Which "girl"?

How do you know which ‘girl’ to use when speaking Japanese? For instance, there’s 女、女子、女の子、女の人、少女… Obviously, 女の子 is referring more to a child, but how do you choose which of the other options to use when talking generally about a girl or woman?

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In English, how do you know which word to use? Girl, young lady, lady, gal, lass, woman, dame, broad…

All sorts of synonyms for all sorts of words. There’s nuance, there’s formal / casual / slang, there’s modern or old, etc.

Aside from this specific case it’s generally good practice to consume native content and start to get a feel for what’s common and what isn’t.

I do think WK could do a better job with vocabulary words of giving them a “flair” or other associated icon like a lot of textbooks or other resources do. Whether something is a common word, or formal, or casual, or whatever, so you at least have a decent starting point on use.


I’m far from an expert on this since I hardly use these words, so I hope someone else comes along and gives you a better answer. I’m gonna be answering this based on my experience as a Chinese speaker and based on what I’ve seen in Japanese so far.

Very frankly, you’ll have to learn from context and examples, so your best bet is probably to learn the most common/least offensive ones first, and then use those while learning what the nuances are for the rest. If I were to stick to just your list, I would say…
女 – just ‘woman’. Not particularly flattering, so you shouldn’t use it on somebody to whom you should show respect, unless you’re in private, but it’s a fairly neutral word otherwise
女子 – my Japanese dictionary (monolingual) gives three definitions: human female/woman, girl (i.e. little girl) and maidservant (fairly archaic usage, still present in Kansai usage). This is the one where I don’t agree with the thread that @seanblue shared above, because I don’t understand how it, ‘when referring to individuals, covers a similar age range to 女の子’. To me…
女の子 – literally ‘female child’. As a result, it’s a lot closer to ‘girl’ in English, and like ‘girl’, can also be used to refer to young women in general. 女子, on the other hand, can refer 婦人 as well, which is a word usually used for mature women. 婦人 is used in the Japanese equivalent of ‘gynaecology’, and we use 婦 in the Chinese version as well.
女の人 – literally ‘female human’. Use it the same way you would ‘female person’ in English. Just know that it’s not that polite, so if you want to say something formal like ‘female persons should take care to…’, you probably want 女の方, since 方(かた) is the formal form of 人
少女 – literally ‘young female’. Need I say more? It frequently appears in anime as 美少女 (beautiful young woman), and so carries with it the idea of youth.
BONUS: 娘 – daughter, girl, young unmarried woman. Now for something you can’t get from a dictionary: my friend who lived in Japan told me that I ought not to use it unless I’m referring to a girl/woman who’s much younger than I am. I guess that makes sense though, since its first sense is ‘daughter’. As such, if I want to say ‘girl’ for someone around my age (I’m in my 20s), I should go with 女の子.

Honestly, I think you’ll be fine for now if you only use 女、女子、女の子 and 女性 (‘woman’, but in a more formal, technical sense). You can pick up the rest with experience. Also, a lot of my interpretation is possible because I know what the kanji mean. That’s practically all that’s necessary. If you don’t know what the kanji themselves mean, then you’ll have to rely on context, examples and translations to shape your understanding, and probably only come up with a good approximation. With kanji knowledge, you’ll be able to improve your understanding using context, which will make you more precise. That’s the difference.

The nuances will become clearer with time as you study more kanji and see examples. My advice is not to worry about it for now. All the best!

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Thanks, this is helpful!

What about it do you disagree with? The idea is that if you’re talking about a person, like actually using 女子 to identify some individual, it’s not all that common to use it with regard to adult women, but when you are talking about groups of people, age becomes much less of a factor.

Here is a thesaurus source if you want. I can’t find anything suggesting using 女子 to mean 婦人 with reference to an individual is common.


As an aside, it’s easier to respond to a response to something I wrote if you tag me :slight_smile:


Since I learned through listening and speaking first, I might be biased with this advice but I would say try to listen to some natural speech to help you pick up on the nuances. In general, just learning a written definition can be misleading and make it difficult to know exactly how to use it. There are lots of synonyms, like in any language, but in general they are just used in different ways. For example, 女子 is more typically used in an adjectival way such as 女子部屋 or 女子会. I don’t often hear it used to describe people directly. 女の人 I would say is mostly used to talk about a person you don’t know that is not part of the conversation, like relaying a story about a person you saw in the store. More typically hear people using softer words like おねえさん which would be used for a woman that is older but not elderly. Anyway, this stuff is regional too (I live in 九州) and people around me typically use the informal forms so I can’t speak to keigo or other regional dialects.

It’s fine to pick up speech from Wanikani and use it directly, but ymmv. You might end up using a word in a strange or inappropriate way, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much at this stage since you will get a non-native speaker pass.

If listening isn’t something you can access easily, I have found that just googling some words in Japanese will turn up lots of novel sentences that I can read to try to glean context. But be careful with this as well, since there are lots of words that are used in writing that aren’t commonly used when speaking. Since Wanikani is focusing on reading, you will encounter a lot of these kinds of words.

I have’t had much success asking native speakers directly how they use a word because, like most native speakers, they aren’t consciously aware of the rules and can really only tell you if an example you give is correct or not.

Anyway, hopefully some of that is helpful? :sweat_smile:

This is a pretty good baseline breakdown and I should have read it before writing my long-winded reply. :innocent:

Will take note. Thanks for the response. So uh…

When I read the 婦人 definition in my dictionary (大辞林) for 女子, I assumed that it would apply to individuals as well. There were no usage notes to differentiate it from the 女の子 definition, hence my confusion as to what you said. Also, like I said, I based my answer partly off my experience with Chinese, and in Chinese, 女子 definitely can be used to refer to individuals, although it has a bit of an archaic feel, so it’s probably only appropriate in period dramas or formal writing (though I believe 女性 is more appropriate for modern writing).

The thesaurus quote really cleared up what you meant by ‘individuals’ (I probably didn’t get it the first time around), and I can see that the definition referring to adult women is given special mention. However, in the little Japanese I’ve seen so far, using 女子 to refer to any human female as an individual has been very rare, regardless of her age, so I’m not really sure if it’s limited to the ‘adult woman’ definition.

I dug through the example sentences on Goo辞書 to see if there are cases where 女子 is used for individuals. I definitely agree, now that I’ve given it some thought, that it is rather uncommon to use it in such a way, but I was curious. I didn’t understand everything written in the examples, so my interpretation of certain sentences may be incorrect, but here’s what came up:

  1. ・・・ 社会は、それらの 女子 に職業を与えたであろうか。今日、多くの職業婦人の出現は、たしかに与えられつゝあることを証するにはちがいないが、果して、 女子 は、これによって経済上の独立を全うしつゝあるであろうか? 多くの男子に於てすら、まだ生存・・・
    Admittedly, this still refers to a group of women, but それらの tells us that it’s a specific group of women, which I’d say is somewhere between 全体として女性の方 and 個人 usage.
  2. ・・・この二人の目の前にある時一人の 女子 が現れた。僕の五官は疫病にでも取付かれたように、あの 女子 のために蹣跚いてただ一つの的を狙っていた。この的この成就は暗の中に電光の閃くような光と薫とを持っているように、僕には思われたのだ。君はそれを傍から見て・・・
    I can’t guarantee that the 女子 here is an adult, but she’s clearly an individual.
  3. この対話に出づる人物は 貴夫人 男の二人なり。作者が女とも 女子 とも云わずして、貴夫人と云うは、その人の性を指すと同時に、齢をも指せるなり。この貴夫人と云う詞は、女の生涯のうちある五年間を指す・・・
    I’m not sure if there are words missing from this quote, or if we’re just supposed to read the first sentence as 貴夫人、男の二人である. I think I’ll go with that since なり used to be the copula in Japanese. (Not that I know all about the mechanics – I was struggling through some very short 古文 quote from 豊臣秀吉 yesterday.) In any case, the fact that the person analysing the language use of an author said that the author used 貴夫人 and not 女 or 女子 means that all three of these words could, at least in that era, be used to refer to an individual.
  4. ・・・四男勝千代は家臣南条大膳の養子になっている。 女子 は二人ある。長女藤姫は松平周防守忠弘の奥方になっている。二女竹姫はのちに有吉頼母英長の妻になる人である。弟には忠利が三斎の三男に生まれたので、四男中務大輔立孝、五男刑部興孝、六男長岡式部寄之の・・・
    I think that 女子 means ‘daughters’ here, and not ‘women’, but people traditionally marrying younger notwithstanding, the two women discussed are married adults. At the very least though, it’s another example of 女子 referring to individuals, even if they’re being viewed here as ‘daughters’ rather than ‘adult women’.

In conclusion… I guess it’s possible to use 女子 to refer to individuals, and even to adult women, in particular based on example #3? However, it’s definitely rare, and probably somewhat archaic, particularly since in that example, we have いう written as 云う, which I think is rare nowadays.

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