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DIALECTS IN JAPAN

Dialect-rife Japan can be tongue-twisting

by Eric Johnston

The islands of Japan have many dialects, and students of the language often realize these variations are not taught in classrooms.

Strong regional accents, and grammatical structures and vocabulary different from standard Japanese, are proof of the country’s linguistic and regional diversity, a diversity often invisible in the streets of major cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Following are some basic questions and answers on Japanese dialects:

Isn’t Japanese one language?

While the language is Japanese, a wide variety of regional dialects means what people speak in southern Kyushu can seem like a foreign tongue to those from the Tohoku district in northern Honshu.

So what is “standard Japanese”?

Foreigners, and Japanese, learn “standard Japanese,” which historically is closest to the dialect spoken in central Tokyo.

As Japan industrialized during the late 19th and 20th centuries, millions of people from all over the country poured into the capital, bringing their local dialects with them. The government responded to this Tower of Babel by creating a form of Japanese to be taught in schools nationwide, and this was further promoted, especially after World War II, via the broadcast media.

What are the major regional dialects?

The ones most Japanese and foreigners who study Japanese are probably familiar with include the Kansai, Tohoku, Nagoya and Kagoshima regional dialects. Others include the Tosa dialect of Shikoku (in and around Kochi) and Hokkaido.

How do the dialects differ?

In standard Japanese, “konban wa” means “good evening.” In parts of Tohoku, however, it is “O-ban desu.” And the proper way to squeal when you see something “cute” is not the ubiquitous “kawaii” one hears constantly on TV, but “menkoi.”

A student in Toyama might admit not doing homework by saying “benkyou senda” instead of the standard “benkyo shinakatta,” while one in Fukuoka engaged in homework might emphatically say “benkyou shitotchan” instead of the standard “benkyou shiterunda” (I am studying).

There are also subdialects within the major regional dialects.

For example, in the Kansai region, the Kyoto and Osaka dialects are quite distinct, and within Kyoto, there are three distinct ones: the Gosho dialect used by those around the old Imperial Palace, the dialect of the merchants, and the highly specialized dialect used by the traditional “geiko” (the Kyoto word for geisha) of the Gion district.

Kyushu has a wide variety of dialects, as the Hakata dialect of northern Kyushu sounds quite different from the Kagoshima dialect.

Are those parts of Japan that are close to Russia, South Korea or Taiwan linguistically influenced by their foreign neighbors?

The island of Reibun, off northern Hokkaido, is within sight of Sakhalin but the local dialect contains no Russian. On the other hand, the dialect used on the island of Tsushima contains a number of Korean loanwords.

The islands of Okinawa, including Yonaguni, from which Taiwan can be seen on a clear day, have words and phrases that are a mixture of old Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese.

And what about Okinawan? Is that a separate dialect or a separate language?

That depends on who you ask. Many people, especially in Okinawa, believe it is. In fact, ordinary mainlanders can hardly understand if elderly Okinawans speak entirely using their traditional language.

However, some linguists have doubts, saying there is evidence it is merely a dialect, not a separate and distinct language. In any case, experts in general agree traditional Okinawan and mainland Japanese share ancient origins.

Most young Okinawans now can speak standard Japanese, but there is no doubt that within Okinawa there are many different dialects, or subdialects. Some used on outer islands like Miyakojima are barely understood by those who live in Naha, on the main island.

Just how prevalent are regional dialects today?

Certain regions have managed to keep their dialects alive, but the advent of a Tokyo-centric mass media that use standard Japanese for most news and drama programs, and Osaka-based comedians speaking in Osaka accents on game shows and variety programs, has led to an overall decline in regional dialects.

Fewer young people speak the language of their parents and grandparents. And those who wish to learn regional dialects from scratch find little in the way of study materials, while Japanese-language schools tend not to offer special classes in regional dialects.

Linguists say some of the lesser-used dialects are in danger of disappearing within a few generations.

I’m in a place where there is a strong regional dialect. Do I need to learn the regional dialect as well as standard Japanese?

There’s a difference between “learning” and “mastering.” The former meaning implies understanding enough to get by. As to mastering a dialect, there seem to be two schools of thought.

The first is the “just learn standard Japanese” school. The logic here is that standard Japanese can be used in most parts of Japan and in virtually all major cities, and is considered polite everywhere. Speaking in a regional dialect is sometimes frowned on in other parts of Japan in the same way certain Londoners dislike a Newcastle or York accent, or some Americans outside the South look down on those who speak with a southern drawl.

The second school of thought says it’s all very well to study standard Japanese in the classroom and to understand TV.

But if you’re not living where it’s used on a daily basis, you’d better master the local accent if you expect to truly communicate, or if you plan to live in that region for a long time.

And there is also something to be said about speaking and understanding a regional dialect that few of your friends, foreign or Japanese, can follow.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk