Review on September 17, 2009
A study by Jay Morgan Zeseron continues the research on the differences between how American and Japanese women express their menopause symptoms. Language both drives and shapes culture. Thus, the results of anthropologist Margaret Lock's 1983-84 survey would not surprise many familiar with the comparative stoicism and reserve of Japanese culture. In the survey, Lock found that Japanese women expressed feeling hot flashes, one of the, only at a third of the rate that American woman do. Fewer than twenty percent of Japanese women aged 45-55 reported having ever even experienced these menopause symptoms. This astounded researchers since hot flashes and other symptoms are perceived to be a universal phenomenon among women. Zeseron's "How Japanese Women Talk about Hot Flushes: Implications for Menopause Research" refutes the idea that Japanese women do not experience these menopausal symptoms. Rather, it is that researchers do not know how to get them to talk about their menopause symptoms.
While the Japanese language is notorious for having a number of ambiguous terms that vary slightly depending on context, Japanese women have their own manner of expressing their menopausal symptoms. The Japanese are highly attuned to subtle variations in their health and their language reflects this. For such a stoic culture, they have a surprisingly large amount of expressive phrases to describe symptoms of menopause and other forms of pain.
In terms of expressing signs of menopause, the vague formality of their language is more than made up with phrases that suggest - and are acted out - with gestures. For example, hot flushes can be expressed as either "From my chin up, I get heated and flushed with steam" or "I suddenly get red hot." Japanese also use the first phrase in the context of blushing from embarrassment, the second for having drunk too much sake. Other phrases they have to describe menopausal symptoms are: "to be irritable, to be gloomy, to be nauseous and to feel rickety or shaky".
While many Japanese women denied experiencing these menopause symptoms first hand, they were willing to talk in precise detail about what their "friends" experienced. From the tone of these conversations, it was apparent that many of their friends suffered from these symptoms of menopause and that Japanese women thought it a normal experience for their friends to have. One presumes that, like many people when they talk about their "friends," these women were actually talking about themselves.
Until recently, Japanese women did not even have the precise medical vocabulary to express their signs of menopause. The term for hot flash in Japanese (hotto furasshu) obviously marks it as a loan word from English. In Japanese, hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms have now changed from women's language to professional language.
This change in the definition of the menopause symptoms marks an elevation of the status of women in modern society. Once their symptoms of menopause have been put into medical context, they can seek help for it, rather than suffering in silence from "getting heated and flushed with steam." Japanese women have the highest life expectancy in the world and the lowest fertility rate. By 2025, twenty five percent of the population will be over sixty-four. Many Japanese women will need to be treated for menopause symptoms and they will need to have the adequate language to be able to do it.
Language is the by-product of cultural forces. Symptoms of menopause are felt by the individual. To describe these menopause symptoms, therefore, there must been an intersection between the culture and the individual. This is problematic, obviously, because no two individuals - and no two cultures - are alike. Hopefully, studies such as those conducted by Lock and Zeseron will help bridge this gap so that women from different cultures can talk with themselves, researchers and medical practitioners about their signs of menopause.
- Zeserson, Jan Morgan. How Japanese Women Talk about Hot Flushes: Implications for Menopause. (2001.) Medical Anthropology Quarterly.