A Sample Research Proposal

Two aspects of Japanese sentence final expressions in relation to gender: expressing modality and constructing stereotypes

Summary of the research

This project examines the speech of Japanese women and men. Japanese is known to exhibit different speech styles between women and men, which is most apparent in the choice of sentence ending form. This form can indicate the gender of the speaker as well as the attitude of the speaker. The literature suggests that male ending choices are often perceived as sounding vulgar and enforcing solidarity; therefore, women are not expected to use these forms. On the other hand, female ending choices are polite, indirect, less assertive, and soft sounding. These features, especially the lack of assertiveness, encour­age the addressees participating in the conversation, allowing the conversation to be carried out cooperatively.

As some of these ending forms strongly suggest femininity or masculinity, they are often used to depict stereotypical women and men. These endings are found in all manner of scripted conversations as well as very casual conversa- tion-style writing, such as novels, film scripts, advertisements and magazine articles. In those written conversations, women are consistently enforcing their femininity and men their masculinity with the ending forms. However, according to recent studies, gender-related forms are not used as frequently in actual conversation as they are seen in written texts, and some are even disap­pearing. Moreover, cross-gender usage has been observed.

This project will investigate the current usage of the gender-related forms by young Japanese women and men, in particular, the function, frequency and circumstance of occurrence of each ending form. Differences between actual language use and the speech style in a planned (scripted) conversation will be discussed including the style employed when quoting others. Then these conversation styles will be compared to determine the gender identity in Japanese culture presented by the different speech style.

 Purpose of the research

The purpose of the research is to clarify the function of gender-related sen­tence final expressions, including particles, copulas and morphemes attached to verbs. Instead of describing the normative use of these expressions, the pro­posed study intends to observe how they are actually used by whom and in which context. Then the study will discuss how these expressions are used to construct stereotypes of women and men.

 Relevant background literature

Japanese women’s language attracted people’s attention when Akiko Jugaku published Onna to Nihongo (Women and Japanese) in 1979. Since then, simi­lar to the development of research on women’s language in English, both a ‘difference’ approach and a ‘dominance’ approach has been taken.

Sachiko Ide is playing the leading role in the ‘difference’ approach and argues that language difference between men and women comes from gender role difference rather than the result of men’s dominance. Her interpretation is that women tend to spend more time on socializing with other women, which requires polite forms, while men spend more time at work where they need an efficient language. She also claims that women use women’s language in order to keep their identity. Not only polite expressions but women’s whole language function as equipment to create identity as an woman. Ide’s position is that women are labelling themselves as women by choosing this feminine language.

The ‘Dominance’ approach is most obvious in Katsue Akiba Reynolds’ (1991) work. She claims that the difference between women’s and men’s lan­guage today reflects the Japanese society of the feudal era in which women were viewed as second-class citizens. Although the social structure has changed, the culture which considers that women should be submissive and should talk accordingly has not changed. Keiko Abe (1990) focused on politeness differences and discovered that women’s greetings are regarded as less polite when a man and a woman use the same greeting at work. In other words, women are expected to be more polite than men.

As for sentence final particles (SFP), two methods have been taken. One is an attempt to clarify their function and the reasons why women can use a certain set of particles and men cannot and vice versa. Researchers involved in this task claim that particles used by men are assertive and imply that the speaker takes full responsibility for the statement (McGloin 1991). On the other hand, parti­cles used by women are seen as a tool to avoid being assertive (Ide 1991; McGloin 1991) According to these researchers, women’s lower status and men’s dominance in society are responsible for the different language use. As the younger and the inferior are not allowed to talk in an assertive manner to their counterparts, women are not allowed to talk assertively.

The other approach is to observe the frequency of these particles in real conversation. Researchers engaged in this task record conversations of several people and count how many particles are used. Recent studies have all shown that particles strongly suggesting femininity are becoming less and less pop­ular and that even some particles suggesting masculinity are being used by women (Okamoto 1995).

Research question/s

The aim of this project is to investigate the functions of Japanese sentence final particles and the way they contribute to marking the gender of a speaker. My hypothesis is that there is not much clear distinction between women’s and men’s actual speech in terms of particle use, but stereotypical women’s and men’s speech exists in Japanese society. What makes this stereotypical speech is the connection of some functions of these particles and the stereotypical image of women or men. In order to make this connection clear, the function of each particle should be made clear. The following are the questions to be asked:

  •  Why are particular sentence final expressions associated with gender? What are their functions?
  •  When and how are these sentence final expressions actually used? What are the effects of these expressions?
  •  Is there any agreement among Japanese speakers on the stereotypical use of these gender-related sentence final expressions? Is there any difference between the actual use of these sentence final expressions and the stereo­typical use of them?

Definitions of terms

  •  Sentence Final Expressions: These include sentence final particles, copulas, and style markers such as masu forms.
  •  Sentence Final Particles: These are sometimes referred as inter-personal parti­cles as they are used for smooth communication and are not directly related to the proposition or the message of the utterance. Some of them, specifi­cally, ne, yo, na, and sa can be used in the middle of a sentence. In theory, they can be inserted after any word, or a particle, if a word is followed by a particle. In the present study, however, I will refer to them as sentence final particles as they are found most typically at the sentence final position and behave in the same way as other sentence final particles.
  •  Gender: Whereas sex is a biological term which refers to biological differ­ences between male and female, gender is socially constructed in a given culture — the division of maleness and femaleness which is expected to coincide with the biological division. It also refers to psychological attributes of each division.
  •  Femininity: This comprises attributes that society expects women to have and demonstrate through appearance and behaviour. The term also refers to ‘the other’ as opposed to the norm, which is represented by masculin­ity. Lisa Tuttle (1987) explains this as the result of patriarchal tradition. As society has placed the male at the centre and made women outsiders, ‘femininity is in opposition to whatever is considered to be important civilisation’. The present study is mainly concerned with the former aspect. It will, however, refer to the latter where appropriate.
  •  Masculinity: This comprises attributes that society expects men to have and demonstrate through appearance and behaviour.

Research methodology

  1.  Analysis of gender differences in created conversations such as those that appear in fiction, film scripts and drama scripts.
  2.  Investigation of Japanese people’s overt views towards women’s language through literature.
  3.  Analysis of natural conversations. The conversations will be recorded in Japan, mainly in the Tokyo area, in order to focus on language use in standard Japanese. As the interest of the study is in the current use of sen­tence final particles, not traditional or innovative use, the subjects will be aged between 20 and 40.

Anticipated problems and limitations

There are many variations in both oral and written forms of Japanese lan­guage according to the region, generation, education and so on. Since it is not realistic to cover all variations, this study is limited to the language use of working women and men in Tokyo, whose age is between 20 and 40. However, other variables such as occupation, position at work, and family background may affect the data.

 Significance of the research

The present study proposes to analyse the use of particles in natural conver­sations, with the role in the discourse and the context taken into consideration. Previous studies, regardless of their approach, lack the view­point of discourse and the context in which each sentence is uttered. A language form that indicates the speaker’s attitude should not be discussed only at sentence level. Another problem is the source of the data. In some studies, the sentences discussed are written by the researchers themselves. In other words, the researcher’s judgment reflects their stereotype. Other stud­ies use conversations from works of fiction as the subject of study. Written conversations will not be dealt with as if they were natural conversations because there is no real interaction involved and, again, the writer’s stereo­type plays a big role.

 Ethical considerations

As recordings of natural conversations will be involved, informed consent needs to be obtained. Both oral and written explanation of the study will be given to the informants before the recording. A written form will be signed by the informant to allow the researcher to use the data.

 Timetable for the research

  1.  Literature review

    * data collection from published material
    * preparation for fieldwork

  2.  Fieldwork in Japan

    * library research in Japan
    * transcription and data analysis

  3.  Interpretation and analysis

Resources required for the research

  • a tape recorder
  • a video player
  •  a transcriber
  •  computer software for quantitative and qualitative analysis

Budget costs (for fieldwork)

  •  air fare to Japan
  •  insurance
  •  living costs
  •  audio/video tapes
  •  photocopying
  •  payment of participants


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