Character genders

Having quite a time figuring out genders of characters in written prose due to non-specific pronouns in Japanese. Just read 「似たひと」, a short story on First passage:

" お茶をいれているのそばである友達をむきながら、「あなた、染物屋ある風呂へよくの」 ときいた。"

Couldn’t figure out if “friend” is male or female. The author is female but that doesn’t help with anything. I can’t even be 100% sure if the narrator is female. -_-

This has happened to me in all written texts I’ve read so far. If I read manga, the pictures help and remove all doubt, but I’m a prose type of person so this has been/will be a hurdle for a while yet.

Any tips, or should I strap myself in for a lifetime of guessing?

1 Like

Does the gender actually matter, or are you just frustrated because you’re used to your native language grammatically requiring explicit gendering?


My personal opinion is that you should just guess based on context. It may become clearer later in the story, or it might not. In this particular case, it’s not clear because no gendered language has been used yet. The use of の at the end of a sentence may indicate that the speaker is female, but that’s not clear because here, の is being used to end a question, and that usage is (as far as I know) common among both men and women. The use of の to end a statement, however, is stereotypically feminine.

In essence, in Japanese, especially in literature, you work out gender based on gendered language. You’ll probably learn more about this over time, but the essence of it is that masculine language tends to sound more assertive and even rough, whereas feminine language tends to seek consensus and is smoother or more gentle. These differences are often highlighted by certain particles or ways of using verbs. The other way to know what gender someone is (or what’s being implied about their gender/personality) is when gender-specific pronouns, particularly first-person pronouns, are used, like あたし (cutesy female ‘I’), 俺 (casual/rough male ‘I’) and ぼく (casual but somewhat more polite/gentle male ‘I’). You’ll see these much more often in light novels, and possibly other books. Note also that gendered language tends to be a little exaggerated in literature as compared to usage in real life, possibly because authors want to make it clear who’s speaking among a bunch of characters.

Ultimately though, just remember that Japanese, even if it stems from a culture in which gender roles are probably still quite traditional in many cases, can also be extremely ‘gender-unspecific’. さん and さま are both completely genderless, for instance, and even くん can be used for both genders, even if it’s more commonly used for young men or boys. Gender in Japanese is more often implied by context and language use than stated, and that’s just something we have to accept.

In short, it may seem like ‘guessing’ now, but usually, once the language you encounter becomes more complex, you’ll start to realise that you don’t have to guess: the speaker’s gender is often encoded in the way they speak.


I wouldn’t call it frustration, really. When I read anything, the narration plays out in my head, and the characters will have faces, features of which added on as the story progresses. With Japanese, so far, the characters are just ungendered blobs, which kind of dampens how far my imagination can go.

A chapter into a recent novel, while googling an unknown grammar point, I found out that the characters I was imagining as male and female were actually both males, which kind of rewrote the whole story and I had to start again to get everything straight. That’s about the only time it set me back, so I’m not really sure how to answer whether it matters so much to me or not.

My native language doesn’t have specific genders for pronouns either (although I never really read a lot of literature from my native language, most of my reads are in English). But our names are very gender-specific so it’s easier to tell right off the bat, and so far Japanese names are not, especially since using their family name is standard.

That’s what I keep an eye out for too. Then again, I’m also exposed to materials that go against gendered language, so in the end it will still all be an educated guess.

Thank you, that’s very encouraging. Often there’s a feel to the narration and I just kind of base it on that, whether I’ve been wrong with them or not, it hasn’t caused me any trouble yet, except that one story I relayed above. I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing. Unfortunately the “friend” from this story appears just on this passage only so there wasn’t any room to explore her (I’ll stick with “her,” since that was my initial hunch) character further!


If you know the full name of a character, you can usually guess the gender. Yes, it’s true that there are names used by both men and women, and in fiction names can be weirder than real life, but you’re unlikely to find a man named ゆうこ or a woman named たけし


I don’t want to create a new thread just to ask one simple question so I hope you don’t mind OP for me to piggy back on your thread Lol

I’m on level 2 right now but my avatar here still shows 1. Why is that? It’s not a huge deal but I would like to see my actual number because it makes me feel good to see my progress!

Is it because I haven’t mastered any Kanji on level 2 yet? :frowning:

This happens sometimes. The usual answer is to log out of the forum and then back in again.

However, there is an ongoing glitch:

so maybe keep an eye on this thread.

I see…will have to wait then. Thanks for the reply.

I logged out and back in and it got fixed Lol :grinning:


1 Like

Your avatar says 2 now!

Screenshot 2021-04-15 at 17.32.37

1 Like

I guess my advice would be to just assign a gender to the characters if you need it for make believe purposes.

And if you’re proved wrong that’s okay!

I can’t see very many situations where gender would be important and not made obvious.


:laughing: glad you got it resolved!

I’ll continue doing so. Have only been proven wrong once (that I know of, heh) and I did have to reread because it changed the story. My thing is if I stumble upon a story I seem to like, I go into it without knowing the plot. I like the unknown turn of events. Unfortunately this does lead to not knowing the character completely, since the plot/premise usually says what the gender is.

Thanks for everyone’s responses and tips! :slight_smile:

There’s a thread specifically for this kind of thing