“Animates vs. Inanimates”
“Battle of the Sexes”
You should not think of Japan as “female” just because she was used. This is a misunderstanding.
English does not use gender as an abstract grammatical category in a way that closely corresponds to how gender is sometimes used in some (but not all) of English’s neighboring languages.
Rather, English uses “gendered” pronouns as a way of marking animacy in those pronouns’ antecedents. Animacy is a grammatical category that indicates we are thinking of something as possessing a will, a soul, a spirit — an anima. Animals have it; vegetables and minerals do not.
Once we impute an anima to something, real or imagined, that thing stops being an “it” and starts becoming a “he” or a “she” — or a “they” to specify animacy without specifying sex.
The pronoun it is not so much a “neuter” singular pronoun as it is an inanimate or animacy-unmarked one. You cannot use it for animates without denying them their animacy.
The pronouns he and she do not refer to sexual genitalia, but to two mutually exclusive classes of animates. One does not refer to steers or wethers as “its” any more than one refers to eunuchs and castrati that way.
They are each of them still he/him/his. They have not become rocks just because their gonads are no more. The same is true of barren women: they are still shes, as any “fixed” lioness will vehemently assure you.
The pronoun they is used not only for a singular animate of unknown or unspecified (or irrelevant) gender but also for a plural of anything at all whether animate or not. Someone you haven’t met yet still has an anima even before you get to know them.
When people “poetically” (read: metaphorically) refer to seas or oceans or rivers or automobiles or naval vessels or rocket ships as he or she, those people are intentionally imparting animacy to that thing. Once it has a putative anima, folks are now thinking of that thing as a they of one or another sort.
As to why it is more often a she than a he or a they, well, that’s a very long tale that would not fit in this page’s margins; suffice it to say that this choice varies a lot by speaker, by intent, and by era, but that there are broader patterns to be pulls from the tea leaves if you stare at them long enough.
The use of it for a country denies that country its spirit, its soul, its anima. We have turned a nation of people into an inanimate thing, less than dead.
It is for this reason that in the past, poets and plebeians alike were wont to use an animate pronoun for a nation. Why they would so often choose a feminine flavor is probably because of the nourishing qualities attributed to it, just as we do with alma mater versus fatherland. If schools can be the mother of our soul, surely nations can have animas in a metaphorical way.
While it for countries is common enough today, it is by no means assured. In fact, sometimes it sounds wrong to use it. Sure, she might today stand out as overly specific, but we still have a third animate pronoun set to choose from, and this one is often the only one that works: they/them/their/theirs.
Compare these two versions:
- Russia admitted the missing submarine was theirs after all, not Norway’s as had originally been suspected.
- Russia admitted the missing submarine was its after all, not Norway’s as had originally been suspected.
To me, and I think to most other native speakers, the first version sounds much better than the second. The lost vessel belongs to the Russians in their capacity as animate beings, not a legal abstraction.
By the same way of thinking, instead of using theirs there, you could also use belonged to them. Notice also how the corresponding it version doesn’t sound so good: belonged to it might even sound “off”.
Truth be told, I often but not always prefer they over it for this type of thing, but there’s no hard and fast rule. It really depends on the exact sentence and the sense I wish to convey.