Rural Japan and Japanese dialects as seen from Tokyo

Even though put together I have lived in Japan for more than two and a half years, I have had an extremely narrow exposure to Japanese dialects. This has bothered me a lot, because I know that there exists a plethora of dialects around on the Japanese archipelago, with quite strong regional differences, to the point that inhabitants of some parts of the country would almost not be able to understand each other at all should they speak in their respective dialects. In fact, I have felt some regret at times that I didn’t apply for a rural university in Japan, instead of in Tokyo, since my own Japanese intonation as a result closely resembles that of the «standard» Tokyo dialect – and not a more «unique» dialect from the countryside. In Tokyo, the only dialects you ever hear is the Tokyo dialect, and sometimes a soft version of the Kansai dialect (which I will return to later). The same largely applies for television. If you by chance do encounter a sample of Touhoku-ben (North-Eastern Japanese) in a television drama, it will likely have been used solely for comedic effect, spoken by a poor, rural simpleton in a highly exaggerated and stylized manner.

Wakaba’s father, who has come on an unexpected visit to Tokyo. From the 2011 drama Zenkai Girl (全開ガール).

A few days ago, I watched a television program where some young female idols were ranked according to their sense of fashion. One of the girls’ dressing was judged to be unfashionable, and this was expressed as «You look like you come from a rural area.». The girl quickly frowned and said «Oh no!». Although one should be careful to read too much into examples like this, I believe they do somewhat reflect the intuitive perception many urban Japanese have of rural areas.

Japan has historically had strong regional cultural and linguistic traditions. In the Edo Period (1603 to 1868), the Tokugawa shogunate implemented a centralized feudal system, where communication and movement between the hundreds of hans (藩) – domains controlled by a feudal lord (daimyo, 大名) – was strictly controlled and limited. The result was large differences in culture and dialects between these isolated areas. At the time, although de facto power was wielded by the shogun in Edo (today’s Tokyo), the emperor and his court and the aristocracy still resided in the capital Kyoto. With the end of the Edo shogunate came the Meiji Restoration (meiji ishin, 明治維新), the capital with the emperor was moved to Tokyo, and a process of centralization of administration, communication and power that continues to this day was started. The national economy centered more and more around Tokyo, and the industry and international trade was largely situated in Osaka and Kobe, near Kyoto. For these and other reasons, Japanese language and culture can be very roughly divided into an eastern part, centered around the urban area around Tokyo (Greater Tokyo Area, shutoken, 首都圏), and a western part, centered on the urban area encompassed by Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto (keihanshin, 京阪神).

Example of the Japanese east/west divide: Eastern Japan uses 50Hz mains frequency, while western Japan uses 60Hz.

In Tokyo, home to the Japanese government, the biggest Japanese companies, mass media, and the most famous universities, people largely consider themselves to be speaking «standard Japanese». Indeed, Standard Japanese (hyoujungo, 標準語), as written in offical documents and spoken on national television, is very close to the dialect spoken by people in Tokyo and the surrounding area. This includes those Japanese who have moved from other parts of the country to Tokyo, whether you meet them on the street or on the television screen. With educational and professional opportunities being quite limited outside the big cities, people from all over the country have been immigrating to Tokyo since Meiji times, though the flow has been slower since the 1970’s . These newcomers are likely to change their dialect as soon as they hop off the train in Tokyo Station, already quite fluent after having been exposed to Standard Japanese on television since their childhood, and will probably hardly utter a word in their own dialect until they go visit family and friends in their home region. Announcers on national television are required to practice speaking as close to Standard Japanese as possible, and actors are expected to do the same – unless playing the odd role of a rural character, in which case she must speak it in a slow, clear manner, focusing on the intonation and the dialect words or suffixes well-enough known outside its region for speakers of Standard Japanese to understand it.

This way of treating dialects is fairly alien to me. In my native Norway, dialects have a relatively high status, and changing one’s dialect when moving to a new place is for most people out of the question. After living many years in a place different from where one grew up, one’s dialect may get quite thinned out, but it is usually straightforward to hear from someone’s intonation and choice of words what approximate region he is from. Both my parents are immigrants to my home-town, and they both still speak distinctly in their own dialects, while I speak the dialect of my home region. Although some dialect-related stereotypes persist in the media and culture, most Norwegians seem to be proud of their own dialects, as an important part of their identity and family history.

In Kansai, the region south-west of Tokyo which includes the urban Keihanshin area, dialects are wielded with a (possibly) similar confidence. Although there are many different dialects, they are collectively called Kansai-ben (関西弁, Kansai Dialect), and share a similar intonation which is distinct from Standard Japanese. Although even many people from Kansai will switch to Standard Japanese when moving to or travelling in Tokyo, many will not, confidently revealing their home-region through their speech (albeit tweaking their dialect a little for easier communication with Tokyoites). On television, too, one will sometimes hear Kansai-ben, but usually uttered by performers of owarai (お笑い) or manzai (漫才), a type of Japanese stand-up comedy. Performers have traditionally (and do still largely) come from the Kansai region, and Kansai-ben has therefore become the standard language of owarai.

A large part of the reason that people from Kansai use their own dialect even in Tokyo, is probably that it was until relatively recently (150 years ago) the capital of Japan, and still retains some confidence and prestige. It is also home to the second largest urban area in Japan, the Keihanshin area, which together with the Greater Tokyo Area is home to 42% of Japan’s 128 million inhabitants. In comparison, the south-western islands of Kyuushuu and Shikoku seem like backwaters to the central urban populations, even if densely populated compared to most other countries. The north-eastern region, Touhoku, was traditionally home to the nomadic Ainu, an ethnically distinctive people now very few in number in Japan. The region was only slowly conquered by the Japanese nation and populated by peasants, but the cold and harsh conditions made for a (relatively) sparse population, a pattern which persists until today. The traditional image of Touhoku as a primitive, almost barbaric, region, probably still has an influence on many Japanese’s impression of the area.

When the restriction of movement between the hans was lifted with the Meiji Restoration, the influx of people to Tokyo, that continues until today, was largely economically motivated. The new economic and educational opportunities that came with the political reformation were mostly located in and around Tokyo, and the rural areas of the country was left with their rice paddies and other agriculture. The result was a poor countryside, and the dream of many young Japanese was to go to Tokyo to escape their destitute situation. While the situation has changed somewhat since then, rural Japan still has a poor economy and lacking educational opportunities, and this is likely reflected in many Japanese’s image of the countryside. This is probably part of the reason why many Japanese do not want to speak their own dialect when in Tokyo; they do no want to be associated with the stereotypical poor, uneducated simpleton from the countryside.

Another reason may be that their dialect might simply by unintelligible to people from other parts of the country. Norwegians can speak to each other in whatever dialect they wish, because everybody will understand them – why, we can even understand the language of our neighbouring countries (Sweden and Denmark), not ever having studied it! In Japan, however, the much larger population and the historical regional isolation has contributed to very different dialects, to the point where communication between speakers of them must sometimes be performed with a third common dialect (Standard Japanese). It is worth to mention, however, that this is partly because Japanese have almost never been exposed to other dialects in the first place. National television has always almost only shown them Standard Japanese. There are from time to time also programmes about dialects, but they typically feature slow and clear (and thereby unnatural) speech, with words and phrases that are regarded typical for that dialect. Japanese have little opportunity to get used to the sound of other dialects. Japanese moving from one part of the country to the other do not have to learn a whole new language to live there – they just need some time to get used to the dialect there.

Whatever the reason, many Japanese seem to be embarassed by their own dialect. This link features a typical example: A young man from a rural area moves to Tokyo because of his job, and switches to Tokyo dialect as a matter of course. However, when his parents come to visit him, they embarass him by speaking loudly in their home town dialect, even when the three of them happen to meet a co-worker of the young man on the street. The man asks what he should do, or if anyone else have had similar experiences. Such feelings are probably enforced when speaking of dialect almost invariably causes smiles or laughing by listening Tokyo residents.

On the other hand, dialects are probably spoken widely within their actual regions. Although national television exposes people to Standard Japanese, the increase of regional television channels and more recently Internet television and radios lets people from the Touhoku region hear Touhoku-ben even in the mass media. While difficult to assess from here in Tokyo, I suspect that many dialects within the regions are disappearing as villages become de-populated, and that dialects in general converge around regional centers. I would assume this is also common elsewhere in the world. It is definitely a subject I would like to study in more detail. In the meantime, I think it would improve understanding between the rural and urban areas if dialects were spoken in more settings. Communication might be a little harder at first, but as knowledge of the various dialects spread throughout the nation, I believe it would have positive long-term effects.


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