Many people in Japan lead a double life — linguistically speaking, that is. In their community, they speak the hogen (dialect) of their city, town or village, while outside it they may be accustomed to use hyojungo (standard Japanese). Their native language, in the true sense of that word, is their dialect, not hyojungo.

Take Kyoto-ben (Kyoto dialect). A Kyoto woman who works in a large office with people who were born in various parts of Japan would speak standard Japanese. When she phones her son, however, who didn’t go to school because of the flu, she switches back into Kyoto-ben. “Kaze do? Yo natta? (or “Kaze do? Yoku natta?” in standard Japanese). In response to being asked if his condition has improved, the boy says, “Akan yo” instead of the standard “Dame da,” both of which mean, “I feel bloody rotten!”

Naturally, Japanese are most at home speaking their native dialect, and this would be the case in almost any other country as well. But in Japan there is something that might be called “the tyranny of the standard language.”

Tokyo, the capital of Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, imposed its own dialect and accent on the nation in an effort to unite the Japanese people under the flag of its newly defined national culture. Textbooks were written in standard Japanese, even though teachers broke into local dialect to explain things to pupils. Children who wanted to leave their region for educational or employment purposes were obliged to speak a version of Japanese that was acceptable to all Japanese, namely, hyojungo.

People from the northern prefectures of Tohoku were probably under the greatest pressure. This is because Tokyoites used to look down on people who spoke with what they loosely called zuzuben, another term for Tohoku dialect. For nearly 40 years I have been studying the literature of Kenji Miyazawa, a writer who spoke Iwate-ben (the Tohoku dialect spoken in Iwate Prefecture). Yet, when I first went to his hometown of Hanamaki, I could not hear the difference between suzu (bell), susu (soot), so desu (that’s right) and sosu (sauce). They all just sounded like “szszszszsz.

A comparison with Britain might clarify the situation. Until recent years, the BBC, like NHK, did not look favorably upon announcers and reporters who could not produce received pronunciation, more or less a refined version of England’s southeastern dialect. Now, however, one often hears a great variety of regional British accents on the BBC.

NHK has seen no such reform. The tyranny of hyojungo is still evident in news programs, where regional accents are shunned. Many professional people, such as architect Tadao Ando, do continue to speak their own dialect on television, as do some entertainers; but these people are virtually all from Osaka, where there is a stubborn refusal to bow to a Tokyo-dictated national standard.

What would happen if an NHK news announcer, in speaking about tori (chicken) — called kashiwa in Kyoto — said, “Honma ni koko no kashiwa wa oishii wa (The chicken here is really great),” adding, “Tokyo ni wa konna no wa arahen na (Tokyo doesn’t have this sort of chicken.)” Not only would he probably lose his job, but the Tokyo poultry association would be breathing down his neck in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

The situation gets more complicated when you look at the three major Kansai dialects, those of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, which are about as similar to each other as the dialects of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. A Londoner trying to speak Scouse (Liverpudlian) would be laughed at as heartily as a Tokyoite attempting Osaka dialect. The latter would no doubt be told, “Yamete okinahare (Leave it off, will ya?)”

Dialects are political. If Japanese dialects and accents became more acceptable in the media and in the workplace, everyone in a position of influence in Tokyo knows that they would be the losers. The only emperor now is the emperor of hyojungo.

Sharing the throne seems out of the question, or is it? Japanese would benefit from rediscovering the riches of linguistic variety. The media too needs to open up to difference. This will not make the country less unified. In fact, the opposite is likely to occur: A renewed energy flowing into Tokyo from all over the country based on pride in local culture and its expression may be just what the doctor ordered.

A double life can be doubly rich, and everyone can benefit from it.

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