Gender in Japanese: what to consider during development and localization

Gender in Japanese

According to 2022 research data, Japan is among the top 3 largest game markets in the world, with a very active, engaged, and paying audience. This is exactly why developers are growing increasingly interested in localizing their products for the Japanese market. However, Japanese has features that are uncommon among European languages, including distinct ways of expressing gender.

Alexandra Kisina, Japanese-language editor at Inlingo, explains what factors influence the speech of Japanese characters, the concepts of genderlect theory and “role language”, and what must be considered during development if you plan to enter the Japanese market.

What is a genderlect in Japanese? 

Japanese differs significantly from European languages. If you read a game dialogue in English that doesn’t explicitly mention the gender of the speakers, you won’t immediately know who is part of the conversation. In Japanese, however, you can identify the speakers even without specifically mentioning their gender. This is because Japanese people speak in a genderlect, a special communication style that depends on gender. These speech forms even have their own names: joseigo (女性語) for women and danseigo (男性語) for men.

Japanese speakers follow different grammar rules, even in kindergarten. For example, when speaking in the first person, girls more often use the pronoun “atashi”(あたし) while boys use “boku” (ぼく). In English, this is comparable to the pronouns “she” and “he.”

Alexandra Kisina, Japanese language editor at Inlingo

In a Japanese sentence, gender roles are clearly distinguished: men use blunt forms and drop honorific prefixes and endings. For example, when expressing doubt, a man will end a phrase with the word “kana” (かな), and, when expressing approval, he will use the compound “da yo” (だよ). By comparison, to soften a phrase, a woman uses the particles “kashira” (かしら) and “yo” (よ), which sound less aggressive to a Japanese speaker’s ear. Of course, in contemporary speech, there are cases when women use masculine forms, positioning themselves outside traditional gender roles, but this is not very common as of yet.

How much does Japanese depend on social roles? 

Differences also exist within genderlects. For example, “boku” (ぼく) and “ore” (おれ) are both masculine pronouns. But the former is a common colloquial form while the latter expresses hypermasculinity. Which form is used depends on the social situation. In the anime Aggretsuko, for instance, the head of the accounting department, Ton, speaks in an especially rude and patriarchal way to his subordinates, but, on meeting the company’s CEO, immediately switches to polite language and uses the gender-neutral pronoun “watakushi” (わたくし), demonstrating his loyalty to his boss.
This variety of Japanese, which is an exaggerated form of the language, is actively used in media and called “yakuwarigo,” “role language.” It can quickly and efficiently convey a speaker’s characteristics, personality, gender, and even level of education. Basically, it involves certain clichés about how people of a certain “type” speak. For example, by using the pronoun “washi” (わし), an author shows the reader that the speaker is an elderly man, whereas “warawa” (わらわ) indicates that a character is a noblewoman, goddess, or just an arrogant lady.

Yakuwarigo has a variety of specific clichés for samurais, aristocrats, gods, thugs, girls, and many other types. But in real life, no one talks like a character from manga or video games. This often trips up people who learn Japanese from anime. They start talking in an exaggerated language that doesn’t exist in society and, as a result, sound unnatural to native speakers. For example, the standards of yakuwarigo dictate that feminine heroines use the antiquated particle “wa,” which has practically disappeared from use in everyday Japanese.

Alexandra Kisina, Japanese language editor at Inlingo

For this reason, it is important to distinguish the domains in which Japanese is used, as these determine the communication style and the appropriateness of particular words.

What form of Japanese is used in games?

In games, characters have significantly less dialogue than in manga or anime, so yakuwarigo is especially relevant. Yakuwarigo makes it possible to convey a character’s personality in two or three lines. 

In the role-playing video game Persona 5, for example, the anthropomorphic cat Morgana refers to himself using the pronoun “wagahai” (吾輩), which demonstrates that he is pompous and self-centered.  Likewise, in the Yakuza series, the mafia characters use masculine and unsavory rhetoric that is associated with thugs. These include the blunt pronouns “ore” (おれ) to refer to themselves and the markedly vulgar “temē” (てめえ) to refer to others, as well as the ending particle “zo” (ぞ), which emphasizes the speaker’s confidence in what they are saying. 

Additionally, games use yakuwarigo to convey the traits of not only a character, but also an entire era. In the action game Sekiro, which takes place in the late 16th century, the characters speak in a way that resembles medieval Japanese and follow the rules of hierarchical speech. The main character, a shinobi (ninja), refers to himself in an emphatically polite way when speaking to members of the aristocratic Ashina family, showing his submission. 

What problems arise when localizing into Japanese?

All these conventions make the job of localizers more difficult.  They can cause particular trouble for games from European developers, who often create a single pool of dialogue lines for a group of characters without dividing them up based on gender. Consider, for example, a game in which, when the player interacts with peasant NPCs, they randomly respond with one of twenty phrases, such as “Hi, player_name! Nice weather!” or “How’s it going, player_name? Do you think there will be a harvest?” An NPC of any gender can speak these lines, but in Japanese, even these banal phrases will be colored by gender. 

Things get even more complicated in games where the player chooses the protagonist’s gender. Often in these cases, the main character’s lines are not categorized by gender, which leads to two possible scenarios in the Japanese localization. One possibility is the character will speak in an artificially gender-neutral way, which will sound unnatural and kill the drama in the story. The second option is the translator will have to choose just one of the genderlects, usually male, thereby making a female heroine sound unexpectedly masculine. This is precisely what happened in the localization of Fallout 4: in the voiceover, the actress says her lines in a feminine style while the subtitles and dialogue choices are masculine, creating an uncanny valley effect and ruining the player’s immersion in the game world.

The same problem occurs when a localization kit doesn’t identify who is uttering a line of dialogue and the translator can’t apply the rules of yakuwarigo correctly. As a result, in the game, a little girl starts talking like a grown man. For example, in the game Stardew Valley, characters have a tendency to abruptly switch between genders and shift from “masculine” speech patterns to “feminine” ones and back.

How can developers prepare for Japanese localization? 

  • Use different dialogue lines for male and female characters

If the player can choose the gender of a main character who has even a minimal amount of dialogue, it’s worth doubling the lines in the lockit so the localizer can translate them separately for the two different characters. Alternatively, use variables for words that vary by gender, which will make it possible to edit strings point-by-point while maintaining a single sentence structure.

  • Consider the characteristics of NPCs when writing lines

When writing filler lines for a group of NPCs, you should take a few subcategories into consideration, like gender and age. The more subcategories there are, the more natural the Japanese localization will sound. 

  • Provide as much information about characters as possible

Don’t limit yourself to just the lockit. Rather, give the localizers all the information you can: character profiles, references, videos of the characters, builds, etc. This will allow the translator to use the most appropriate speech pattern for each character when, for example, deciding to make a male character’s speech more or less masculine.

  • Don’t forget to clarify details when writing dialogues 

When creating a lockit, you should make sure dialogues are arranged logically and the lines themselves are marked with the name of the speaker. Ideally, dialogues should also have a few additional labels: who the speaker is talking to, the speaker’s intonation or emotion, and the context.