Master's Theses

Date of Award


Document Type


First Advisor

Vivien Tartter

Second Advisor

Susan Fischer


homosexuality, gay, Japan, Japanese, English-Japanese, bilinguals, codability


Sexuality is a very private matter in Japan. Japan’s cultural mores and concepts of family unity have led to very conservative attitudes toward homosexuality. For instance, gay people generally fear disgracing their families, and this fear might prevent them from revealing their sexual identity to others, and so keeping it secret. Thus, homosexuality in Japan is a highly controversial topic. Being gay in Japan is not as tolerated as it is in some Western cultures (McLelland, 2000). Homosexuality is an issue that is not acknowledged by mainstream Japanese society – it is taboo and not spoken about publicly. The present study explored gay bilingual Japanese individuals' abilities to produce words about sexuality to determine whether talking and thinking about sexuality differs between the two languages in Japanese-English bilingual individuals in terms of: (a) number of words produced, (b) time to produce words, (c) average word production rate (word/time), and (d) word length (simple words versus long words). Typically, it is easier for bilinguals to produce words in their native language: “fluency” entails a better language flow, as it were. Sixteen gay native-Japanese bilinguals (whose English levels were advanced [n=11] and intermediate [n=5]) were instructed to say as many words as they could in both English and Japanese with regards to eight prompts (four “sexuality” and four “neutral”). The sexuality prompts generated words associated with the subjects’ sexual identity, nouns for describing themselves, and adjectives describing their experiences, whereas neutral prompts generated mostly nouns describing objects, places, and names. Differences between neutral words and words regarding sexual identity were examined as a way to control for psycholinguistic differences. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the weak form of the linguistic relativity theory: thinking Running head: LANGUAGE PREFERENCE AND COGNITIVE AVAILABILITY 2 varies for different languages) and Zipf’s Law (more frequently used words are shorter) informed the analyses and interpretation. It might be that using a language that codes homosexuality more openly provides individuals with the ability to fully recognize their true identities and be more open about them. “The more codable a category, the more available it will be for general psychological use” (Brown, 1958). Results showed much greater word production of sexuality words in English, relative to sexuality words in Japanese. This result differed for those who described themselves as advanced English speakers rather than intermediate: the advanced group produced a far greater number of sexuality words in English, and more neutral words in both languages. However, for the intermediate group, there was no significant difference between sexuality words in English and Japanese. The only significant difference in word production time was that time producing neutral words was longer than the time producing sexuality words. An analysis of the average word production rate (word/second) showed a very similar pattern: neutral words were said faster than sexuality words. However, an analysis of the words produced in the first 30 seconds revealed not only that that there were significantly more sexuality words in English compared to Japanese, but that these words were indeed said faster. This was true overall, but especially true for the advanced group. Lastly, in terms of word length, words were separated into two categories: simple words and long words. In Japanese, simple words were defined as four or fewer morae (Japanese “syllables”), whereas long words had more than four. In English, simple words were any word that was not a compound. Long words were multi-word words (animal-lover, bird-watching, etc.). Results indicated that simple English words regarding sexuality were used significantly more often than simple Japanese, and there were significantly more long words in Japanese Running head: LANGUAGE PREFERENCE AND COGNITIVE AVAILABILITY 3 regarding sexuality than in English. The advanced English speakers (relative to the intermediate group) not only generated more sexuality words in English, but produced them faster, as revealed by the analysis of the first 30 seconds. This suggests that, indeed, English sexuality words are more cognitively available to the individuals who have mastered it as a second language. These findings align with the weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and contravene the typical finding of better fluency in one’s native language. There is some evidence to support the claim that using a language which codes homosexuality openly (or as openly as English) facilitates gay Japanese bilinguals with the ability to fully recognize their true identities and be more open with them. Additionally, in accordance with Zipf’s Law, the data regarding word length showed that sexuality words in English were typically shorter and, therefore, likely more frequent. Similarly, the opposite was true for sexuality words in Japanese: they were longer and likely more infrequent – 74% were, in fact, loan words borrowed from English. Thus, the results as a whole support the idea that it is easier to talk and think about homosexuality in English than Japanese, even for native speakers of Japanese.


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