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“Ordinary” language use

In “Lesbian bar talk in Shinjuku, Tokyo” Hideko Abe analyzes linguistic behavior in twelve Tokyo bars, showing the various ways in which rezu (lesbians), onabe (‘masculine’ women), and nyuu haafu (transgendered people) construct and claim identity positions through language use. It is a solid analysis of interesting data drawn from Abe’s field work and from media texts.

One passage in particular so drew my attention that I wanted to subject it to a bit more analysis. Abe interviews the manager of a lesbian bar, who she calls A. She notes that the word futsuu (ordinary) is used in complex ways, to describe both heterosexual identities and the ordinary lives of the manager and patrons of her bar.

Minna hontoo ni futsuu no renai o shite iru n desu yo ne. Naimenteki na bubun ga chigau tte yuu ka. Futokutei tasuu no hitobito ni yotte tsukuridasareta imeeji to yuu mono ga, henken o umidashita tte yuu no wa aru to omou. Shinjitsu o wakatte nai to yuu ka. Futsuu no onna no ko demo, rezu baa tte donna tokoro na no ka na, mitai na kanji de kuru shi, kite mireba, a, nan da futsuu no mono nan da mitai na. Onna no ko hitori de mo anshin shite nomi ni kite kuremasu yo. Futsuu no onna no ko mo ippai kimasu. Shufu no hito mo iru shi, kareshi ga iru kedo kuru ko mo imasu shi ne.

‘Lesbians have ordinary love relationships, you know. Internally, we are different. Some people created the image of lesbians as different, which created prejudice, I think. They don’t know the real truth. Ordinary women come here because they’re curious. Once they come, they realize how ordinary we are. Girls can feel comfortable coming here on their own to drink. Lots of ordinary women come here, including housewives and women who have boyfriends.
[Abe 2004, 210-211]

Earlier in her fieldwork Abe was surprised to hear another woman, who she calls C, use the word futsuu to mean heterosexual, “because I thought that the speaker meant that she considered herself and other lesbians not ordinary” (p. 210). In the data quoted above, though, “the speaker characterizes lesbians’ love relationships as futsuu because she wants heterosexuals to be inclusive of her by thinking of her as ordinary” (p. 211). In addition to Abe’s observation about two uses of the word by two different speakers, the shifting meaning of futsuu in A’s speech seem to bear additional analysis.

In her description of bar patrons A uses the word futsuu four times. Twice she uses the phrase futsuu no onna no ko (普通の女の子 “ordinary girls”). This category includes shufu no hito (主婦の人 “housewives”) and kareshi ga iru ko (彼氏がいる子 “kids who have boyfriends”). Thus, like other women Abe interviewed, A uses futsuu no onna no ko to refer to heterosexual women.

Another occurrence of futsuu comes in indirect quoted speech. According to A, when they come to the bar and see what goes on women think, ‘a, nan da futsuu no mono nan da‘ (あっ、なんだ普通のものなんだ。 “Oh, how ordinary it is”).* In this example A says that newcomers to the bar—and in context this seems to include, if not refer exclusively to, heterosexual women—regard the staff and regular customers as futsuu.

The other occurrence of futsuu is translated into English as “Lesbians have ordinary love relationships”. This is a decent translation, as A appears to be talking about the patrons of her bar as well as other people who would identify as part of the same group. The Japanese sentence, “Minna hontoo ni futsuu no renai o shite iru n desu yo ne,” does not explicitly label that group as “lesbian”, however. The sentence could equally be translated as “Everybody really has ordinary romantic relationships, you know.” The key point is that minna (皆 “everyone”) can be understood as having multiple referents. While the most likely immediate reference is everyone in the bar, at the same time the word can mean lesbians generally, women generally, or all people, among other possibilities.

Abe is quite right that A’s use of futsuu functions to include heterosexuals and homosexuals, bar patrons and non-patrons within a broad identity position. The multiple occurrences of the word with slightly shifting reference contribute to the effect.


* The word mono most usually refers to non-human objects or to abstract concepts. Sometimes, though, it is used for human beings. Thus the phrase could also be translated as “Oh, how ordinary they are.”

Abe, Hideko. 2004. Lesbian bar talk in Shinjuku, Tokyo. In S. Okamoto and J. Shibamoto Smith (eds.), Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology: Cultural Models and Real People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 205-221.