The Language Teacher
06 - 2002

Dry Winds and Bossy Women:
Acquiring a Second Dialect and Social Identity in Gunma, Japan

Cheiron McMahill

Daito Bunka University

What is social identity and why should language teachers concern themselves with it? There are many answers to this, but for the purposes of this article I would like you to imagine you are teaching your first language in what is for you a second language and culture. In this position, you are engaged everyday in not just a one-way process of imparting your linguistic and cultural competence to your students. You are working hard with the people around you at the business of cross-cultural communication; and this involves not only your students becoming more competent in your language and culture, but you becoming gradually more competent in theirs. You may be conscious at times of trying to create a certain impression in encounters and ongoing relationships or of trying to gain a sense of what people around you are really like.

This constant effort to create and maintain a desired image of yourself or to figure out the people around you is how I understand social identity, that is, the establishment of identity in society, interactions, and relationships. A year and a half ago, my family and I moved to a small traditionally agricultural hamlet on a mountain in Gunma, the first new family to join the village in four hundred years. I am American and my husband is Japanese, from a nearby town, though not a farmer. Although I have lived in Japan twelve years, this has been like entering a new culture again, and it has had a big impact on me personally and intellectually. As Clandinin and Connelly (1999) remark in their approach to research called narrative inquiry, when we enter the research field, we are walking into the midst of ongoing stories. Stories, conversations, and oral narratives are rich sources in which to see the construction of social identity. As we observe, participate, and build up relationships, we begin to understand the bigger stories of the community and institutions that make up the background to the conversations we hear from individuals.

In this article I share a little of my ongoing listening to and reflection on interviews with my 74-year-old neighbor, Mitsuko, and the people in her social network. I have been recording interviews with Mitsuko and other neighbours for the past year and now have about 15 hours of tape. I have analyzed a partial transcript of an interview on the topic of kakaa denka, or the stereotypical "bossy wives" of Gunma. For a full analysis of this interview following Labov and Waletsky's (1967) framework in McMahill (2002), please contact the author for a copy of the paper. In this article I concentrate on the following: How do Mitsuko and I linguistically co-construct our social identities within our conversation? How do our worldviews clash and how does this become apparent linguistically? Finally, I consider the reasons why Mitsuko might have told me the story, and the implications of these for us as learners and/or teachers of second languages.

The Social/Historical Roots of Social Identity in Gunma

January 23, 2000: I am showing Mitsuko a book written in 1969 entitled Kakaa denka to joshujo [Bossy Wives, and Women of Joshuu] by Saitou Chougorou, an ethnologist from Gunma Prefecture (formerly Joshuu) who wished to defend Gunma's honor against the prefecture's stereotype of bossy, aggressive wives (kakaa denka). On the cover of the book is an oil painting of rather glamorous and voluptuous farmwomen picking mulberry leaves, with the mountains of Gunma in the background. Gunma Prefecture had a booming textile and silk weaving industry until around 1950 (Liddle & Nakajima, 2000; Sofue, 1999), and all the families in my area used to raise silkworms and spin and weave silk until the industry died out due to cheaper Chinese imports.

Mitsuko is looking in the book's frontispiece at a faded black-and-white photograph of a woman, presumably the mother of the house, weaving at a loom in her own home. One daughter about five years old and wearing an apron is standing next to her mother. Another child about two or so is in the background playing. The caption reads furui keitai no tebata ni yoru orimonogyo, or "weaving work using an old style handloom." There is no date for the photo, but the one above it is dated as the year 40 of Meiji (1907), before Mitsuko was born. I start out by asking Mitsuko what she thinks of the words kakaa denka, or "wife is the boss," in the title of the book. Mitsuko speaks largely in the Joshuu variety of Japanese, while I speak in my non-native standard Japanese.

The topic of the whole interview is social identity, in this case the identity of women heads of household. In both her general descriptions of habitual actions and in her specific story about her parents, Mitsuko constructs contrasting gender identities of women, including myself, as competent, skilled authorities and men as incompetent helpers, what Sunderland (2000) refers to in the case of U.K. parent lore books as "bumbling assistants." Mitsuko doesn't explain how women get to be so competent and men so incompetent; apparently it is in the nature of things, the essence of gender.

In the interview Mitsuko defends kakaa denka by trying to show why leadership skills and judgment are best exercised by women. She likens kakaa denka, the female head of a household, to the head of the nation or of politicians. She uses the phrases and chu ka (in standard Japanese, nara and to iu ka) to suggest a similarity between these types of leadership: "Maa kuni dara seijika no oyakata chu ka saa, ikken no uchi no oyakata o hatterun da" ("Well, like the nation or the politicians' boss you could say for instance, [the wife] is acting the part of the boss of the entire household").

I encourage Mitsuko to expand on this by indicating my positive orientation toward women being the head of household, saying, "Mmm watashi sono kotoba ga suki de nee, gunma ni kita kedo yo...nanka ii da naa to omotta kedo" ("Mmm, because I like that word [kakaa denka], I came to Gunma but somehow I thought how nice [kakaa denka] is but..."). Mitsuko then begins to argue for the advantages of women heading the household: "Sono hou ga katei enman ni iku ja nee n ka" ("I wonder if the household doesn't run more smoothly that way"). Along with offering some general warrants for her argument, such as seikatsuryoku (the power to earn a living) and iroiro (various reasons), she gives my household as an example: "kairan no uchi michou ni saa" ("like in Cheiron's house, you know"), a construction that I accept with surprised laughter. With the adjective michou or "similar," "looks like" (mitai in standard Japanese), she has used positive politeness to neatly place me within the local female gender identity, as a bossy woman who successfully supports her family while my own husband stays at home, rather than as a foreign researcher who is investigating an alien concept of gender. This is very flattering and creates a sense of intimacy and solidarity between us because she knows me well enough to name my identity in this way, and it is an identity I have said I admire.

When we are looking at the photo of a woman working at her handloom, she explains the objects in the photo then says proudly, "Unn soshite minna kou iu--an--okaasan ga hata o otta n da yo!" ("Yes and then everybody in this way--um--the mother wove cloth [on this kind of loom] you know!"). Her choice of final particle, yo, makes her clause into an exclamation or announcement--something I am supposed to be surprised at, perhaps because I am too young to be able to imagine someone weaving silk on such a simple wooden loom. I respond with heeehhh! (Wow!) Finally getting some feedback that she is impressing me, she tries to give more examples of the skill involved, ending this stanza with: "Shuunyuu ni naru n da yo! Kou itte ichinichi ni take o oru niwa nitan, kimono o nimai tsukureta, ichinichi ni oriageta" ("It brings a good income, you know! Like this in one day [the woman] could make two lengths of cloth or two kimono, [she] could weave it in one day").

She thus adds to her definition of a real kakaa denka woman: a woman who could weave enough silk for two kimono in one day, and a woman whose silk brought much-needed cash to a farm family. By implication, this is a standard to aspire to. Through such specific criteria, then, Mitsuko creates an image of the pressure and competition that comes with "doing" kakaa denka, and portrays women's work of weaving as a high-stakes, prestigious enterprise.

Finally, Mitsuko's switches between standard Japanese and the Joshuu variety of Japanese throughout the interview reveal the conflicts in her social identity presented by the interview situation. For example, she begins the narrative about her parents by referring to herself as atashi, the feminine, informal first personal pronoun. At the end of the story she uses ore, which is the Joshuu first personal pronoun for both men and women, but which is marked as crude and masculine in standard Japanese (Ide, 1979; Ide & Yoshida, 1999). When I asked her later why she started out with atashi and ended up with ore, she chastised herself, saying, "I should have used ore all the way through. What's wrong with ore, right? I must have been trying to speak nicely...because it was an interview," revealing a conflict about how to portray herself between the two language choices, a conflict between how she views herself and how she knows others might view her, especially in the formal situation of being interviewed, recorded, and studied.

Discourse Analysis Clarifies a Conflict in Worldviews and Social Identities

While I am impressed by the competent and authoritative farmwomen of Mitsuko's memories, we struggle somewhat over what Gee (1991, 1999) calls cultural models that embody our worldviews, in this case whether women's social identity has something to do with being a mother, and whether women's traditional skills imply an inherent superiority to men. When she has just begun listing advantages of kakaa denka, I offer: "kodomo to no kankei mo aru" ("there is the relation with the children too"). Mitsuko correctly interprets my implication by taking the same topic and expanding on it with the verb sodateru, to raise or rear children: "Unn kodomo mo sodaterareu kedo" ("yes they can also raise the children but..."). At the same time she indicates there is something incomplete to this idea that she is going to clarify, by using the conjunction kedo, a contraction of keredomo, meaning "but" or "however". She significantly follows kedo with "shigoto mo kekkou yaru ki dara kekkou deki" ("they could also do plenty of work if they had the will to").

This is the first indication that Mitsuko and my cultural models of female heads of household differ since she is implying that raising children is not work and not sufficient reason to explain kakaa denka. Mitsuko then lists in detail the various kinds of work that women did that made them the boss of the household, indicating that these are just some examples out of many possibilities with the final particle to ka:

  1. Hatake no shigoto da to ka (such things as field work, growing vegetables)
  2. Kuwatsumi (picking mulberry leaves)
  3. Okaiko no shu ni natte kau hito mo onna no shito (a person in charge of the care of the silkworms is also a woman)
  4. Kami ya owashi o tsukuru hito mo onna no hito no oyakata (a person in charge of making such things as paper or Japanese paper is also a woman)

When I express some doubt, nnnnn with rising intonation, indicating that I am still not clear or convinced, Mitsuko tries to persuade me through greater detail of why women were the bosses of silkworm raising. She uses the verbal suffix -tari and the final particles to ka to indicate that these are lists of habitual actions:

  1. Otokoshi wa onnashi no tetsudai (Men are women's helpers)
  2. Kuwa o kitte kite tetsudattari saa, unn (They did such things as help by going and cutting mulberry leaves, you know, yes)
  3. Onnashi wa shuunin de (Women are the masters)
  4. Kuwa o kuretari (They do such things as give [the silkworms] the mulberry leaves)
  5. Okaiko ga yasumu toki wa donna teido ni kuwa o agereba ii n da to ka saa (When the honorable silkworms are resting [the women decides] to what level they should be given mulberry leaves for example you know)
  6. Hikaeru to ka (or, for example, reduce [their feed])

Mitsuko further tries to persuade me of women's authority over the silkworms and over men by giving examples of what women might say to men. She begins to use direct reported speech, giving a presentiment of her later move into narrative, making verbal quotation marks with the particle to plus the verb "to say," to iu in standard Japanese and chu in the local variety, as seen here: "Ima kure kureshii n da chu" ("She says 'I wa- want you to give [the leaves to the silkworms] now'"); "Kurenakucha naranai to iu no wa onna no shito wa mitari" ("It's the woman who does such things as check and say, 'you must feed [them]'").

She tries to rest her case with a concluding coda, twice ending her clauses with the copula da plus the adverb for indicating cause or reason, kara: "Handan de otokoshi wa sono nari ni ugoita chu n dakara" ("And that is why it is said that it was [the women's] judgement, and the men moved according to that"); "Oyakata wa onna dakara" ("And that is why the woman is the boss"). But I respond with just a noncommittal mmm. Perhaps still thinking I am unconvinced, Mitsuko lists some other things women do better than men and an even stronger coda: "Mmm sore de tabemono o taberu tsukuru ni mo" ("Mmm, and even about eating- making food"); "Onna no hito no hou wa sugoi yoku dekitari saa" ("Women can do those kinds of things much better too"); "Sore de nani ni tsukete mo onna ga oyakata ni naru kara" ("And that is why women are in charge, no matter what it is [you are talking about]").

I still do not concede Mitsuko's point about unilateral female superiority, though, but try to qualify what she is telling me by expanding on it with ie no naka de ne (inside the house, you mean), reflecting my belief that women had certain powers because of a traditional division of labour. She tries again: "Shigoto ga IPPEI dekiru kara saa" ("[Women] can do TONS of work so you know"), "yappari otokoshi no shitajiki ni wa naranai to iu are ja nee?" ("isn't it apparent that this is the reason for [women] not taking second place to men?"). I take this to mean that no, it is not women's role or biology, but their inherent ability to work hard and skillfully which makes them kakaa denka. Her emphatic intonation on ippei and her use of the discourse marker yappari, often translated as "as you might expect," place a strong obligation on me to agree, but I wriggle out by changing the subject somewhat and asking her about the photograph.

As she describes the process of weaving silk to me, however, an interesting misunderstanding occurs that clarifies the difference in our cultural models. I comment: "Nnnn sugoi naa, hatarakimono da na, kodomo inagara demo ne" ("Nnn, that's amazing isn't it, what hard workers, even while having children, too"), meaning that it must have been so difficult to work and take care of children at the same time. Mitsuko, however, mishears or misinterprets the reference of hatarakimono or "hard worker," perhaps generating the interpretation "even children were such hard workers." Mitsuko responds: "Nnn, kodomo mitari, ii otetsudai shite" ("Nnn, the children did such things as watching, and helped out plenty").

Looking back over the transcript, I see that in the previous lines, while looking at the photograph of the woman weaving with two small children, she referred three times to children (or an elderly woman) as helpers, and I did not pick up on this either in the photograph or in her description of the process of weaving. In my cultural model, children play and are cared for by their parents, largely their mothers, until adolescence at least, and are not expected to do real work at such a young age. This intensive care I believe children require would seem to interfere with a mother's weaving day after day. In Mitsuko's cultural model, though, children are apprentices, and must labor for the family from the time they can beat down a weft. The difference in our cultural models regarding children can explain the misunderstanding that occurred. In fact, in the part of the interview that follows the excerpt I am analyzing here, Mitsuko went on to explain how family members were too busy working to hold infants and babies so children were left alone in woven enclosures called ijime until they were old enough to help out. Childcare was not considered a job and so mothering children was not part of the kakaa denka identity. Further, weaving may have been done in the home area, but it is clear that Mitsuko rejects the definition of women's work as domestic or housework. Rather, she constructs the ideal woman as the manager of the family business, depended on and assisted by her parents or in-laws, her husband, and children.

Storytelling is an Elegant Solution to Social Identity Conflicts

The narrative Mitsuko then tells me follows on this misunderstanding about childcare and children. She indicates that it is a family story she has been told by repeatedly framing each clause with da to, the copula plus the particle to which is like a verbal quotation mark, and at the end of the story she admits she does not remember the events in the story herself at all.

Her father had to mind the child because her mother was busy weaving. Her father gave a hard candy to the child to suck on and the child almost choked to death. The father was at a loss as to what to do and the child would have died if the mother had not come running and dislodged the candy. It is similar in structure to a fairy tale or myth with its near-death crisis and miraculous resolution. Mitsuko performs it with great dramatic skill and artfully withholds the identity of the child until the end: "Sore ga atashi nan datte yo!" ("They say that [child] was me!").

One important thing the story accomplishes discursively is to clinch her argument about women's superiority and men's incompetence. I do not mean that I have necessarily altered my worldview based on her story, but that in the transcript I am clearly caught up in it, and enthusiastically support her telling with evaluative comments such as abunai! (dangerous!) kowai! (scary!), sugoi ja nai! (isn't that amazing!) and hontou ni? (really?). In addition, the story has the power to close our discussion of kakaa denka, in that afterwards we move on to talk about childcare in the old days and Mitsuko's experiences raising her second son in particular. In other words, Mitsuko's story is successful in that through it I come to understand and accept her worldview and her concept of gender identity, whether I agree with it or not.


Although I am not able to fully explore the applications of this research to teaching and learning here, my interview with Mitsuko is an example of cross-cultural communication on many levels--it is a conversation between women of different generations, nationalities, professions, educational levels, from different types of societies and social classes, with different native languages, and even speaking different varieties of Japanese. Still, Mitsuko as my teacher and mentor manages to get me, her apprentice and student, to see gender identity from her point of view, and she does it through narrative. As language teachers, we often struggle with how to teach our cultures and languages, how to engage honestly and deeply with our students while still respecting their particular identities and values. I hope this brief example of how I am examining my own second language socialization into the community of Nasu and Joshuu dialect reveals possibilities for using life history interviews and discourse analysis as methods, and narratives as content and genre, in learner training, professional development and classroom practice.


Many thanks to Greg Meyer for his invaluable comments on drafts of this article, and to Steve Cornwell for his fine editing.


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