducted fieldwork from 1991 through 1993 in a corporate office in downtown Tokyo, focusing on female managers’ everyday linguistic strategies and their reckoning with the prevailing cultural conception of women’s language (Inoue 2006). Women’s language is a set of speech forms used, or said to be used, by Japanese women and often thought to be rooted in traditional Japanese culture, prior to contact with the West. It is also commonly said to be naturally or seamlessly associated with the “proper” demeanor of “the Japanese woman,” with features including indirectness and circumlocution.1 It was inevitable that women’s language would [152]become a frenetic topic of talk about talk at the time of my fieldwork because of the sweeping changes that were taking place regarding women in the workplace. In 1986, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) was enacted, which actually provided little legal remedy for gender discrimination in the workplace but nonetheless brought significant public and social visibility to working women, for better or for worse, and to their aspirations for professional careers.

The early 1990s was also the beginning of the end of what had been presumed to be an epoch of continuous and reliable Japanese economic growth. This period was thus a critical moment in the transformation of both Japanese political economy and public culture. Across Japanese society, people had to grapple with how “speculation,” as it was critically called in retrospect, had come to replace Fordist productive investment as a new source of superprofits and with how this shift had led to a startling political-economic crisis.

This essay picks up where I left this research on women’s language in the 1990s and examines how discourses and representations of women’s language have changed radically alongside major shifts in Japan’s political economy.2 Since the 1990s, and prompted by Japan’s economic woes, state economic and social policy has embraced full-blown neoliberalism and has enacted a variety of measures that, in effect, govern not only the economy and the work place but also govern the self. In the neoliberal rationality, market logics of competition and efficiency significantly restructured not only economic institutions but also public culture and noneconomic institutions of all kinds. Margaret Thatcher’s (1987) oft-quoted remark, “there is no such a thing as society,” resonates loudly with Japan’s economic, social, educational, and welfare policies made since the 1990s. New or revised laws were enacted to privatize public services (including health insurance, the postal service, and social security) and public utilities. Other policies that individualize risk and responsibility have transformed labor markets and labor policies, media practices and structures (including the Internet), and have reverberated across Japanese cultural practices, as I explore below. In essence, these relentlessly individualizing projects have fundamentally altered the material, infrastructural, and cultural conditions of possibility by which “society” and “the social” are imagined in Japan. Citizens—gendered in ways that specifically fit into long-term growth and speculative bubbles—have been forced to readjust themselves to, and reinvent themselves for, a profoundly new normal of casual and flexible-contract career tracks. Inevitably, new forms of mediated public culture, and new creative imaginaries of the social world of the unprecedented present have emerged, both reflecting and troubling neoliberal common sense.

In this conjuncture, how has the relationship between language and political economy shifted? How has the new condition of the social—one that appears [153]increasingly to dissolve into the “networked,” or as we will see, databased individual—brought about new cultural forms of linguistic and metalinguistic practice and of subject formation? In this article, I sketch some of the forms of linguistic practice that have emerged in postbubble Japanese society in order to consider the historically and culturally grounded modality by which language intersects with political economy. More concretely, I ask, what has happened to “women’s language,” that stereotyped complex of speech forms, which in the 1980s and 1990s had indexed one especially dominant ideal of Japanese femininity? What new sites and new modalities have emerged with regard to the articulation between language and gender in the context of the political economic macrochanges that have shaped Japanese cultural and linguistic possibilities?

My research in the early 1990s was significantly guided by Susan Gal’s (1989) seminal article, “Language and Political Economy,” which continues to remind us not to lose sight of the larger contexts of social formation and of power and history in everyday linguistic practice. This essay will play out one of the threads of Gal’s foundational program by tracing the history of the Japanese discourse on women’s language over the course of the last three decades of radically shifting political-economic conditions.

In particular, Gal argues that the historical (in the sense of the history of struggle over power, as understood in political economy) character and the material conditions of semiosis enter into a dialectical relationship with locally meaningful linguistic practice. According to this view, the historicity of language points to the essential malleability and contingency of linguistic practice and linguistic ideologies, as they are performed in the actually existing world. This “world” also changes as processes and struggles are played out. The state and its agencies, and various interest blocs, actively seek to shape the larger political-economic forces and structures, even within the humble world of language use and ideology, but they never are able to do so just as they please. This kind of history is neither linear nor singular, as Gal would argue.

Calling for the importance of situating linguistic practice in history and in dynamic political economy, Gal’s 1989 piece has urged us to extend the notion of the ethnographic everyday to the scales that go beyond directly observable and recordable face-to-face interactions. This means that media processes and the positioning of actors in class and gender dynamics is as important to linguistic anthropological analysis as recording local interactions. Accordingly, this essay is concerned neither with how actually existing human speakers use (or do not use) women’s language nor with how (or what kind of) language ideology governs women’s language and its reproduction in face-to-face interactions. In other words, my focus is not on the shift in indexical meaning or ideologies of women’s language but on the shift in the semiotic condition in which “women’s language” is produced. Following Gal’s cue, I argue that this shift in semiotic condition is closely tied to the shift in Japanese political economy since the early 1990s. This essay thus foregrounds how women’s language has operated as a simulacrum especially in postbubble Japan, one circulated and produced by the media in its broadest sense, that is, as representational genres, technologies, and institutions. The framing of women’s language as simulacrum unmoors us from assumptions about indexicalization that present “women’s language” as originating from a speaking body and its interiority and instead highlights the contingency of the mode of semiotic dissemination.[154]

As a copy of a copy, “women’s language” accrues its value by bringing into social circulation diverse reflexive enactments under a specific historical condition. Asif Agha (2003; also see Irvine 1990; Silverstein 2003) calls such social life of linguistic valuation “enregisterment,” a process by which particular patterns of speaking come to be socially recognized as characteristic of some social type. Enregisterment is a powerful normalizing force that culturally coordinates the affective and the social through practices of typification that often imply fictitious origin narratives repeatedly and widely uttered or tacitly presumed. That is, enregisterment always exceeds the social realities that are purportedly typified. Indeed, one could argue that the process of enregisterment necessarily entails the formation of a historically situated “characterlogial figure” (Agha 2007; Goffman 1974: Hastings and Manning 2004; Johnstone forthcoming; Nozawa 2013). Here I will explore the specific historical and political-economic conditions in postbubble Japan of the early 1990s and after, in which the very nature of the figuration of such a semiotically assembled character has been shifting with the emergence of new sites and new modalities of the articulation between language and gender and of the indexical order that governs such articulation.

The timeliness of Gal’s 1989 article thus cannot be overstated when one recognizes the advent of technological development driven by post-Fordist globalization, which began significantly to expand the sites and modes of linguistic practice and of subject formation. For example, Mark Poster (1990: 15), whose book, The Mode of Information, appeared at almost the same time as Gal’s article, examined how new modes of communication enabled by computer technologies in the media, electronic writing, surveillance, and databases radically transformed the subject of communication, which is now dispersed and decentralized across social space. Anticipating the age of the Internet, Poster thus observed, “The body then is no longer an effective limit of the subject’s position.” Media discourse and mediated expressive culture are thus not external either to political economy as mere superstructure or to the subjecthood of the historical actor as mere representation.

It was Gilles Deleuze who discussed the emergence of a new mode of power in the coming age of the Internet, again, around the same time as Gal’s article. Deleuze’s essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (1992), portentously outlined the contemporary world of global capitalism and networks enabled by computer technologies. I take societies of control not as a specific form of power that “causes” the effects I describe in this essay but as establishing a general horizon of change, or a platform of potentiality, which alerts us to what to look for, or at what level to look, in making sense of the “culture change” attending postbubble Japan.

Deleuze’s society of control foregrounds new techniques enabled by digital technologies to produce the individual and the social, which have great affinity with, or perhaps are instrumental in, neoliberal political economy. Such technologies also give rise to a new architecture of knowledge that significantly departs from that which operates in the disciplinary society as Michel Foucault (1977) described. The idea of a new mode of knowledge production allows us to ask about a possible new relationship between language and political economy. In order to make my argument, I will step back a little to the late 1980s, at the apex of Japan’s bubble culture and economy, and highlight how what emerged in Japan’s political economy and public culture in the early 1990s would have been unrecognizable a decade earlier.[155]

The culture of Japan’s bubble economy and the return of ojō-sama

While all economic indicators showed that Japan’s rate of growth was declining in the late 1980s, investment and personal consumption had not yet caught up with the reality of the downward bending growth curve. On the street, young women’s fashion reflected their consumption-fueled, defiant claim to public space. Clad in oversized jackets accentuated with assertively broad padded shoulders, young women strode public space confidently with the upper part of their bangs curled up outwardly—“tosaka hair” or “cockscomb hair.” At the office where I conducted my research, everyday signs of the “well off ” were not hard to observe. Cheers for one of the section chiefs who finally bought his dream “mansion” (an English-borrowed term inflated to refer to a condominium) for one hundred million yen (=$1 million); the uninterrupted cycle of reciprocity in supplying and distributing souvenir sweets brought by young female workers from their overseas vacations, thanks to the strong yen; 5000-yen lunch at high-end restaurants. And, yet, most importantly, male employees’ unclouded confidence in the upward trajectories of their lives and careers could not be claimed for most women. For some women, temporary employment was in fact a choice, not a compromise, for they were able to imagine life trajectories beyond the workplace—studying abroad, pursuing their passion for hobbies, activism—while living on the wages of temporary workers. Marriage was still a viable option for women who wanted to quit their jobs and stay home at least for a while. It was not impossible for a couple to contemplate living comfortably on the single income of the white-collar husband. The tax law also steered married women into not taking a full- or part-time job that would require long hours of working; as a dependent she would qualify for a tax deduction if her annual salary stayed below 103,0000 yen ($13,000). Doing simple math, women would choose to stay home and to benefit from a tax deduction, when they figured that the cost of childcare would offset their already modest margin above $13,000. In my field site, this was one of the frequent lunchtime topics among female workers. There were thus multiple incentives for a woman not to pursue her career ambitions.

“Bubble economy” is the retrospective designation of the illusionary exuberance of an upward bending curve of economic growth and prosperity based on inflated asset prices and speculative investments in real estate. During Japan’s bubble economy, everyday life and consumption was shaped by anticipation of an even more prosperous future that never came, or what Anna Tsing (2000) calls “the economy of appearance.” To rein in the speculative real estate market, the Bank of Japan and the Ministry of Finance created various measures, but they ended up causing abrupt credit crunches and a crash of stock and property values. While the Nikkei index hit a record high in December 1989, from the first business day of January 1990, the stock price started dropping, which was followed by falling real estate prices in 1991. In 1993, the government officially confirmed that the nation’s economy had indeed entered into recession—which destroyed vast quantities of capital.

Almost like the slight delay in feeling pain after an object falls onto one’s toe, it took time for at least some segments of the society to face the reality of the nation-wide sharp economic downfall and to recognize how everyday life would inevitably be changed in ways that were generally unthinkable in the 1980s. Toward the end of [156]my research, I heard rumors about the major restructuring of the company, which would involve a drastic reconsolidation of its assets by selling its building in Tokyo (at a very bad time to sell real estate) and the reorganization of divisions, merging some with other companies and closing others. All this entailed a significant number of layoffs and early retirements. By the time I finished my fieldwork, all the rumors had come to pass, and I essentially lost my “village,” my field site, to return to for ethnographic follow-up.

The economic history just surveyed took place in the context of the EEOL of 1986. The law was less a driver of change than a reflection of a new place for women in the era of steady economy growth. The labor market opened opportunities for women,3 and the consumer market predictably jumped on the renewed regime of women-as-consumers (but now with personal incomes) (Clammer 1997; Skov and Moeran 1995). Working women filled the role as unsparing consumers and skilled discerners of “brands” and other complexly symbolic values inscribed onto commodities. With the unprecedented growth, new consumption spaces now opened up where women had not been seen before, such as golf and horseback riding, and even beer joints of the kind frequented by male workers. The public recognition and endorsement of young women smoking, drinking, and gambling was taken as a legible sign of the “rise” of women’s social status—or equality. The EEOL was merely an articulation of this widely recognized and highly visible assemblage of women’s rising disposable income and expanded and reconfigured consumption.

In this context, a rather archaic term, “ojō-sama,” resurfaced in mid-1980s. Ojō-sama originally referred to “a lady” or “a princess,” and was used as a term of address for one’s daughter in wealthy and upper-class families in the prewar period. At that time, Japanese society was stratified largely by two parallel social relations of production: capitalists vs. laborers, and landowners vs. landless peasants. Little socio-economic mobility was possible, and a blunt discourse about naturalized class relations was part of the public script. The front pieces of prewar women’s magazines were routinely filled with photographic portraits of nominal ojō-sama, or daughters of aristocrats, industrialists, politicians, and intellectuals and writers, and college professors (see figure 1).

While the prewar meaning of ojō-sama did not disappear, in the postwar period it came to be used more as a general form to address a young woman, especially on formal occasions such as weddings and even among customers in retail stores. Much of the imagined original connotations of the term were retained: Ojō-sama is innocent and pure, dressed conservatively but always in the best of taste. She grew up with care and advantages, without hardship. Her fair complexion is a sign of her staying in the most inner corner of her grand house away from the windows (i.e., from the mundane world). She might well be fluent in a couple of (European) languages, well-versed in classical music, fine art, and literature, play the piano and tennis, and display the disposition and bodily techniques associated with the habitus of the (imaginary) upper class.[157]

Figure 1
Figure 1: Daughters of Dr. Miyake and their cats. Shufu no tomo 7 (4), April 1913.

From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, the term ojō-sama returned in the media. In 1986, one of the major national newspapers, Asahi Shimbun, ran an article with ojō-sama in its title, the first time since 1937. The 1986 article was titled, “Why ojō-sama boom now?” (Asahi Shimbun, February 5, 1986), and its subtitle asserts: “the status that money can’t buy.” The article discusses how young women were pursuing different kinds of distinction now that they had acquired everything that money could buy (see figure 2). If one knows the Japanese idiom, “hakoiri musume,” literally meaning, “a boxed daughter,” a young woman carefully sheltered from the secular world to be raised as “ojō-sama, he or she would recognize Figure 2 as a mockery of those women competing to get inside the box, belatedly [158]to be sheltered and thus to become ojō-sama. In other words, ojō-sama returned as cultural capital in the gendered intraclass competition for eligible marriage partners at a time when it was presumed that “all-Japanese-are-middle-class.”

Figure 2
Figure 2: “Why ojō-sama boom now?” Asahi Shimbun, February 5, 1986. Illustration by the artist, Satoshi Tsunoda, used with permission.

A series of featured articles titled, for example, “From today, *You* can be an ojō-sama, too!” (“Non-no,” January 1986), and “The manners of ojō-sama that nobody has ever taught before” (“Young Lady,” December 1985), was carried in women’s magazines and especially fashion magazines one after another, offering the reader tips about etiquette, clothes (“konsaba4), and accessories, and color-coordination that would make her look like ojō-sama. Figure 3 is an illustration attached to an article titled, “The ultimate tama no koshi: “‘My Fair Lady’ syndrome.” Tama no koshi literally means, “a palanquin set with jewels,” an idiom referring to a woman who successfully married up. The illustration shows the young woman’s spectacular transformation into “ojō-sama,” with her mastery of the upper-class woman’s tight lipped laughter, “ho ho ho ho.” She is flanked by her non–middle-class parents, signaled by their nonstandard speech forms attached to their image, admiringly [159]look up her. Her mother exclaims, “Look, Daddy!” and her father declares, “Our daughter is now a fine ojō-sama.”

Figure 3
Figure 3: Ultimate “tama no koshi” (“a palanquin set with jewels”): “My Fair Lady” syndrome. Shūkan gendai 31 (3): 194–97, Kōdansha, July 1989. Illustration by the artist, Seisuke Ōkawa, used with permission.

Media incited the reader’s imagination of the habitus of the young woman from a wealthy family: refined comportment, proper decorum, nobility (on the kind associated with character, not breeding), and feminine diction. Of course, women understood that such dispositions would require, as Pierre Bourdieu would point out, not just recognizing oneself as ojō-sama but sustained time to work on one’s body in order to internalize the acquired tastes and thus to make them her second nature: talents in fields of endeavor such as flower arrangement, the tea-ceremony, calligraphy, the piano, proper bowing, walking, chopstick-handling, and speaking. All these constitute cultural capital because they represent the habitus of the privileged, and add up to the indexical presentation of, and reminder of, “the whole past of which it is the product” (Bourdieu 1984: 56). In this case, what is at stake is the [160]whole past of the admired and privileged woman. The aura of ojō-sama derives from the normative narrative that it is a product of the irreversible and inimitable historical duration of time, only through which one can acquire it; its claim is that it cannot be simply bought but must be, like taste, practiced, cultivated, and lived in to be real. It is the embodied trace of the multiple generations of the accumulation of wealth and prestige that have been passed down to her. Nobility, gentility, and grace, are, in a word, “priceless,” or at least being presented that way.

Bourdieu’s account of the habitus itself is a normative narrative in its insistence that the acquisition of a habitus requires a lifetime, or at least a childhood. We need to think beyond it. Precisely because one’s habitus paradoxically erases its own history of difficult learning and acquisition on the part of the bearer, it naturalizes itself as if its bearer were born or otherwise equipped; this is how the social reproduction of “distinction”—read “inequality”—works. But as soon as the indexical relationship is established between the figure of ojō-sama and the commodities associated with her, the commodities as sign replace ojō-sama as the referent, and this reverse-engineering is the semiotic strategy—social distinction through consumption—of class mobility for women. In other words, the “form of appearance” (Marx) of the habitus of elites becomes an “iconized” sign (specific forms of consumption) that no longer necessitate any indexical ties to concrete life lived in a family of wealth and distinction; an upper-class habitus appears in the consumption of the commodities themselves. This is the origin of conspicuous consumption. The habitus’ erasure of the history of its acquisition is thus deeply complicit with, and is the function of, commodity fetishism, mobilized by those seeking class distinction through “sign value” (Baudrillard 1981). Regardless of one’s real past, habitus can be a stated presentation of self without the concrete class background to which it was indexically linked. The commodity system of signs cannot distinguish a fake ojō-sama as long as the appropriate signs can be bought and paid for. A Hermes handbag is indifferent to whether its owner purchased it with a one-time payment on her credit card supplied by her wealthy father, or with a ten-year loan at a pawnshop.

The return of ojō-sama in the middle of Japan’s intoxicating bubble culture coincided with the intensive media coverage of Crown Prince Naruhito’s search for a wife in 1986 and 1987. Marrying into the Imperial Household is marrying into the ultimate upper-class family. A handful of young women, including the one who would become Princess Masako, became the targets of intense media speculation as potential candidates, all of whom were descendants of renowned families whose wealth and power had been accumulated prior to World War II, and for some, even further back in history (Lebra 1993). Against the images of ojō-sama-cum-commodities, paparazzi photographs in magazines showed those young women (surprisingly, given the florescence of public culture about ojō-sama) dressed in simple and unassuming attire, and rather nonglamorous fashions, as if they did not have immense wealth. It gave people a rare glimpse of the existence of the upper class, which would otherwise be invisible in postwar Japanese society where class (kaikyū) lost its valence, and the alternative term, “social stratification (kaisō),” implied a promise of fluidity and (upward) mobility across the social hierarchy. Suddenly, old money put new money (or, better, new credit) in a more complex light that undermined the faith in universal middle–class-ness. I recall a conversation [161]with one of my friends, who, responding to the media coverage of the princess candidates, said, “Wow, class indeed exists in Japan!”

The return of ojō-sama also coincided with the time when the EEOL was enacted in 1986. Was it accidental? It appears as though the figure of ojō-sama had to be brought into public to counter the kind of womanhood—that of the independent working woman—that the law represents, even if it has no teeth to bring about social change. Recall figure 2, where young women are represented as competing to get inside the box (the domestic), while the law was supposed to bring them out of the box. The law, in fact, confronts women with the ultimate choice. As the law invites women into the labor market and into “making it” through work, the figure of ojō-sama invites women back into the marriage market, and into “making it” through conspicuous consumption.

And it was not just young women who experienced anxiety, but also their families. A short column dated April 24, 1986, in Asahi Shimbun asked, “Why desire ojō-sama?,” and its answer is most telling about the clash between the two discourses of womanhood in the midst of Japan’s bubble economy. The column’s male writer recounts his informal meeting with a labor union leader at the union’s study group on the EEOL, which had just gone into effect and about which union members felt it was necessary to educate themselves. The union leader confided that his daughter was preparing for an entrance exam for a private junior high school. He went on, “It is not necessarily like the recent, faddish ojō-sama, but I want my daughter to grow up like ojō-sama, and I would like to send her to ojō-sama school, although I am recently thinking that I should reconsider.” Ojō-sama school refers to a female-only school putatively for the daughters of wealthy families because of the pricey tuition. Graduates from such ojō-sama schools are said to constitute a reservoir of future wives and mothers for elite men, a supposedly viable strategy, if one can afford it, to marry up or to reproduce one’s class position. Although not with a clear conscience, still, the labor union leader confesses his desire for his daughter to take what he sees as the shortest path to join the class against which his union is outwardly organizing; this is something that he would not dare to admit in a formal address to his comrades.

Yet, the real social distinction of ojō-sama was not only, or perhaps not so much, about how one could appear like ojō-sama but about how to know whether one is ojō-sama. Knowing the real indexical cues and clues of ojō-sama, without being ensnared by its sign-cum-commodities, was itself a social distinction, a sign that one’s daughter is ojō-sama. And of course insider knowledge is immediately turned into sign-cum-commodities for those who are not insiders, once the media offer it to the reader as (self-help) “information.” How, then, would a distinctively authentic ojō-sama decipher the index of ojō-sama as a genuine display of social distinction? There have always been gauche pretenders, even before World War II, but the “real thing” is always distinct—for those who know what to look for because they live it—from those who try to buy their way in. The ultimate signs are highly local: The name of the (women’s) school, from which not only oneself graduated but also one’s mother and grandmother, the location of one’s residence (the kind of “old” and upper-class neighborhood in which it would be impossible to become established within a single generation), the name of the hospital where one was born, and whether one’s primary physician has served the family for multiple generations, and so on.[162]

But the return of ojō-sama was not ultimately about new money desperately seeking the aura of old money. In postwar democratized Japan, where the existence of class inequality is largely repressed, ojō-sama, the gendered figure of the prewar class of luxury, resurfaced not in its original form of upper-class habitus but as a sign to be deciphered through buying—buying commodities and their symbolic values. Whether or not one can really be an authentic copy of ojō-sama mattered much less. What did matter, and continues to matter, is the allure of ojō-sama both in the economy of fashion as well as in the marriage market, which are indeed real. This is the discursive playing field in which one can fake ojō-sama without irony, without the gap between enunciation and its meaning.

Neoliberalization of Japanese society

The spectacular collapse of the bubble economy immediately started taking its toll in people’s lives. Between 1991 and 2002, the unemployment rate rose from 2.1 percent to 5.4 percent, the record high in postwar Japanese history. Those in the 15 –24 year-old age cohort were hit hardest, with their unemployment rate jumping from 7.0 percent in 1989, and 12.8 percent in 2002 (Japan 2010). But more significantly, deep structural changes in the labor market and employment policies emerged. Beginning in the 1980s, the government and business elites, in the face of the increasing global competition, pushed for fundamental regulatory and policy changes in order to provide a more flexible workforce—easy to hire and easy to layoff. Increasingly apparent was the “unsustainability” of corporate guarantees of lifetime employment and the associated seniority system.

To respond to the business community’s call for labor market deregulation, the government set out to make successive revisions to the 1986 Worker Dispatch Law, which regulated firms’ ability to engage flexible labor provided by third party dispatching agencies. The 2004 revision lifted restrictions on employing flexible labor within all requested sectors and occupations, including, notably, production line work. In addition, between 1990 and 2002, labor laws underwent a series of revisions toward deregulation concerning labor contracts, length of terms, and the privatization of formerly government-run part-time staff employment agencies. It was in 1993 that the first law to regulate part-time workers (Part-Time Employment Act) was enacted, which paved the way to accommodating employers with cheaper and more disposable “human capital.” As a result, since the 1990s, the ratio of irregular employment had increased from 20 percent in 1990 to 28.7 percent in 2002, and by 2011, it had gone up to 35.4 percent.5 While during the bubble economy, the long-suppressed discourse of the upper class reentered into public consciousness through the figure of ojō-sama, in recessionary Japan, the public was confronted with the reality of the lowest social strata of fellow citizens (including those in the prime of their employability) literally starving (with well-publicized death by starvation), homeless, or “working poor”—some dying solitary deaths.[163]

The depth of the “malaise” is reflected in the fact that in the early 2000s, the 1990s were (optimistically, in retrospect) called “the lost decade.” Now, the period of 1990 to 2010 is called “the two lost decades.” The contraction of the economy and the shadow it has cast over the social and cultural has been intensely chronicled by scholars.6 If “postmodern” can be understood as a historical category, then Japan’s postmodernity commenced when economic restructuring induced by crises dealt the final blow to Fordism and birthed neoliberal globalization and Japan’s active participation in the new accumulation strategy, with all the human costs entailed. This new political economic reality brought a kind of popular cynicism and disenchantment to teleologies and grand narratives that previously functioned to provide people with the symbolic world of meaning-making in their lives. The only grand narrative left now is hypertrophic patriarchal nationalism, which continues to inflate by siphoning off people’s resentment and despair, and of course, the neoliberal focus on the self.7

This new cultural condition, and condition of the individual’s relationship to society and the world was also built up by the rise of the Internet. The government publication, “White Paper on National Livelihood” (Japan 2000) designated 1995 as “the first year of the Internet” (intānetto gan’nen) in Japan and it detailed how the Internet had been changing ways in which people connected with each other. Indeed, in its speed and the density of connection that it makes possible, the emergence of the Internet perfectly illustrates David Harvey’s description (1990: 284– 307) of “time-space compression”—the condition of postmodernity as a response to the limits of Fordism. The new modes of sociality and community facilitated by the Internet are, at the same time, new modes of control and government.

In many ways, Internet sociality, with its focus on consumption, has clear parallels with Deleuze’s (1992) idea of societies of control and their subjects. According to Deleuze, policies and practices of free trade, deregulation, and privatization, and their encroachment into the social, firmly ground a distinctive mode of governmentality, a distinct rationality of subjection in which people are no longer molded as in Foucault’s (1977) disciplinary society that confines and disciplines people in the sites such as hospitals, prisons, factories, and schools. Rather, in societies of control, the process of subjection does not end in such institutions, and, instead, people are continuously “checked” (aka “controlled”) (Deleuze 1992; see also Galloway 2006) and modulated with the help of digital and algorithmic technologies. Foucault often suggested that governing could involve a “strategy without a strategist,” but it is Deleuze’s control society in which new zones of constrained freedom (or space for creativity) are most clearly opened up in ways beyond the direct control of the programmers.[164]

And let no reader think that Deleuze’s thesis on “societies of control” has had no impact on Japanese contemporary social thought. It has long inspired Japanese intellectuals (Asada 1984; Azuma 2007; Chiba 2013; Hamano 2008; Sakai 2001, to name a few) to understand how Japan’s seismic socio-economic, technological, and cultural transformation since the early 1990s have resulted in the emergence of the mode of power and control that Deleuze had so precisely predicted. And it is an all too familiar condition in contemporary global political economy—“the economization of everything” (Brown 2015)—that dovetailed with the new technologies of network and networking and underpinned a historically and culturally specific articulation of the social and the economic. It is here we can locate new conceptions of language and of its mediation. In the following section, I will discuss one such site of articulation by focusing on the shifting cultural location of “women’s language” in Japan’s postbubble neoliberal political economy and culture.

Where has women’s language gone?

Since the first “lost decade,” there has been a gradual decline of public commentaries on women’s language in sites of public culture. Here, I am referring to metapragmatic discourses and practices that connect norms, beliefs, ideals, and other disciplinary modes of enunciation about female gender with specific linguistic units, forms, and acts, and am concerned with the historical trajectory of enregisterment. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the discourse of women’s language proliferated with public passion, the effect of which was simultaneously to discipline women as mothers, wives, daughters, and laborers, and at the same time to incentivize and to seduce them with the promise of upward mobility and of aestheticized self-making. The return of the figure of ojō-sama during the bubble economy intensified the commodification and reification of “women’s language” through the publishing genres of the gendered enterprising self, such as self-help literature and etiquette books for marriage and jobs. The availability of such media made it possible (or at least imaginable) to fake ojō-sama with one’s speech. But neither the linguistic strategies nor the metapragmatic discourses were unitary or predictable. Alongside the strategy of using women’s language to “sound like” an ojō-sama, there arose the idea that women’s language (and proper ladies) had disappeared. Anxiety (among both men and women) over women’s apparent mass entry into the workforce inevitably convinced some that both women’s language and women’s virtue was disappearing among contemporary young working women as they became morally corrupt. This linked up with media reporting on “fake” ojō-sama, where women’s emulation of elites was transformed into deceitful impersonation. None of this reportage was any more or less empirically justified than was the worry about “so many” women entering the workforce. We are here in the realm of public imaginaries, not necessarily social patterns.

Since the end of the bubble economy, however, public discourse on women’s language, and on how women (should) speak, has lost steam in the media.8 But [165]this must not to be interpreted to mean that somehow the reign of the indexicality of language and its ability to mark distinction has been diminishing, or that the population of women—in a demographic sense—who speak “women’s language” has been “decreasing.” Nor is it to be taken as any indication that sexism has eased. What I want to ask is how the modality of power to govern the articulation between language and gender has been shifting in the postbubble Japanese political and economic context? Or how has the material and discursive condition that itself makes the indexical relationship between language and gender possible been shifting? In television dramas, play scripts, and manga and anime, the salient forms associated with “women’s language,” especially the utterance-ending forms (“dawa,” “noyo,” “kashira,” for example), continue to be assigned to the speech of female characters as generic. In other words, the linguistic forms in the media-reported speech of women continue to use the “traditional” forms of women’s language. But the metapragmatic realm—which is autonomous from the level of enunciated speech—has changed along with the larger changes in Japan. What is at stake here is not so much about how the meaning of “women’s language” has changed, as about how its epistemological condition of the mode of enregisterment might be changing. Where has women’s language (understood as an assemblage of language ideologies, or talk about talk) gone? And where has ojō-sama gone?

The decades-long recession wilted the motivation and self-discipline to fake ojō-sama. But, ojō-sama has not disappeared, instead she is ironized; she is now pathos. That is, whereas an inauthentic performance of ojō-sama would have been shameful in the 1980s and 1990s, the current ironic figure of ojō-sama plays up its inauthenticity performatively, and resists what she says by how she says it. In the 1990s and after, the character of ojō-sama came to be featured especially in the comedy genres of manga, anime, novels, and TV dramas, where she was often the embodiment of so-called “tsundere,” a developmental disposition that implies a young female character is aloof and standoffish in public (in most cases) toward someone with whom she is in love but in private she is sweet and affectionate with him, or she gradually becomes so in private as she warms up (see figure 4 for an image of an ironized ojō-sama). As Paul de Man (1996: 182) argues, irony, in which the signifier, in its “total arbitrariness,” has no adherence to the signified, “undoes the reflexive and the dialectical model . . . what irony disrupts is precisely that dialectic and that reflexivity, the tropes.” The emergence of the ironized ojō-sama and her ironized “women’s language” thus complicates the normative feedback loop between pragmatics and metapragmatics, as irony frustrates the linguistic ideology that informs the indexical relationship between them and thus interrupts the [166]normative process of enregisterment. It thus foregrounds a different—nondialectical—social-semiotic condition in which they are circulated.9

Figure 4
Figure 4: “Ironized” ojō-sama. “Hoo ho ho ho [ojō-sama laughter]. Can you catch up with this beauty of mine? Hoo ho ho ho.” Shiratori Reiko de gozaimasu [I am Shiratori Reiko]. Vol. 1, page 69, Kōdansha, 1987. Illustration by the artist, Yumiko Suzuki.

Undoing dialectics: “Women’s language” in the database

I suggest that mass ironization, as a nondialectical machine, entails a new epistemological ground that has close affinity with the modality of power that Deleuze (1992) calls the society of control, and with the specific mode of knowledge production it entails, namely, the database. In his interview with Antonio Negri, Deleuze (1990) famously declared, “We’re definitely moving toward ‘control’ societies that [167]are no longer exactly disciplinary.” Deleuze sees the correspondence between a particular historical period and its corresponding technologies, and observes, “Types of machines are easily matched with each type of society. The old societies of sovereignty made use of simple machines—levers, pulley, clocks; but the recent disciplinary societies equipped themselves with machines involving energy . . . ; the societies of control operate with machines of a third type, computers” (1992: 6). So the transition from discipline to control corresponds with that from thermodynamics to cybernetic machines.

Disciplinary society, in Foucault’s well-known analysis, operates on spaces of bodily enclosure such as in the prison, hospital, factory, school, and family home, in which people are disciplined and at the same time individuated into subjects. A society of control operates on “dividuation” rather than individuation, dividing subjects internally into computational parameters. While the language of disciplinary society was analogical, that of the society of control is digital or numeric. Deleuze (1992: 4) thus writes, “[disciplinary enclosures] are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.” A dividual is thus a product of real-time modulation and continuous, automatic adjustment based on ongoing manipulation of data in which the dividual is caught up. In other words, it is no longer a matter of fixed law, rules, or standards externally molding and disciplining an individual. Rather, the algorithm replaces stable norms. A society of control molecularizes the individual, just as some geneticists understand DNA to molecuralize organism, or just as amazon.com knows you and offers you what you did not even realize you wanted based on your ever-changing purchasing record. Parametric flexibility thus goes hand in hand with global capitalism, which seeks an optimal logistics of labor, capital, and the market on an even global level. It is also extremely compatible with today’s Western liberalism and multiculturalism, as a society of control is indifferent to ideology and a dividual is “free” in so far as its biometric and other modulated information is in an array of databases; indeed, “difference” translates to additional, usable data.

If Deleuze’s society of control allows us to understand nondialectics as a new modality of power, we can learn from Hiroki Azuma (2009) its modality of knowledge and worldview in the structure of the database. Azuma (2009) posits the database as a historically distinctive epistemological condition of Japanese “postmodernity” in the 1990s, and the otaku, the quintessential database subject, as its consumer.10 Otaku refers to “those who indulge in forms of subculture strongly linked to anime, video games, computers, science fiction, special-effects films, anime figurines, and so on” (Azuma 2009: 3). Yet, Azuma recognizes the otaku not so much as a demographic group but as the prototype of Japan’s postmodern subject for the way they consume subcultural products. He argues that the “small narratives” the otaku generates around the character in her or his secondary creation in anime, manga, and computer games no longer aspire to be the allegory of, or the path toward, grand narratives. The latter have lost their centralizing authority and force, both because of disruptive postbubble history I mentioned above, and because of [168]the dissolving power of database rationality/subjectivity. The otaku’s desire is no longer to seek meaning dialectically produced between a grand narrative and a local or personal one but rather to be connected to the database itself, along with the entanglements both explicit and implicit. In other words, “meaning,” if any, derives from access to the channel to the database in and of itself. As a result, local narratives of and through the character—narratives assembled by the elements retrieved from the database—proliferate independently of any metanarrative or ideology that would otherwise provide them with meaning. Without feeding dialectically engaging metanarratives, small narratives are also void of intertextuality, as there is no higher level of order that governs and totalizes the paradigmatic relationship among small narratives.

Azuma (2009) contrasts the dialectical “tree model” of knowledge production (Deleuze’s “arborial”) against the nondialectical database, which parallels other well-known distinctions between ideology (Marx) versus discourse (Foucault 1980: 117–18), transcendence versus immanence, and representation versus nonrepresentation. Lev Manovich provides a concise account of how narrative and database operate differently as media forms:

Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other. (Manovich 2001: 218)

The database thus significantly scrambles narrative’s (and ideology’s) temporal ordering. Temporality becomes virtual in the database. Manovich thus contrasts narrative to database on the axis of syntagmatic and paradigmatic.

The elements on a syntagmatic dimension are related in praesentia, while the elements on a paradigmatic dimension are related in absentia. For instance, in the case of a written sentence, the words which comprise it materially exist on a piece of paper, while the paradigmatic sets to which these words belong only exist in writer’s and reader’s minds. . . . Thus, syntagm is explicit and paradigm is implicit; one is real and the other is imagined. New media reverses this relationship. Database (the paradigm) is given material existence, while narrative (the syntagm) is de-materialized. Paradigm is privileged, syntagm is downplayed. Paradigm is real, syntagm is virtual. (Manovich 2001: 218)

As Katherine Hayles (2012: 181–82) points out, in a society of control, it is not that narrative is replaced but that “the position narrative occupies in the culture” has changed. “Global explanations” such as global warming and global economy now require database and database management, while narratives operate in local levels.

To return to my case, to the extent that Japan can be seen through the thesis of a society of control, I am compelled then to ask what happens to women’s language and its enregisterment process when the indexical loop of the grand narrative that reifies it gets stalled by its modern entry into the database structure of knowledge production and consumption, into the nonsequential, paradigmatic stacks of elements. How does the database as an epistemological condition affect the production and consumption of women’s language?[169]

One instructive manifestation of Japanese life in databases is to be found in the world of character-based fan cultures, including what is called “secondary creation” (niji-sōsaku), in which fans create anime, manga, and other expressive media of fan culture as homage to the original work of the character. Participants in these fan cultures anatomize characters from original works of expressive media into discrete elements—such as her or his characteristic eyes, hairstyle, or objects that belong to the character, such as the bag, the shoes, and so on—which are selectively incorporated into secondary creation, a fan’s own creation. The elements newly worked in secondary creation are fed back to the (ever accumulating) paradigmatic repository of the atomized elements, from which other fans create their own work of the character as secondary creation. The way certain parts of the original work of the character are carved out and identified as discrete elements has to do with the arousal of moe, sublime affect, or as Shunsuke Nozawa (2013: 13) astutely sums it up, as “characterological empathy,” toward the part of the character. Those elements are called “moe yōso,” or “moe elements” (Galbraith 2009), which are to be (re)assembled into secondary creation.

Secondary creation is a copy of the original, but as simulacra, copies of copies horizontally proliferate without a hierarchy of authenticity or without a Platonic return to the original as a principle of signification. Accordingly, the ever-growing paradigmatic accumulation of simulacra organizes itself as “database,” a new epistemological architecture, where entities that previously had an organic unity are modulated into arbitrary sets of elements, an open-ended array of variations. In a word, this is a nondialectical worldview and modality of intellection. It is into such a database-like, flat epistemological universe that the simulacrum of “women’s language” has recently been populated as a discrete “moe element,” which is thus recombinable with other elements that induce “characterological empathy.”

Women’s language still appears in the reported speech of the fictional characters that ubiquitously appear in novels, manga, anime, and scripts, newspaper and magazine headlines, or in principle, any text—as was the case when I did my fieldwork in the early 1990s, before the recession had sunk in. And, as I mentioned, women’s language is still produced in speech by real women, and the metapragmatics of women’s language that I examined in Vicarious Language (Inoue 2006) still depends upon the form’s indexical relationship with class, age, region, social roles, disposition, and habitus that are encoded in the universal referent of “women.” But I am arguing that another level of the “meaning” of women’s language has appeared, a level at which meaning, if we can call it that, has escaped the mode of indexicality as pointing to reality and entered into the recombinant vortex of the database.

This database transforms the very nature of “woman”—in the flesh, in fiction, or in second life—into “kyara,” which came from the English word “character,” a character designed and created in anime, manga, games, and other popular culture products, like Hello Kitty. The character is given social attributes and personalities and ultimately takes on its own life—even in fiction—as if it were an autonomous subject. And yet when the character itself becomes the object of moe, it is immediately disassembled into moe elements, which are then fed into the database. Azuma (2009: 52–53) observes, for example, that the late 1990s’ profusion of characters that closely resembled Ayanami Rei, the celebrated female character in Neon Genesis Evangelion, can be better understood neither as copy infringement cases [170]nor signs of the extent to which Neon Genesis Evangelion influenced their authors. Rather, he argues, it marks the new “databased” production and consumption of the character, in which moe elements extracted from a character (Ayanami Rei), such as “quiet personality, blue hair, white skin, mysterious power,” and registered in the database, from which otaku-consumers-producers “read up” (yomikomu) selective elements to create their own characters. Such secondary creations (niji sōsaku), as simulacrum further produce simulacra as their moe elements, are fed into the database. In this process, at the level of the database, the original character’s (Ayanami Rei’s) narrative or indexical tie to the original work (Neon Genesis Evangelion) fails to ensure its “identity.” Identity would require a (humble) grand narrative that centers it and provides it with a meaningful (fictional) social network. Rather, the character “Ayanami Rei” gets molecularized as a bundle of moe elements and a set of data, just like Deleuze’s control society disjoints individuals into bits of information for big data and algorithmically constructs their fleeting and momentary identities that are constantly shifting as the database collects more data and is put to new uses.

The database consumption thus modularized women’s language as a moe element, often as the speech for ojō-sama, as a kyara. Her reported speech co-occurs with other modular elements such as “drilled-like blond curled hair” (kinpatsu doriru),11 the highhanded distinctive laughter (“ho ho ho”), and a flipped hand half covering her mouth, as well as her gothic-style fashion (Gagné 2008). My point is to identify a new level, the paradigmatic formation of “women’s language” in the new database epistemological opening, juxtaposed along with other interchangeable variations, and recombined as a moe element with other moe elements, where what matters is the simulated difference among the variations.12 Since these fleeting images are not capable of being fed back into grand narratives, they have neither history nor politics. The image simply sticks to the surface of the character—like hair or eye color—and is neither to be internalized nor concerned very much with subjectivity. Or rather, subjectivity emerges in new, modular forms. I mean here but the imagined subjectivity of the kyara, and the ongoing, emergent subjectivity of her or his creator and viewers.

Modularity afforded by the database is not simply a form of popular culture consumption; there is an historical conjuncture at issue here. As Aihwa Ong (2006) notes, modularization centrally characterizes political-economic neoliberalism and globalization. Some Japanese scholars observe that children are becoming kyara in their everyday peer communication, although this is also the case with [171]adults. Takayoshi Doi (2009), for example, described how children develop their own identities through their kyara communication with peers in para–face-to-face situations via social media, or on keitai (the cellphone), in which they give each other legible social attributes and perform them—the teaser, the joker, and so on. Unlike older forms of “identity,” kyara attributes are instantly changeable, like clothes. One can voluntarily modify her or his kyara or take on a totally new kyara. And yet in the actual power dynamics of the peer relationship, some children are forced to perform a kyara, just so as not to be outcast from their circles. Again, we see the power of the apparatus at work in the database world of the present.

Recent Japanese sociolinguistic studies also focus on the robust enregisterment of kyara-like language use in popular culture, which Satoshi Kinsui (2007) calls “yakuwari-go,” role-based language, hyperregisters assigned to fictional characters. Stereotypical utterance-ending forms appear in manga and anime that are assigned not only to the characters of women and men but also those of elderly people, peasants, scientists, feudal lords, and samurai, et cetera. Well-known anime characters are also distinguished by their signature utterance-ending forms, to the extent that hearing a particular ending form immediately reminds one of the specific anime character. The fact that Japanese scholars have recently noticed this, and are focusing attention on it, is an additional indication that a new form of subject-making (entangled with the linguistic) is in play in Japan.

Previous Japanese studies of fictional characters and their language use were based on the premise that speech styles assigned to such characters more or less reflected the reality of the world and language. New scholarship on “yakuwari-go” is premised on the assumption that no real elderly man, for example, would speak like his counterpart in the manga, or that very few women may actually speak women’s language. In other words, scholars have decidedly moved beyond the “realist” (indexical) understanding of the relationship between fiction and reality, and instead recognize fictional language as autonomous, itself playing roles within the fictional world. This new body of scholarship reminds us that sociolinguistic studies of characters could potentially be vulnerable to, and complicit with, the politics of simulation that underwrites database epistemology as a new form of individual, personal “freedom.” It cancels out the dialectics of power relations and history in the production and consumption of fictional language.

Indeed, the flattening of the landscape of power relations and the collapsing of history—two of the central consequences of the database epistemology—are particularly pronounced in scholars’ discussion of regional dialects and their becoming-kyara. Yukari Tanaka (2011) observes that there has been much less stigma attached to regional dialects, and that nondialect speakers (for example, in Tokyo) are freely deploying dialect forms in their email as well as in face-to-face communication. Just like cosplay, in which fans dress up like their favorite characters from manga, anime, films, and novels, Tanaka argues, nondialect speakers use dialect forms to create their own kyara and change it by trying different regional dialects. Tanaka also notes that students in her classes who came to Tokyo from regional areas for college feel more positive about their dialects and less stigmatized when they realize their nondialect-speaker peers are liberally using dialect forms.

We can perhaps call such arguments sociolinguistic neoliberal multiculturalism, in which linguistic difference whether in fiction or reality is imaginatively [172]reconfigured to be pure difference that is flexibly embedded in new contexts and is available to anyone and to any use. Scholarly knowledge production of language itself is thus deeply subscribed to the database epistemology, which turns language into flat surfaces of kyara.


In this essay, I have discussed that neoliberal Japan has witnessed the arrival of a Deleuzean society of control, in which database epistemology and consumption have the potential to undermine the prevailing metapragmatic framing of speech forms and their indexical relationship with social identities. Let me go back to my initial observation about the seeming disappearance of critical public commentaries on women’s language. If we subscribe to Deleuze’s societies of control thesis and its conception of the dividuated subject and the collapse of dialectial knowledge, what new modes of the linkage between language and identity on the one hand, and language and ideology, on the other hand, might emerge? What would be the relationship between language and the modular self? The decline of the public disciplinary discourse of women’s language unmoors women’s language from historical narratives (whichever versions one might like), and undermines the register’s second order of indexicality. In consequence, women’s language, as a socially recognized set of speech forms, no longer necessarily indexes ideal femininity (e.g., ojō-sama) as a category. Here, we could entertain the theoretical possibility of “regression,” the indexicality of women’s language falling back from the second order of indexicality in the domain of the social (gender, class, and other potential social meanings), to the first order of indexicality, the domain of affect, or, to be more precise, that of the virtual.

This essay wants to insist on the continuing interrogation of the relationship between language and political economy, understood as a moving target. It also insists on the importance of paying attention to the epistemological condition beyond understanding meanings produced by linguistic practice, which sets the historically specific terms in which language can shape and be shaped by political economy. The global reach of neoliberalism and its accelerated encroachment upon the social and the cultural has warped and eclipsed the vocabulary of freedom, agency, and resistance, which has lent people ways of framing their discourse that (only) seem to rise above systems of domination and inequality. The Deleuzian society of control urges us to deeply doubt the distinction between “freedom” and “control,” as Foucault meant to do with his concept of subjection. Complexity that confronts us lies not just on the level of meaning-making, but at the level of epistemological grounding and its history.


I sincerely thank Michael Lambek and Andy Graan for their careful readings of my essay and their insightful suggestions to make it better. I also thank Ilana Gershon and Paul Manning for their critical feedback on this essay. This essay is for Sue Gal.[173]


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Qu’est donc devenu le “langage féminin japonais”?: Remarques sur l’économie politique et le langage à l’ère des sociétés de contrôle

Résumé : Les années 1990 constituèrent un tournant pour le Japon: son économie victime de l’inflation s’y effondra à cause de de la spéculation et subit des décennies de récession. Cette contribution au dossier spécial qui revisite le paradigme de l’économie politique et du langage étudie la nouvelle condition sémiotique de la société japonaise, dont l’émergence coïncide avec la fin de la bulle spéculative. S’inspirant de la notion Deleuzienne de société de contrôle, je m’intéresse tout particulièrement au destin du “langage féminin japonais”, un ensemble de formes langagières associées exclusivement à la féminité. Cet essai s’interroge sur ce qu’il est advenu du “langage féminin” alors que la société amorçait une transition de société disciplinaire (Foucault) à société de contrôle (Deleuze).

Miyako INOUE is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, where she teaches linguistic anthropology and Japanese anthropology. She is completing a book manuscript on a social history of “verbatim” in Japanese, tracing the historical development of the Japanese shorthand technique used in the Diet for its proceedings since the late 19th century, and of the stenographic typewriter introduced to the Japanese court for the trial record after WWII. It asks what it means to be faithful to others by copying their speech, and how the politico-semiotic rationality of stenographic fidelity can be understood as a technology of liberal governance.

Miyako Inoue
Department of Anthropology
Stanford University
Stanford, CA


1. See also Shibamoto-Smith (1985) and Okamoto and Shibamoto-Smith (2004). For a comprehensive history of the subject of Japanese women’s language, see Nakamura (2014).

2. Gender and labor has continued to be my central research focus in Japan, and I am currently working on the politics of inscription labor by stenographers—who are almost all female—in Japanese courts and parliament. While their work involves specialized skills, their hopes and aspirations, as well as their relationships, took form in the context of the postbubble economy. The conceptual framework for my current project is thus critically informed by the contrast between their situation and the political-economic and cultural context of my informants in the early 1990s.

3. For cogent sociological analyses of gender politics in the workplace and in the labor market during this period of high economic growth, see Brinton (1993) and Ogasawara (1998).

4. For a thoughtful analysis of the fashion style landscape in urban Japanese society in the 1990s, see Laura Miller (2006). See also Gabriella Lukács (2010) on the vital role of the media representations of womanhood in the 1990s.

5. Survey of the Employment Structure (Survey of the Youth Employment), Ministry of Welfare and Labor, 2014. http://www.mhlw.go.jp/toukei/list/dl/4-21c-jyakunenkoyou-h25_01.pdf

6. For further critical reflection and discussions on postrecessionary Japanese society, see Allison (2013); Arai (2016); Ishida and Slater (2009); Miyazaki (2013); Satsuka (2015); and Yoda and Harootunian (2006).

7. For the government and some segments of civil society, nationalism was the spiritual remedy for the recession. The urgency of national unity was sought by the reactivation of geopolitical tensions in East Asia, resistance to official admission of war responsibilities, the depoliticized recognition of ethnic minorities as “cultural” difference, and (neo)liberalism’s backlash against feminism (Ueno 2006).

8. Although my argument is not based on quantitative data, some recent studies on linguistic ideologies of gender difference in Japanese language could as well be interpreted to validate the direction that this essay is pointing to. Kuniki Satake’s (2005) comprehensive analysis on the postwar shift in the number of newspaper articles on linguistic norms of female and male speech, based on the data base compiled by the National Institute for Japanese Language, shows that it spiked to 224 articles in the 1980s from 138 articles in the 1970s, which sharply decline almost by half with 114 articles in the 1990s. Using the same database by the National Institute of Japanese Language, Shoko Masuda (2012) also looks at the shift in the number of articles on “language corruption” [kotoba no midare], which is often about women’s language use, and notes its decline in the 1990s.

9. Irony as an expression of something nondialectical also permeated as a neoliberal ethos that is best represented in the act of “oriru,” (“to withdraw from” or “to disqualify oneself from”), a widely and intensely circulated phrase in the 1990s and onward to declare one’s voluntary withdrawal from social competitions and the responsibilization of the individual implied (Inoue forthcoming). See also Kitada Akihiro (2005: 114–15) who makes a compelling argument about cynicism as a framing device mobilized in communication among contemporary Japanese youth.

10. See also Thomas Lamarre (2004) and Marc Yamada (2013) for an instructive introduction to the concept of the database in Japanese postmodern culture.

11. See, for example, the images of kinpatsu doriru at https://matome.naver.jp/ odai/2142248294808535201.

12. Here is where we can see how the difference between Deleuzean (post)structuralism differs from structuralism in terms of the concept of difference. Structuralism produces value in negativity, or in the space between the designated elements (phonemes, for example) that constitute the oppositional and binary relation. Structuralism can say what it is only by saying what it is not. Deleuze’s (1994) concept of difference operates on “positivity,” or on the difference that the elements self-produce without relying on the relation of opposition, in which variations are not reduced to the structural position the original (Platonic Ideas) occupies. Instead, variations are treated as simulacra, copies of copies, for which the distinction between the original and the copy fails.