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Useful Notes / Japanese Dialects

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Sometimes, when you watch Japanese series or anime or play video games, you notice that some of the characters speak in an unusual dialect. Needless to say, despite the impression that the Japanese language has only one dialect, this is proven to be untrue. See also http://hougen.u-biq.org/.

The reason behind such notion is that like many other countries, the language has a standard form which is based on Tokyo speech. Also, the pervasive influence of media from Tokyo to other prefectures had caused resentment from the latter, and their accents are mocked as rough, crude, etc. Needless to say, here is a generalized but no ways exhaustive breakdown of Japanese dialects.

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Tokyo Dialect

There are actually basically two dialects; namely, Yamanote and Shitamachi. Yamanote was spoken by officials and upper-class people during the Meiji period; it is essentially the basis for Standard Japanese. The Shitamachi dialect on the other hand, is associated mainly with the lower class neighborhoods and merchants. It is also called the Edo-ben after the old name for Tokyo.

Since Yamanote is basically like Standard Japanese, the traits of Shitamachi were shown here.

  • confusion of hi and shi (ex. shichi "seven" becomes hichi and hito "person" becomes shito)
  • the fronting of the diphthong ju from standard Japanese tends to become ji. (ex. Shinjuku becomes Shinjiku)
  • [ɽ] becomes a trilling R.
  • ai, oi frequently becomes ee. (ex. wakaranai "not know" becomes wakaranee or wakan'nee)
  • ri sometimes becomes n, so okaerinasai "Welcome home" becomes okaen'nasai.
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  • The phrases teyandee "What are you talking about!?" and beraboome or beranmee "You bloody fool!"

Needless to say Yamanote dialect is characterized as the dialect of bureaucrats as well of media. Shitamachi/Edo dialect on the other hand, is associated with working-class Tokyoites. An English-language equivalent might be a Joisey or Cockney accent.

Examples:

  • Suneo's mother from Doraemon speaks exaggerated Yamanote dialect.
  • Higeoyaji from Astro Boy speaks typical Shitamachi dialect.
  • Joe from Ashita no Joe speaks Shitamachi dialect.
  • Shinichi of Detective Conan speaks in Shitamachi dialect.
  • Kankichi Ryotsu from Kochikame is a typical Shitamachi character and speaks Shitamachi dialect.
  • Marii from Joshiraku speaks Shitamachized accent although she is not from Tokyo.
  • Cat Ninden Teyandee has the aforementioned "teyandee" in the show's title. Given the Edo-based setting, Yattarou and many other characters naturally display this dialect.
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  • Hatsuho Shinonome from Sakura Wars (2019) speaks in Shitamachi dialect, given that she was born there.
  • Midori Asakusa from Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! sometimes slips into Shitamichi dialect, most notably during her impassioned rant towards the student council when the Eizouken is trying to get approved as a club (during that rant, she uses "teyandee" and "beraboome" quite a lot).

Kansai dialect

This dialect is prevalent in the Kansai region, composed of Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama, Shiga, and Mie. The impression to regular Japanese speakers is that of a boisterous, brash, outspoken or funny.

As it is a very common dialect in Japanese media, it is more described in detail here.

Tohoku dialect

This dialect is spoken in Tohoku region, composed of Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima. It is usually regarded as a typical rural accent and often associated with reserved and clumsy hicks. It is more described in detail here.

Kyushu dialect

This dialect is spoken in Kyushu, the southwestern island, composed of Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita, Miyazaki and Kagoshima. It is also regarded as a typical rural accent as well as Tohoku dialect, but Kyushu speakers are often viewed as rough, dynamic and stubborn.

In general, Kyushu dialect is characterized by these features:

  • adjective ends -ka instead of -i in Standard Japanese. (ex. yoi "good" becomes yoka and samui "cold" becomes samuka)
  • the conjunctive particle batten "however" instead of dakedo or shikashi in Standard Japanese.
  • the emphasis particles bai and tai is used in end of sentences.
  • the case-marking particle ba instead of o in Standard Japanese.
  • the emphasis and interrogative particle to or tto instead of no in Standard Japanese. (ex. Nani o shiteiru no? "What are you doing?" becomes Nan ba shotto?)
  • the polite copula gowasu is used in Kagoshima.
  • the first-person pronoun oi or oidon for men instead of the standard ore.

Examples:

  • Hosaku Samon from Kyojin No Hoshi speaks Kumamoto dialect.
  • Shogo Ban from Bambino speaks Fukuoka dialect.
  • Megumi Noda from Nodame Cantabile sometimes speaks Fukuoka dialect.
  • Natsumi from Sketchbook speaks Fukuoka dialect.
  • Muromi from Namiuchigiwa No Muromisan speaks Fukuoka dialect.
  • Marika Tachibana from Nisekoi speaks Fukuoka dialect when she is excited.
  • Sapphire from Pokémon Adventures speaks heavy Fukuoka dialect.
  • Yuri Katsuki from Yuri!!! on Ice is originally from Saga and both his parents speak with this dialect; Yuri himself usually speaks standard Japanese, but slips back into Saga dialect when he gets drunk. There's also Kenjiro Minami, who speaks Fukuoka dialect.
  • Tsukimi Kurashita from Princess Jellyfish is from Kagoshima and sometimes slips into Kagoshima dialect when she gets upset.
  • Tina Foster from Ai Yori Aoshi is American, but was raised in Hakata and thus speaks Fukuoka dialect. In English, this is translated as a cornpone Southern accent.

Hiroshima dialect

Hiroshima-ben is a typical dialect of the Chugoku region, the west of Kansai region.

Features of Hiroshima dialect are:

  • Standard Japanese uses a copula da, but Hiroshima dialect usually uses ja.
  • -teiru in verbs of progressive aspects becomes -yoru in Hiroshima.
  • The conjunctive particle kara "because" in Standard becomes ken or kee note  in Hiroshima.
  • The first-person pronoun is washi for men and boys, while uchi is for women instead of the standard ore, boku, and watashi respectively.

Unfortunately, this along with Kansai have earned the reputation of being seen as the Yakuza dialect due to a 1970s film named Yakuza where people speak in that accent. Hiroshima speakers are stereotyped as Large Hams with No Indoor Voice, combative, and looking for a fight. On the flip side though, whenever there are works set after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, this dialect is commonly used.

Examples:

  • Barefoot Gen is set in Hiroshima and thus the characters usually employ this dialect.
  • Mako Someya is raised by her grandfather from Hiroshima and picked up the accent.
  • Akainu from One Piece has a heavy Hiroshima dialect despite the lack of an actual Japan.
  • Nobuyuki Hiyama is from Hiroshima and would employ this dialect whenever a work needs him for it. With his character, Yutaka "Panties" Itazu of Eden of the East as one of the best examples of him showcasing this dialect.
  • Stella from Arakawa Under the Bridge speaks Hiroshima-ben whe she gets angry.
  • In This Corner of the World takes place in Hiroshima prefecture (mainly in Kure), so all the characters speak with this dialect.
  • Mima from Perfect Blue switches to Hiroshima dialect when she speaks on the phone with her mother.

Nagoya dialect

This dialect is spoken in the Nagoya region, the third-largest urban region between Kansai and Kanto areas. As such, it has the characteristics of both dialects while having its own distinctive accent.

In general, Nagoya dialect is characterized by these features:

  • ai and ae in Standard Japanese becomes æ (like the 'a' in 'cat' but longer) in Nagoya-ben. To Standard ear, this sounds like -ya. (ex. omae "you" becomes omyaa and nai "not exist" becomes nyaa)
  • The particle yoo instead of sa in Standard Japanese.
  • The particle gaya or gane is used for emphasis in sentences when surprised. gaya becomes gyaa in the exaggerated mimic Nagoya-ben.
  • Using doeryaa or dera instead of Standard totemo for an intensifier. (ex. doeryaa umyaa "very yummy")
  • The auxiliary verb mai or myaa is used for emphasis volitional forms. (ex. Issho ni iko! "Let's go about together!" becomes Issho ni ikomyaa!)

To outsiders, their way of adding words with -myaa or nyaa, being similar to the cat onomatopoeia "nyaa", made them think Nagoya dialect speakers are speaking like cats. Akira Toriyama was born in neighboring city of Nagoya, so he sometimes makes to appear Nagoya-ben in his works.

Examples:

  • King Nikochan from Dr. Slump speaks in Nagoya-ben.
  • Yajirobe from Dragon Ball speaks in Nagoya-ben to emphasize his wild nature.
  • Mr. 3 from One Piece also speaks in that dialect. In English, this was adapted to a slight British accent.
  • Spencer Hoko, an American baker from Yakitate!! Japan, lived in Nagoya and picked up the accent.
  • Kai Mikawa from My Bride is a Mermaid speaks this accent.
  • Chikako Awara from GA Geijutsuka Art Design Class speaks Chubu-ben, a fictitious dialect based on Nagoya accent and Kansai grammar. The story happens in Fukui, which is economically associated with the former.
  • Poland of Axis Powers Hetalia speaks in the Nagoya dialect, and in scanlations it's often rendered as Valley Girl speech.

Hokkaido dialect

Hokkaido people's accent is usually close to Standard Japanese because most of them are descended from settlers in the modern age. In early settlements, some people spoke a peculiar accent close to Tohoku dialect.

Hokkaido is the largest region in Japan and there are many large farms, so Hokkaido dialect tends to be associated to bighearted and easygoing farmer.

In general, Hokkaido dialect is characterized by these features:

  • Using be as well as Tohoku dialect.
  • Standard desho becomes ssho. (ex. anta mo ikussho? "You will come, won't you?")
  • The phrase shitakke "then" instead of Standard jaa
  • Using namara instead of Standard totemo for an intensifier.

Examples:

  • Saikano is set in Hokkaido and main characters speak Hokkaido dialect.
  • In a Detective Conan case, the Detective Boys meet an old man who speaks in Hokkaido dialect. They just think he speaks oddly, but Conan identifies the accent itself. The old man has kidnapped and put detective Takagi in a cruel Death Trap... set somewhere in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido.
    • Prior to that, the Detective Koshien arc featured one-shot teen detective (and Asshole Victim) Junya Tokitsu as the Hokkaido representative. Unlike the above instance, only the fact that he "talks funny" is relevant to the plot, so the English translation takes the... questionable tack of having him speak in L33t L1ng0.

Okinawan dialect

Prior to the 19th century, Okinawa was the center of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, and practically each island in the Ryukyu Archipelago had its own unique language, which was related to Japanese but became less mutually intelligibile with Standard Japanese as the distance from the main four islands increases. These Ryukyuan languagesnote  are:
  • Kikai (Shimayumita)
  • Amami (Shimayumuta)
  • Tokunoshima (Shimayumiita)
  • Okinoerabu (Shimamuni)
  • Yoron (Yunnu Futuba)
  • Kunigami (Yanbaru Kutuuba)
  • Okinawan (Uchinaaguchi)
  • Miyako (Myaakufutsu or Sumafutsu)
  • Yaeyama (Yaimamuni)
  • Yonaguni (Dunan Munui)
When the Empire of Japan annexed the islands in the 19th century, they dissolved the local monarchy and began a forced assimilation of the native people into Imperial Japanese society, which included suppressing the native languages which to this day are only considered dialects of Japanese. Following World War II, the American Occupation government attempted to promote use of the original native languages, but the locals refused, and kept using Standard Japanese in protest of the occupation. In the 21st century, most of the Ryukyuan languages are endangered, with increasingly fewer native speakers remaining, but the local governments in Kagoshima and Okinawa Prefectures have begun programs to preserve the languages for future generations.

Aside from these many languages, an actual fusion dialect of Japanese, Okinawan, and American English is spoken in Okinawa Prefecture, and is called Okinawan Japanese (Uchinaa-Yamato-guchi). Some major (often stereotypical) features of this dialect are:

  • hazu having a much fuzzier implication of an event happening
  • masho ne or yo ne being declarative indicators rather than suggestions
  • kara meaning "as" or "because" rather than "from" or "since"
  • saa being the informal sentence ending copula rather than da or jan
  • American English pronunciations of words like shaapu for "shop", paarii for "party", piitsa for "pizza", etc.
  • American English's tendency to use brand names for similar items like jaroo (Jell-O) for a chilled gelatin dessert, korugeeto (Colgate) for toothpaste, etc.
  • Other American English words such as pooku for any canned luncheon meat, tuuna for any canned tuna, peidei for payday
  • Using an approximation of "-er" to turn words into a person described by the word, such as ritchaa (richer) for a rich person, amerikaa (America-er) for an American person, naichaa (naichi-er) for a mainland Japanese person.
Okinawans are also seen as more laidback than mainland Japanese, as evident by the different meaning of hazu mentioned above. The term Uchinaa taimu (Okinawa time) exists to mean that scheduled events generally don't happen until much later. It's not uncommon for Okinawans, particularly the elderly, to take midday naps. It's also not unheard of for Okinawans to reach the age of 100.

Examples

  • Stitch! features a lot of Okinawan language and culture (taking inspiration from Lilo & Stitch's approach to Hawai'ian language and culture). A Kijimunaa (a trickster spirit) is even a main character.
  • Eureka Seven AO starts off in Okinawa. Naru Arata's illness due to her exposure to the Scub Coral has her treated as a yuta (a traditional Okinawan priestess and oracle).
  • Haitai Nanafa is primarily focused on life in Okinawa, and its title even contains the Uchinaaguchi informal feminine greeting haitai (the masculine form is haisai).
  • Yakuza 3 has Kazuma Kiryu moving to Naha, with several prominent landmarks present, but sometimes renamed. Ichiba Hondori gets renamed to the "Kariyushi Arcade"; kariyushi is an Okinawan word meaning "happy" or "lucky" and is used for the name of a unique style of patterned collared short-sleve shirt popularized by an Okinawa tourism board.
  • The Karate Kid Part II is one of the few Hollywood films set in Okinawa which is not about the war, but only because karate was invented on Okinawa.
  • Okinawa is also often the subject of a Class Trip in various anime and manga (due to its popularity as an actual location Japanese children go for class trips): Azumanga Daioh has an entire episode dedicated to such a trip, where Osaka becomes obsessed with the name of the Okinawan fried doughnut saataa andaagii and Sakaki befriends a yamamayaa, the critically endangered Iriomote wild cat.
  • Digimon Tamers has its goggle boy Takato being ethnically Okinawan due to The Movie showing his grandfather and cousin living there. The movie also features Seasarmon, which is based on the Okinawan shiisaa guardian dogs.
  • Godzilla has King Caesar, first featured in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, as a protector guardian of the royal family; again, based on the shiisaa.
  • Yo-Kai Watch 2 includes many Local Yo-kai that were originally obtained in the Japanese editions through a related arcade game. Happycane (Ukiukibi) and Starrycane (Tokimekibi) were the Yo-kai for Okinawa; in Japanese, Happycane says Nankurunai sa, which means "everything will be fine".
  • In episode 9 of Pop Team Epic, the A-part of the long Pop Team Story segment is in Surprisingly Good English, while the B-part is in Uchinaaguchi.
  • In Sakura Wars, Kanna Kirishima was born in Okinawa and thus speaks in the appropriate dialect.


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