JOK Notebook

"Womansword": A First Look at the 30th Anniversary Edition

I remember loving Kittredge Cherry's book Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women, which examines Japanese words and explains what they reveal about women's role in the culture. I can't recall when or how I discovered this work, and I forgot a lot of the content over the years. But I always retained my admiration for the skillful compression of information into little essays, each taking an incisive look at Japanese culture from a different angle. The essays fall into seven categories: female identity, girlhood, marriage, motherhood, work, sexuality, and aging.

Here's a great example of what Cherry teaches along the way: 

Traditionally, a Japanese woman's appeal was said to reside in an anatomical part that most other nations ignore: the nape (unaji) of the neck. More than breasts, buttock, or legs, the nape exuded sensuality.... The reason ... was simple. The rest of her physique was cloaked by kimono. Even her nape was often hidden beneath her ebony mane, so when a woman put up her hair, it caused the same delicious pitter-pat that Westerners may feel when they spot a woman in a low-cut dress (p. 37). 

Cherry goes on to say that breasts were never sexualized and that agricultural women worked the fields topless "until defeat in World War II brought gawking U.S. soldiers to the country" (p. 38). I had no idea! (I mean, except that I must have read this bit before!)

Now, unaji? Let's see ... Ah, it corresponds to a Joyo kanji, 項 (1262), but うなじ is a non-Joyo kun-yomi. This kanji primarily means "clause; item," as in 要項 (ようこう: important points). "Nape of the neck" was the primary etymological definition and persists today, though, as my proofreader explains, the Japanese don't necessarily realize that 項 is the way to render うなじ in kanji.

Nearly 30 years have passed since Womansword first came out in 1987, and Stone Bridge Press has issued a 30th anniversary edition. I'm friends with the publisher (Peter Goodman), and Cherry herself is a Facebook friend I've never met in person. They both wanted me to have a look at the new publication. In fact, Cherry thanked me profusely in the new 15-page preface, though I hardly contributed a thing.

I said yes, of course, and I've been spending quite a bit of time with the book, reading it at two meals a day (and staining the pages!). I'm amazed at the level to which the writing compels me and stirs my passions. I'm not entirely sure why. Of course, the book marries feminism with kanji, and I'm passionate about both, but that's just part of it. 

I think I'm also fascinated because I wish I were the sort of person who could have written the book, and I'm simply not. I'm a micro thinker. I burrow into Japanese sentences, then words, then characters, and even components! I zoom in. Cherry is great at zooming out and painting a society in the broadest of brushstrokes. Here's what I mean:

[Japanese women] tend to look weak in public: nodding agreement and bowing deeply, plying men with tea and service, demurely hiding their giggles behind their hands. Gradually I came to see that their strength is something internal, far removed from overt display.... In direct confrontation, the women may yield like blades of grass—and spring back just as quickly. One of them compared this flexibility to the Vietcong guerillas, who could not be eradicated by the greater might of the U.S. military.... Searching for the source of [Japanese women's] strength, I was struck by something that the Japanese women themselves take for granted: the residue of the Japanese matriarchy (p. 26).

She elaborates on this idea by tracing matrilineal family patterns back to ancient times. Then she moves quickly through Japanese history, touching on the evolution of agriculture and "the acceptance of Confucian and Buddhist views on women's inferiority," noting that "the tide began to turn in favor of patriarchy" in the seventh century "when Japan institutionalized many concepts that had been filtering over from China" (p. 26).

Reading passages like this, I feel a sudden urge to re-learn everything I've ever absorbed about Japan, this time through a woman-centric lens. Of course, Cherry presents exactly that education, so there's no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

In doing so, she comes across as fearless—again in a way I could never be. I'm a big believer in cultural relativism; it just seems wrong to impose one's own cultural biases on a society that has its own set of rules. At the same time, I'm regularly appalled by the rampant sexism in Japanese culture. And then I never know quite where to go with my feminist outrage. I'm also disgusted by all the smoking in Tokyo restaurants, but what good will it do to complain?

Unlike me, Cherry seems incredibly comfortable in her own skin when she makes unflattering statements about the Japanese. That certainly comes through when she talks about onbu, a mother's carrying a baby on her back, piggyback style: "The mother and child share not only body heat, but psychological warmth as well. Onbu has been cited as one source of the passivity and dependence that characterize Japanese society, because babies grow up virtually immobilized, always encountering the world as a tiny spectator through mama's comforting mediation" (p. 117). 

Wow! Fearless indeed! Her courage to call it as she sees it has undoubtedly contributed to the book's popularity over the years.

This passage brings up another strong feeling for me. I find it very hard to tolerate the sight of the romanized onbu because I can't begin to feel that I grasp the concept unless I can see the kanji. 

Okay, I've just looked up the word in Breen. As it happens, the Japanese mainly write おんぶ in hiragana. So much for my self-righteous anger! But there is also a kanji version—負んぶ. And now I feel befuddled in a new way. Why is the kanji for "to lose" (負ける, まける) in this word? Do Japanese women sling babies over their backs so as not to lose them?! 

No, the original and primary meaning of 負 is "to carry on one's back," as in 負担 (ふたん: burden). The definition “to lose” originated with the idea of fleeing from enemies and having one’s back toward them, says my proofreader. He also notes that 負んぶ isn't ateji in terms of sound, as I thought: "The primary kun-yomi for this meaning is おう (負う), which has a phonetically altered version おぶう (負ぶう), which further phonetically transformed into おんぶ."

I suppose I knew little or no kanji when I first read the book, so my mind didn't gravitate toward such questions at all then. This time around, my frustration with the romanization recurred so often that I finally asked Cherry why the discussions contain so little kanji. She said that it used to be extremely expensive to mix Japanese and English fonts. Really? I'd never heard that. Then why not update the book now that technology has improved? She explained that between health problems and a lack of funds, she simply couldn't manage an update. Except for the new preface and updated indexes in English and Japanese (the latter containing all the kanji corresponding to the romaji in the text), the book is exactly the same as before. The original publisher went out of business. Stone Bridge has published the current edition with the goal of keeping this important work in print.

That's quite laudable. And I can certainly see that updating the text would be a massive undertaking. Some of the terms she discussed might need to be weeded out if they have become obscure or at least dated. Furthermore, Cherry provides quite a few statistics: "The average Japanese woman earned forty-nine percent of a man's wage in 1982, compared to fifty-three percent in 1971" (p. 123). Here and in many other places, Cherry does such a great job of depicting transformations over time that I long to hear how the situation has progressed since the 1980s. Instead, we're left hanging.

This book absolutely deserves an update, and I wish I had the funds, free time, and especially the ability to take Cherry's baton, but I have none of those things! And beating my head against a wall about it is going to be just as effective as glaring at all the smokers in Tokyo! 

I'd therefore like to take this opportunity to fill in some of the missing pieces. Because there's so much to address in her meaty book, I'll spend a few blogs talking about it.

Let's start with this passage:

The female symbol is mated with sundry other signs to become an accomplice in a myriad of characters, many with negative implications. A female and an eyebrow means flattery (kobi), while female and disease comprise a verb (sonemu) meaning to be jealous. A woman between two men means to tease (naburu).... The onna symbol thrice repeated (kashimashii) means noisy or evil. A woman and a hand—that is, a seized woman—means a servant (do). A heart written below this character for servant makes the verb for becoming angry (okoru) (p. 48).

That was extremely confusing! Without the kanji, I simply can't visualize what she means. So here is an annotation of sorts in the form of a quiz. Find a kanji to match each of these statements:

1. "female" + "eyebrow" =  flattery (こ•び)    
2. "female" + "disease" =  to be jealous (そね•む)
3. "man" + "woman" + "man" = to tease (なぶ•る)    
4. "woman" x 3 = noisy; evil (かしま•しい)
5. "woman" + "hand" = servant (ド)
6. "woman" + "hand" + "heart" = to get angry (おこ•る)    

a. 嫉    b. 嬲    c. 奴
d. 怒     e. 姦    f. 媚

I'll block the answers with a preview of the newest essay:

Okay, here are the answers:

1.f. 媚  (こ•び: flattery) breaks down as "female" + "eyebrow."

2.a. 嫉 (そね•む: to be jealous) breaks down as "female" + "disease."   

3.b. 嬲 (なぶ•る: to tease) breaks down as "man" + "woman" + "man."

4.e. 姦 (かしま•しい: noisy; evil) includes "woman" three times.

5.c. 奴 (ド: servant) breaks down as "woman" + "hand."

6.d. 怒 (おこ•る: to get angry) breaks down as "woman" + "hand" + "heart."

Of these, only half are Joyo kanji: 嫉, 奴, and 怒.

I'll meet you back here next week for more on Womansword! Have a great weekend!



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