What a bloody language

Lately I seem to be surrounded by menstruation.

In Japanese, there are no real euphemisms for it. It’s called seiri (生理) and you see the word all over the place. Near my apartment there’s a massage place with a sign in big letters advertising “30-minute course: relief for your menstrual cramps!” The section of the drug store that would be labeled “Feminine Hygiene” in America is labeled “Menstrual Products” (生理用品) in Japan. And it’s not just in the public sphere: one of my lady friends posted to her (semi-anonymous) online diary about how she was having “the worst menstrual cycle of my life!”

English isn’t quite as direct. When I came back to Tokyo, one of my first jobs at the office was to put together a set of employment rules for a company. Every Japanese company has them, and they’re fairly detailed. One of the important parts is a list of reasons for which an employee can take a day off, and severe menstrual discomfort is among those reasons. I translated that provision into English rather literally, but the CCH model rules suggested that I say “When the Employee is affected by a natural calamity and finds it extremely difficult to perform her duties…” Wow, a calamity? That’s harsh.

Of course, a literal translation by a non-native speaker is often worse. I’m thinking of a sign I saw in a unisex restroom. In Japanese, it said “生理ナプキンを流さないこと”—”do not flush sanitary napkins.” There are many ways to say this in English: airplane lavatories tell you to “please use the waste bin for trash other than toilet tissue.” But the translation on this sign was direct: “Don’t throw menses napkin!

This being the country that invented the Sound Princess, I can’t believe how direct they are about, err, periodic feminine issues. Makes you wonder what our problem in the Anglosphere is.

7 thoughts on “What a bloody language”

  1. Surrounded by menstruation? I think that’s one of the thousand hells of Buddhism. Not one of the famous ones like the hell of knives or the hells of fire or ice, but somewhere down near the bottom of the list, where hells start to get really specialized.

  2. Well, remember that 生理 itself only means “physiology.” And look at the characters — “life” and “reason.” Not exactly graphic.

  3. That’s true, 生理 itself is kind of a euphemism, and has a double meaning. The two words I know that ONLY mean menstruation are 月経(gekkei), which characters of which basically mean “monthly cycle” and メンス(mensu), which is just an abbreviation of the word “menstruation.” I’m sure there’s also plenty of colorful slang terms out there than I’m not familiar with.

  4. At the company I work at in the US they DO say “don’t flush feminine products” on the stall door … then again I’m in California and the person who put the sign up was probably not of the same American culture that is squeamish about that sort of thing. Honestly, while I say that I still don’t think America is as uptight as everyone presumes. It’s sort of a stereotype that’s perpetuating even though it’s starting to peel away.

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