Gender and fidelity in late nineteenth century Japan

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Gender and fidelity in late nineteenth century Japan

A study of stenography and ventriloquism by Professor Miyako Inoue

by Elif Babul on Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - 10:15am

The First Japanese Diet Hall (1890-91) (Source: Wikimedia

Stenography in parliament or courtrooms can be seen as an objective, non-personal transcription of proceedings. Yet social anthropologist Miyako Inoue’s investigation into late nineteenth century Japanese stenography suggests that stenographers in fact shared an intimate relationship with the speakers.

In a recent talk at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Inoue presented on her own experience doing research in Japan. As she was interviewing one informant, another stenographer produced a simultaneous recording of the interview. This account was then immediately projected onto a screen to make her speech visible to Inoue. “It was a very weird experience,” she recounted, “I felt like part of me was being objectified and put on display. But another sense is that, somebody’s so close to me. Somebody can read my mind, that kind of intimacy…”

Male fidelity in the Japanese Diet (Parliament)

In her current research project on the social history of Japanese stenography, Inoue is analyzing how notions of maleness and femaleness, and different forms of intimacy associated with these genders, affect the way professional ethics and techniques of stenography is defined in Japan.

Stenography, in Inoue’s words, “is a mnemonic technique that captures and records physically audible speech at the real time moment, which is then turned into a permanent written record.” Official stenographers that constitute the subject of Inoue’s research worked in two spheres: the Japanese parliament (the Diet) and courtrooms. In the Diet, where accuracy of the record was the premium professional concern, stenographers worked intimately with the members of parliament in order to ensure fidelity between the text and the speech. This occupation and its forms of intimacy and fidelity were primarily associated with maleness.

Fidelity is an important criterion for measuring the quality of stenography. As the spoken word in Japanese can have one of several meanings when transcribed, “mind reading” is a necessary skill for Japanese stenographers to produce a perfect text.  A simple expression such as “I” can be written in multiple ways, ranging from a neutral “I” to a female “I” and to a very formal way of referring to the self. For this reason, stenographers are expected to posses not just a mechanical skill of how to record an ongoing speech rapidly. They also need to have an intuitive way of knowing what the speakers mean when they say “I.” In other words, maintaining accuracy in the transcript depends upon an intimate relationship between the speaker and the stenographer.

According to Inoue’s research in Japan, until the end of the Second World War both the stenographers and public figures whose speech was being recorded were predominantly men. As a result, the form of bonding between the speaker and the stenographer, which was required for purposes of fidelity, emerged as a homosocial intimacy.

To realize how this intimacy is imagined differently in the U.S., one only needs to remember the hypersexual female secretary image popular in the Hollywood film industry. One of the fascinating slides used by Inoue to illustrate the US version of intimacy was the poster of a 1930s film featuring an attractive woman sitting intimately on her boss’s desk. “There are a lot of pictures like this,” continued Miyako Inoue “depicting this clandestine closed door intimacy.”

Stenographic technology seen as female

What is interesting about the Japanese case is that even though female stenographers compose ninety per cent of the current professional demographic, the shorthand written technique, and the kind of intimacy that is imagined as part of it are still symbolically associated with maleness. Contrary to shorthand, the stenotype technique, which features a special typewriter used for stenography, is often associated with femaleness.

Court Chamber, International Military Tribunal for the Far East Ichigaya Court ( to Inoue’s research, machine stenography was first introduced to Japan during the Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals that took place following the Second World War in 1946. During the trials, Japanese shorthand male stenographers sat face to face with their American colleagues, who are described in the words of one Japanese counselor as “female court stenographers with red manicure, sluggishly typing a small stenographic machine. Along the way, when they were ordered to read the previous speech, she would instantaneously read off from the typed paper feed whereas the Japanese stenographic record was not even possible to be read in spite of recruiting the best and the brightest of the stenographers from the parliament.”

Shocked to see how fast the English language steno typists could produce texts, the Japanese invented a stenography machine. The machine, however, was only used in the courtrooms, while stenographic recording in the parliament continued to be practiced with the shorthand technique until it was replaced with a voice recognition system in 2011. Parliament stenography remains a symbol of the male bonding and intimacy that is necessary to constitute fidelity in the written document. The courtroom, on the other hand, where historically verbatim recording was never required, emerged as the space of the stenotype that is symbolically associated with femaleness.

The introduction of stenography in Japan, and the gendered associations of intimacy and fidelity with different stenographic techniques are closely tied to changing understandings of language. These changes were happening alongside larger transformations in the Japanese society. Starting from the late nineteenth century, Japanese intellectuals sought to standardize the language in order to close the gap between speech and writing. Upon their exposure to Western languages in Europe and America, where speaking and writing are mostly identical, they took the difference between those two in Japanese as a sign of backwardness.

This was also the time when “verbatim” as a notion first emerged. Inoue explained that the word for verbatim in Japanese, “chikugo” symbolizes the image of a little boar on the run. She said that in a time of drastic changes in Japan, language suddenly acquired legs and started running away, so much so that one had to catch up with it: “Because of this tremendous sense of ephemerality, everything was changing… If you don’t catch it now, it’s going to be gone.” Inoue’s continuing research sheds light on the gendered nature of technical skills, professional ethics and institutional practices that underlie the modernization processes of nineteenth century Japan.


Professor Miyako InoueMiyako Inoue, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, presented a talk to the Clayman Institute Research Fellows titled: “Gender and Fidelity: Stenography and Ventriloquism in Late Nineteenth Century Japan.” Inoue is a faculty research fellow at Clayman Institute and at the Stanford Humanities Center for the 2011-12 academic year,

 Elif BabulElif Babül received her PhD in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University where she was a Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow 2011-12. This Fall she begins her new faculty appointment at Mount Hollyoke College.

Responses to Gender and fidelity in late nineteenth century Japan

Fabrizio G. Verruso's picture
11 July, 2012 Fabrizio G. Verruso (not verified)

Despite Japanese experience, in Italy the job of stenographer is generally and largely associated with femaleness without any relevant difference with stenotype technique (as an example, you can see the gender of employees at the Italian Senate, 18 males and 31 females, the same happens in my regional Parliament, the Sicilian Assembly, in which maleness is minority). I also desire stress that accuracy in my opinion, also for my experience, is not linked to "intimacy" about the person, but probably about the "matter", without any difference between maleness and femaleness. About the "reading of mind" you write, I argue that this possibility and ability is linked with the "intimacy" with the content of your speech. I mean, if the stenographer knows the matter, probablu during the speech, is also available to fortelle next words-contents in a reasonable contest! We meet in a precedent IPRS meeting, I'm the stenographer at the Sicilian Parliament who held a lecture about the judicial value of parliamentary acts... My cordial regards, Fabrizio G. Verruso