I sound like what in Japanese?

In Japan, women and men speak different versions of the language. How's a guy to learn the difference?

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Wherever you go, men and women tend to speak differently. But in Japan, those differences are more pronounced than in many places. Among the multilayered rules of grammar and usage governing spoken Japanese, there also exist underlying concepts of "men's Japanese" and "women's Japanese." By the end of my 2-1/2-year stay there, I had unwittingly become conversant in the latter form.

Like many Western men who spend more than a year in Japan, I learned most of my intonation, expressions, and slang – the things not taught in the classroom – by mimicking a Japanese girlfriend.

I thought my Japanese was fine, while in reality the effeminate, almost childish twang I had been learning made me sound very much like a 20-something, pink miniskirted Japanese woman.

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Grammar and syntax aside, Japanese men generally speak in shortened huffs, while women tend to speak in artificially high octaves, elongating their word endings in an almost coquettish attempt to flatter the listener.

I didn't realize this at the time, though, because my contact with Japanese men was fleeting.

So I would make constant mental notes on my girlfriend's pronunciation, grammar, and usage, as well as insist that she never utter a word of English in my presence. I even kept a notebook in my pocket so I could write down any new words I learned on a given day. Then I'd study it in the evening.

Japanese acquaintances, eager to compliment anyone who can say a few words in their language, would constantly say "Josu dane!" or "Your Japanese is really good!"

With this frequent flattery, which the Japanese, especially the women, have mastered, my ego eventually became airborne. But what I didn't know was that people around me were actually laughing. Not maliciously, but sort of as if I were a gaijin peto, or foreign pet.

I wasn't alone. I had friends who sounded like average American guys in English but whose voices, once they broke into Japanese, took on the girly tones of the high-heeled Asian fashionistas they were dating.

Most of these guys were in an English-speaking environment all day at teaching institutes that employed mainly foreigners. After work, they would go home to their Japanese wives or meet their Japanese girlfriends, and therefore had little contact with Japanese men.

Because the Japanese tend to avoid any form of confrontation, my girlfriend would never correct me. That is, until one day in an ice-cream shop when she couldn't take it anymore. She snapped, "Don't say it that way – you sound like a girl!" referring to my choice of words to describe the ice cream we were sharing.

I didn't mind being corrected on my pronunciation. But I was disappointed to learn that for the past 2-1/2 years, I had not been speaking good Japanese.

Suddenly, she fired off a list of the mistakes I had apparently made umpteen times. She said her friends had often snickered when I referred to myself in the third person, as many Japanese women and girls do, and when they heard me end sentences with the particle "wa," which is usually used by women to soften the tone of a sentence. Most of all, she said, I needed to take the pitch of my voice down several notches from the tone I had learned.

The solution, of course, was to hang out with more Japanese guys. But for me, a freelance journalist with a part-time job and daily Japanese classes to attend, I had little time for new friends.

Besides, Japanese men, unlike their friendly female counterparts, are often inaccessible. They generally work 12 hours at a stretch and afterward go out in tight-knit, impenetrable groups. My girlfriend once tried to recruit a few male coworkers to teach me better Japanese but had little success. They were either too busy or just too exhausted.

No help came from my teachers – they were all women and were hesitant to correct me anyway. There were no Japanese men working at my baito, or part-time job, either. And textbooks do not often clarify the difference between men's and women's vocabulary. Some teach a few things, but most do not get into the finer points or advanced terminology used separately by men and women.

So I started the painstaking task of dissecting my own style of speaking, asking teachers, my home-stay parents, pretty much everyone, whether such-and-such was proper for men to say. It got to the point where I couldn't finish a sentence. I would stop in the middle and ask, "Tadashi desuka?" ("Is that correct?")

Some people would be honest, but many weren't, telling me my Japanese was fine. I asked some people point blank if my Japanese was joseiteki, or girlish. Some giggled knowingly, but no one would come out and say it.

My ego had been artificially inflated over my skill in speaking Japanese and then – pop! – the bubble burst.

Since then, I've made some adjustments, but an honest Japanese friend recently told me that my Japanese is still chotto kirei, or "a little pretty."

Not what I wanted to hear, but shoganai – it can't be helped. That's all right. I guess at this point I've gotten used to it.

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