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Sunday, March 31, 2002

Speaking in tongues with many a twist

Japanese has been standardized, but its dialects survive and thrive

Staff writer

A long time ago, in a university far, far away, I began studying Japanese with a text that our well-meaning instructors told us was standard Japanese, the kind of Japanese that could be used anywhere in Japan.

My university had an exchange program with a Japanese university in the Osaka region. I was not to go to Japan until after graduation, but a student who participated in the program came back speaking a language that was quite unlike the textbook drills.

One memorable day shortly after his return, our class was asked by the prim and proper Tokyo-born Japanese instructor to ad-lib basic conversation. Fifteen years later, I still don't know what flowed from his mouth, but whatever it was, the student's non-standard reply infuriated the teacher. "That," she said in a quiet voice but with eyes flashing anger and surprise, "is not Japanese. That is Kansai dialect!"

Unless foreigners are condemned to having all their Japan experiences within the Yamanote Line, most of them become aware quite quickly of the fact that Japan is peppered with regional dialects, quite different from the standard Japanese spoken in Tokyo. (Tokyo, by the way, has its own distinct dialect, which can still be heard in the Tsukiji and Asakusa districts).

Japanese linguists generally agree that prior to World War II, regional dialects varied greatly from prefecture to prefecture and even from village to village. During the early part of the 20th century, as Japan began industrializing, workers from the countryside began pouring into the factories of Tokyo and Osaka to meet the growing labor demand. The Meiji government realized that the wide variations in local dialects were an obstacle to communication in the nation as a whole.

The government therefore found it necessary to create a common language that could be understood inside and outside Japan. This was the start of hyojungo (standardized Japanese). Around 1900, Kazutoshi Ueda, a linguistic scholar, published an influential treaty called "On Standardized Japanese," which promoted the dialect of the capital as the common language. Ten years later, it was generally accepted among linguistic scholars that Tokyo-ben equaled standard Japanese. By then, the government was making efforts to have this "new" language taught to Japanese throughout the nation.

"What became known as common Japanese was actually the language that was used among the middle classes living in central Tokyo at the time," said Tetsuyuki Ideno, a senior executive with Kansai Telecasting in Osaka. "The spread of this kind of Japanese was greatly aided by NHK radio and, later, by television."

Initially, the idea of making the Tokyo dialect the standard for the country was opposed by Kansai-based scholars, including Masaji Ando. He wrote in the 1920s that the Tokyo dialect was not standardized Japanese but rather an idealized form of speaking that was not practical for most people. Local dialects continued to thrive.

In fact, it wasn't until after World War II, when the Education Ministry was revamped and television came along, that the spread of standardized Japanese picked up steam. But despite the efforts of NHK and the Education Ministry, regional dialects, although weakened, did not die out. Today, the Tohoku dialect (spoken in Japan's northwest), Kansai dialect (spoken in the Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe region) and Kagoshima dialect (spoken in southern Kyushu) are the three main dialects that foreign students of Japanese hear the most about. But these are just a small fraction of the linguistic diversity of Japan. The speech of the Okinawans and the Ainu people in northern Hokkaido, for instance, are considered to be less dialects and more separate languages.

Whereas standardized Japanese was the product of a movement to filter Japan's linguistic richness into one clear stream of spoken Japanese, today the movement is quite the opposite. Japanese-language enthusiasts are encouraging these dialects and sub-dialects, even going so far as to publish English/local-dialect glossaries online.

While the study of the Tohoku or Kagoshima dialect might be just an intellectual exercise for some, it can be crucial to those who move to regions where the local dialect takes precedence over standard textbook Japanese. In other words, it can be just as much a matter of basic survival. My former Japanese teacher's opinion notwithstanding, local dialects are indeed "Japanese" and a vital part of the country's personality and identity.


Along with the Tohoku dialect, Kagoshima-ben has a reputation for being particularly difficult for outsiders to understand. Linguists believe that, given Kagoshima's relative isolation from the rest of Japan, the dialect may be the result of several languages -- including Japanese, Okinawan, Korean and perhaps even Chinese -- merging over the centuries.

Whatever its origin, Kagoshima-ben is decidedly different. Let's say you're visiting Kagoshima and, having blurted out greetings in your NHK-approved Japanese, you find yourself invited to one of the area's drinking establishments. The following morning, when your significant other asks where you were all evening, you can reply: "Assudoshi to nonkeita" ("Tomodachi to nomi ni itta," or "I was out drinking with my friends.")

Your significant other, in turn, might scold you with, "Annaka kotsu sutto yanedo!" ("Abunai koto wo suruna," or "Don't do something so dangerous!").

A quick glance at a Kagoshima dialect dictionary reveals a large number of similar-sounding phrases that can be used for self-defense when thus cross-questioned. One that comes up often in television or radio dramas featuring men and women speaking Kagoshima-ben is: "Wai no yuccho kotsu wa icchon wakaran" or, in standard Japanese, "Omae no itte iru koto wa zenzen wakarimasen (I have no idea what you're saying.")

It is not that such phrases are used only for arguments and discussions between men and women; this is clearly not the case. But the speech patterns of the Kagoshima dialect often sound fiery or argumentative to non-locals. The Kagoshima area is considered particularly volcanic, and the dialect, for many outsiders, reflects the geology.


Of all the local dialects in Japan that survived standardization efforts, Kansai-ben -- or, more properly, the Osaka dialect -- is by far the most vibrant. Thanks to classical rakugo and manzai routines, which were written in Kansai-ben, as well as the popularity of Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo comedians nationwide, it continues to thrive, despite the fact that many Japanese, like my old teacher, look down their noses at it.

"It's quite interesting because Kansai people, especially Osaka people, consider the Osaka dialect to be warm and friendly," says Junko Okamoto, an Osaka-based Japanese-language teacher who was born and raised in Yokohama. "But many Japanese outside the region see it as rough and crude. That's partially because there's still an image of the dialect being the language of gangsters."

That's partially due to the fact that the Osaka dialect often sounds unrefined to sensitive Tokyo ears. It starts with simple greetings. The traditional way Osakans greet each other is "Mokkattemakka? (Are you making money?)," a phrase considered uncouth by the Tokyo samurai class, which traditionally looked down upon the Osaka merchants (except when they needed a loan).

Then there is the tendency among Osakans to substitute vowels for consonants. For example, saying "Honma?" instead of "Honto?" for "Really?" The dialect can also sound abrupt. Take, for example, when Osakans say "Een, chau?" instead of "Ii ja nai desu ka?" for "That's all right, isn't it?" In Osaka dialect, the phrase "to chau," a shortened form of "to chigaimasu," usually serves the function of "ja nai desu ka?" in standard Japanese.

Verb endings, meanwhile, are relatively straightforward. Where you would use "-nai" as a verb ending, replace it with "-hen." For example, "wakaranai," or "I don't understand," becomes "wakarahen." "Ikanai" or, "not going," becomes "ikahen." You can even shorten the expressions further to "wakaran" or "ikan." It is when you've reached that point that you've become an Osaka-jin.


Akita-ben is often considered the most common form of Tohoku-ben, and to Japanese from outside the region, it is said to sound like mumbling. Popular legend has it that Tohoku's cold winters mean that people don't want to move their mouths any more than necessary.

There is also a curious but oft-repeated theory that because the Tohoku dialect emphasizes softness of pronunciation and often substitutes vowels for sounds that, in standard Japanese, are consonants, people from Tohoku can speak French far more easily than people from, say, Kansai or Kyushu. More specific distinguishing characteristics of Akita dialect include the use of "sa" instead of "ni" as a directional particle. "Doko ni ikimasu ka?" -- "Where are you going?" in standard Japanese -- is shortened to "Do sa?" in Akita.

Differences run straight down to the most basic sayings. "How are you?" and "I'm fine" -- usually "Genki desu ka?" and "Genki desu" -- are expressed "Mame da ga?" and "Mame da" in Akita-ben. When saying goodbye, instead of "Ja ne," Tohoku people would say "Heba mazu."

"Taihen desu ne," or "That's terrible," is "Yoi de ne na." And that all-purpose word that beginning students of Japanese love for its diversity, "Honto? (Really?)" is "Ndakke?"

Want to brush up on your Tohoku dialect? Feel like joining the yakuza but can't speak the Kansai dialect? Bilingual Internet sites devoted to regional dialects include: Akita-ben: www.tatami swap.virtualave.net/AkitaGeneralInformation/AkitaGuide/ genlife/ben.html Kansai-ben: www.coara.or.jp/~ht/KANSAI/study.html Tosa-ben: www.baobab.or.jp/~stranger/mypage/tosaben.htm Kagoshima-ben (in Japanese only): www.osumi.or.jp/sakata/hougen/hotitle1.htm

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