On June 8, the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported on a fascinating phenomenon — one that may be a harbinger of a broad cultural and social movement in Japan.
The article was about a movie being made in Aomori Prefecture in the Tohoku region of the country. Titled “Ultra-Miracle Love Story,” it is being billed as jun-aomori-san (a pure product of Aomori).
Scores of movies have been set in Honshu’s northern prefectures that comprise the Tohoku region. Recently we have had the Oscar-winning “Okuribito (Departures),” set in Yamagata; “Hula Girl” in Fukushima; and “Tsuri-kichi Sanpei (Sanpei’s Hooked on Fishing),” which uses Akita as a location.
But what distinguishes “Ultra- Miracle Love Story” from the rest is that, despite using the Aomori dialect throughout, it will not be subtitled in standard Japanese when it is released.
The Aomori dialect is so distant in pronunciation and word usage from standard Japanese that much of what is said will be incomprehensible to Japanese people from outside that region — just as a film with entirely Geordie or Glaswegian dialogue would be virtually incomprehensible to British people not from Newcastle or Glasgow, respectively. If you think you can understand these accents, just fugiddaboutit.
However, the Aomori dialect is further from standard Japanese than either Geordie or Glaswegian are from the standard English accent, which is based on the dialect prevalent in the southeast of the country. It is a bold move to script dialogue in such a dialect and not include standard Japanese subtitles. Perhaps we will have to wait for an international release of “Ultra-Miracle Love Story,” so that English subtitles can guide us through the thick and thin of the ultra miracle.
Films in dialect have a long history in Japan, though they have generally used the more familiar dialects of the Kansai region around Kyoto and Osaka. Kon Ichikawa’s 1980 “Koto (The Ancient Capital),” based on a novel of the same name by Yasunari Kawabata, is largely in Kyoto dialect, specifically the version spoken in the city’s Gion entertainment district. Daisuke Ito’s marvelous “Osho” from 1948 has large segments in Osaka dialect, so helping to give the film its plaintive, poignant texture.
But really, what’s the big deal about a new movie exclusively in a Tohoku dialect?
Well, the big deal comes from the fact that Japan, perhaps more than any other developed country, has concentrated its representative culture in one city — that is, in Tokyo. Everywhere else is called, in Japanese, the chiho. Chiho in this case means “the provinces.” In other words, there is Tokyo and then there is everywhere else out there, bundled into one “non-Tokyo” entity.
This is particularly the case with the language. The word namari, for instance, is the equivalent of “accent” in English — with one major exception. In English, everyone has an accent. In Japan, people who speak standard Japanese (hyojungo), which is based on the Tokyo dialect, are not regarded as having a namari. Namari, then, effectively means “an accent that diverges from the standard.”
During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), a policy was adopted of punishing pupils in schools nationwide for speaking their own dialect in the classroom. The practice of making such pupils wear a hogen fuda (“dialect tag”) around their necks, the equivalent of a dunce cap, was prevalent in “the provinces” right up to the wartime period, and, in some regions, for up to two decades after it.
Moreover, back in 1906, the Meiji government, eager to unify Japan politically, ethically and socially, took control of the nation’s school textbooks and decreed that prefectural governments would no longer have control over the language used in the classroom. In other words, dialects were treated as relics of a feudalistic past. Sadly, with this the rich linguistic cultures of regions other than Tokyo were negated; and this tendency has continued, though in a modified form, until the present day.
Of course, Japanese TV viewers love “local color,” and every Japanese dialect can be heard spoken on TV, particularly in travel shows that feature regional customs and “different” cuisine. But these have an exotic flavor to them, much as if those reporting from such districts (virtually all of whom are from Tokyo) were visiting a foreign country. Oh, aren’t our provinces so ethnic and so “rich” in things that are different! The standard, needless to say, is the lifestyle and language of the Tokyoite.
This may sometimes be seen in the English-speaking world as well, but there TV programs and dramas set in districts other than the capital are generally taken at face value — not as having some quaint ethnic content. For instance, if someone on the popular British crime-and-cop show “The Bill” speaks Scouse (the dialect of Liverpool), he or she is just another character in the drama, not an item of domestic exotica. And actors cross over the dialect barrier in films without audiences or critics batting an eyelash: Britain’s Anthony Hopkins is Nixon; New Zealander Russell Crowe depicts the brilliant American mind of Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathemetician John Nash; and Renee Zellweger, a Texan, reincarnates as Bridget Jones, a frustrated thirtysomething Londoner.
This is no big deal because there is no non-accented English. If an actor is capable of portraying a character from some area other than their own native one, it is a move linguistically sideways, not down.
That’s why the phenomenon of films set in Tohoku, using the local dialect, may be symbolic of a change in Japan, a change that is consistent with the decentralization of administration that we are witnessing, if only on a minor scale as yet, in the political arena.
I believe the Japanese are about to discover what might be called kokunai ibunka (domestic ethnicities), and begin accepting them as “normal.” (The word “ibunka” literally means “different cultures.”)
This development would not so much be a discovery as a rediscovery of Japan’s extremely rich and variegated culture outside the center of power. Whether it be language, food, art, performance or design you are seeking, the place to look in the past was “the provinces.” These places once considered themselves centers of culture. They had immense pride in their local culture and traditions.
However, for the past 100 years this has been largely negated or downplayed in importance. Japanese people looked to countries overseas for inspiration. Perhaps they will now take the advice of the American novelist Thomas Wolfe and “Look Homeward, Angel.”
Nonetheless, I do wish they would subtitle “Ultra-Miracle Love Story” in standard Japanese. After all, if someone said to you, “dekkireda,” you’d want to know how to respond. This is “I hate you” in Aomori dialect. Does anybody out there know the Aomori phrase for “fugiddaboutit”?