Deciphering the Dialects of Japan
When I came to Japan in 2003, I had already taken a few semesters of Japanese at a college back home. I studied at a university in Kobe, and quickly realized that there was a distinct difference between what I heard spoken around me and what I had learned in the classroom.
I recall a conversation I had with an older man in Kyoto. He gestured to me and asked, “さむらい？” (are you a samurai?) to which I wasn’t sure how to answer or why he was asking me. It was amusing when I found out that he was actually saying “さむない?” (aren’t you cold?) which is a dialect and contraction of さむくない or さむくないですか.
I remember another conversation I had with a woman where I had replied “そうだね” to her, only to be giggled at because the woman said that I sounded like a textbook. What I said was not incorrect, but she was referring to the standard Japanese I was using. (In the Kansai region of Japan “そうやね/そうやな” would be the equivalent).
After spending some time in Kobe, I realized that not only did people often speak in a casual way which was different from the polite forms I had learned in school, but the Kansai dialect was another hurdle for me to tackle.
Some dialects seem so alien to Japanese people that it actually sounds like a foreign language to them.
Why do dialects exist?
The Kansai region of Japan (or Kinki region) lies in the southern-central region of Japan’s main island called Honshu and is generally used to describe region of Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto (as well as the surrounding areas of Mie, Nara, and Wakayama). Nara was the capital of Japan from 600-794 and then Kyoto from 794-1868.
During the Edo period (1603-1868) under the Tokugawa shogunate rule, Japan’s Daimyo or feudal lords severely limited people traveling between fiefs. People even had to obtain official documents to prove that they had received permission to travel. Failure to have these documents were met with the punishment of arrest or in some cases even death.
The restriction of travel and stagnation of movement within the country consequently produced the formulation of many dialects. Moreover, Japan’s naturally mountainous terrain led to villages being geographically separated. Each village developed their own unique festivals, traditions, food, and of course their own way of speaking.
I have heard it said that villages would use their own dialect as a way to identify spies from another clan. Naturally part of being a spy was inconspicuously blending in with everyone else, but the various dialects spoken in every village were apparently too difficult to fake and it was easily noticed if someone spoke differently.
The development of 標準語 (standard Japanese)
In 1868, the capital was moved to Edo (now named Tokyo) and swarms of people started gravitating there. Consequently people from various regions of the country that flocked to Tokyo had difficulty understanding each other so a standard way of speaking was developed so that everyone could communicate smoothly. The education of Japanese people in standard Japanese and other factors such as television helped to spread the standard Japanese around country. In addition to this, the industrialization, urbanization, and modernization of Japan, rapidly increased the use of Hyoujun-go throughout the country.
Despite the fact that today Hyoujun-go is used much throughout Japan and people usually do not have any trouble communicating with each other, some of the dialects from the more rural parts of Japan remain unintelligible to many people. These dialects from the rural areas of Japan such as 博多弁 (Hakata-ben）seem so alien to Japanese people that it actually seems like a foreign language to them (even requiring the use of subtitles on television).
How do Japanese people feel about their dialect? Well for the most part it seems to evoke a sense of pride in many of the people that I have spoken to. Japanese people can have a sense of pride with their dialect because it becomes part of their identity. They feel a certain sense of closeness with another person that speaks the same way that they do.
I have spoken to a number of Japanese people that say when they speak in their particular dialect with someone else that speaks the same dialect, they feel a sense warmth that they don’t feel when they speaking with someone else in hyojungo. Many people in Kansai have told me that they feel more distant from a person when speaking hyojungo.
People may also be proud of their dialect due to the obvious fact that speaking a dialect is not something that everyone can do. It is difficult to do well, even though people naturally develop it from childhood or spending an extended period of time somewhere.
The people in the Kansai region seem very proud to speak Kansai-ben and are not only impressed if anyone from another region in Japan is able to learn it without sounding unnatural, but are seem even more impressed if a foreigner is able to learn it.
communicating in a dialect can be a tough hurdle to tackle, but one that is rewarding in many ways.
Even though many people that I have spoken to say they are proud to speak their dialect, I have spoken with some people that feel a bit embarrassed to speak in their own dialect. Although pride and embarrassment seem contradictory, I think it is logical that some people would feel one way or another.
Why is it that some Japanese people tell me that they feel embarrassed to speak in their dialect? Many people that come from a less populated area of Japan have said that it is embarrassing to speak in their dialect in front of others that do not. This is probably attributed to the fact that people generally do not want to stand out. Conformity is extremely important in Japan, so people moving to the city naturally want to fit in (which means speaking how everyone else is speaking).
This may also be because some dialects of Japan can sound “rough”. I spoken with a few people that spoke “banshuu-ben” (a dialect from around the Himeji area) Some people that speak this dialect have told me that it sounds quite rough to people that don’t speak it, and they are sometimes hesitant to speak it.
I have heard that some people are hesitant to speak their dialect because it would reveal the fact that they come from the countryside (and also because they assume that no one would understand them). Coming from the countryside has traditionally and to some degree to this day been something that some people tend to not want to be associated with.
Urban areas have always been a place of developing and emerging technology, fashion and business. In general, new things are associated with what is considered “cool”, and things that are old are thought of as “un-cool” by the younger generation. This has been changing in Japan somewhat recently but still remains a factor to a certain extent today.
The majority of people in Kansai seem quite proud to speak Kansai-ben as it is undoubtedly part of their identity and they find a sense of familiarity and closeness that they don’t feel with standard Japanese.
Students studying Japanese should be aware that because different dialects exist in Japan, what they hear might from a Japanese person not be what they have learned in school. They should also be aware that depending where they go in Japan, communicating in a dialect can be a tough hurdle to tackle, but one that is rewarding in many ways.