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I just encountered the phrase 「男前な女」in the book I am reading. When I looked up 男前, it was defined as "good looks in a man," much like "handsome" in English. What does it mean when used to describe a woman?

Here is the context:

もし、兄の連絡を受けるようにすれば、あの生意気で男前な女の被る負担は少しでも減るのかもしれない。 Roughly: Maybe, if he was willing to put up with his brother's phone calls, he could lighten that cheeky, [?] woman's burden just a little.

(For what it's worth, the woman in question had been repeatedly described as a conventional beauty. The man who describes her as an 男前な女 is probably attracted to her but still oblivious at this point.)

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4 Answers

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A definition I found for 男前 is a bit different from what you (and I) originally expected: 男らしい顔つきや態度。男振りのよいこと。

So, I guess that this girl may behave a bit like a tomboy, or maybe show too much assurance.

Edit: after a quick survey around me (corpus size: two persons), 男前な女 is either neutral or positive, and is much related to the behaviour, not really to the look of the female in question. It could be applied for example for a person who says what she thinks a bit too directly. In the lack of more piece of information, I would personally not use it tomorrow before knowing more about the nuance and how some people may react to it :)

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I agree that it refers to her behavior in this context. Unless her looks is described as 男前 elsewhere in the book, it's more natural to interpret it in a similar sense with the preceding adjective: 生意気な, which is about impertinent behavior. Also, the polls in the article linked by Dave talks almost only about what behaviors make a woman 男前, which shows how common it is to apply 男前 to behaviors. –  ento Jul 26 '11 at 16:11
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As you guessed already, 男前 has an implication of "man-like" good looks. But using it on a woman is not in any way pejorative and merely indicates a certain type of style in their appearance.

A better translation than "good looks in a man" would be "tomboy", as Axioplase suggested, or, in a more historically fashion-conscious translation: "flapper" (1920's Garçonne style). Neither of which is incompatible with conventional beauty and might even have extra appeal to some (but might be unappealing to those who seek the more traditional gender-bound Japanese styles).

This page has a small (informal) discussion on what it means to be a "男前な女性", including examples of actual celebrity whose readers deem to be typical 男前な女性. Top two picks should give you a good idea of the style:

(as you can see with Yuki Amami in particular, the Japanese definition of "tomboy" essentially rests on wearing pant suits and cropping your hair somewhat short)

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Ooh, thanks for the pictures. I can sort of see what they're getting at. You're right that it's not incompatible with conventional beauty. –  Amanda S Jul 26 '11 at 15:24
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I agree with the other answers that 男前な女 refers to a woman with a somewhat masculine quality to her looks, in a positive way.

However, I think that "tomboy" is the wrong English equivalent. It does not match with your description of the context where the woman in question is "repeatedly described as a conventional beauty."

A tomboy is a woman who acts like a man or boy (depending on age) , and may dress the part, but it is almost entirely her behaviour. Whether she is attractive, whether in spite of or because of her tomboyish, is incidental.

On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable to describe a woman as handsome. It refers to her physical features and implies that she has a sort of masculine quality which adds to her feminine charms.

Thus, I think the best translation for 男前な女 is "a handsome woman".

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Just as an aside, when I think of "a handsome woman", I think of someone like Sigourney Weaver. And that was before I looked at the link provided and saw that, apparently, I'm not alone in that. –  Dave M G Jul 26 '11 at 8:54
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There's a LOT going on here....

First, the answer: it means "manly woman". You may be thinking, incorrectly, this is a scale: 1 is feminine. 10 is masculine. 4 is otokomae female (almost a man). 4 is otokomae male (almost a man).
Traditionally, the kanji "mae" didn't mean before. The kanji meant "way of moving", and it came from Kabuki theater. Someone who is "otokomae" is someone who could articulately be described as "moving like in the loveliest way a man possibly could". In other words, "He is an ambassador for men, and he represents their best features."

So, if there were a scale, an otokomae woman would be a woman who made the eloquent movements of the most 'gracefully', in the theatrical sense, moving man, so she could be anywhere from 1 to 5. She would, however, likely have a sturdy frame. As for men, they would likely be somewhere above 7, because they would have to be at least a little masculine to embody this. They would probably move with strong determination and flexibility.

Now, I want to send you a personal note about your sentence, and the nature of the Japanese language. You posted extremely unusual Japanese. As you may already know, the meaning of a Japanese sentence cannot be taken without the whole sentence. Likewise, in adult writing, the meaning of a sentence often cannot be divined until each sentence (including the last) has been read. It's often necessary to hold language in your head as you continue reading, so that the secret of the earlier sentences may occur to you at a later time, and it sometimes takes a very long time to get to that point.

If you really did get your unusual Japanese from a book (probably a novel), then you definitely should include more context.

Can you write in either: the two surrounding sentences, the entire paragraph, or the first and last sentence in the paragraph? Because if you don't, there's no way it can be understood.

The translation of the sentence you posted is like this, in English:

"If someone wanted to move towards gaining conversation (one of these people apparently being a woman, and the other being a man [the direction of the desire is likely revealed in another sentence]), the woman's burden of suffering through the brash statement, "You're a manly woman," could be reduced [by something that will be revealed in another sentence]."

So, sitting here, a speaker of Native Japanese and Native English, with my two exclusively Native-Japanese speaking friends (who are studying for their nursing exams), we're thoroughly perplexed by the sentence. We don't know what it means.

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Thank you for your help! Looking at the book, I don't think the surrounding sentences are going to help much--they're very plot-heavy. But I've put most of the page into Pastebin here. Basically what's happening is that 手塚 has a brother, 慧, who keeps calling him even though they had a falling-out a long time ago. 手塚 doesn't want to take his calls, but 慧 is in charge of an organization, the 『未来企画』, that Tedzuka and the woman he's thinking about are trying to get information on. 手塚 decides to start taking 慧's calls so she won't endanger herself for the info. –  Amanda S Jul 26 '11 at 15:45
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If it helps, this is how I translated the sentence I posted: "Maybe, if Tedzuka was willing to put up with Satoshi's capricious phone calls, he could lighten that cheeky, [handsome] woman's burden just a little." –  Amanda S Jul 26 '11 at 15:45
    
Well, if you mean that Tedzuka, a man, is taking Satoshi's calls so that a woman won't be endangered by any info she obtains from Satoshi, then perhaps they used that word to call her strong. Japanese women appreciate being called 男前の女 because it means they can do everything a man can do and more, kind of. They are taught to do everything (work, clean, cook, etc.), even when it's beyond their means, and they are only supposed to stop when someone insists on doing their work for them. Though it could also be seen as an insult, more dutiful women are usually called that as a compliment. –  千里ちゃん Jul 26 '11 at 16:04
    
It's like a man says: "Why are you so strong? I'm the man. Let me do it!" It makes a woman feel happy. –  千里ちゃん Jul 26 '11 at 16:05
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Ah, I see what you mean. Wow, 男前 can mean a lot of different things! –  Amanda S Jul 26 '11 at 16:22
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