This blog post is based on LanguageARC’s newest project, the Japanese Dialect Project, where native Japanese speakers record themselves reading passages and describing folktales in order to display lexical and phonetic differences within the Japanese language. The project also asks participants to note their hometown so there is record of linguistic variation as it relates to geographical location in Japan. To participate in this project, click here.
Variation within Japanese has been studied in Japan for a long time. In 1868, the Meiji government implemented a national dialect survey and documented language variation across Japan. However, the survey was conducted because the government wanted to create a single “standard” Japanese that everybody in Japan used, therefore discouraging citizens to speak in their local or regional variants of Japanese. The term “hyojungo” (Standard Japanese) appeared at the turn of the 20th century and was used as a symbol of nationalistic unification for Japan.
Dialects in Japan are classified based on their linguistic differences and are divided into four categories: Eastern Japanese, Western Japanese, Kyūshū, and Hachijō, with smaller subcategories. These divisions are shown below in a cladogram.
Wikipedia, Japanese Dialects
However, drawing clear dialect boundaries is not always easy because they might not stay confined to just one geographic area. Additionally, people move around and can mix different features of dialects in their daily lives.
How Dialects Are Used Today
Many people today speak what is considered “standard” Japanese, or Tokyo dialect, with varying amounts of regional expressions, pronunciation, and vocabulary. This way of speaking has become common, and can be seen in many parts of Japan. Often, older individuals will use more “dialectal” features than younger individuals in their daily language. Standard language is favored and used more among the general population and in the media, but there are definitely efforts to study and use dialects.
Example of Variation Between Standard (Tokyo) Japanese and Kansai Japanese
Note that these are common occurrences, but not every individual uses these words or speaks the same way.
Standard Japanese: 知らない (shiranai)
Kansai Japanese: 知らへん(shirahen)
Standard Japanese: だった (datta) (was- past tense)
Kansai Japanese: やった (yatta) (was-past tense)
Note: Using ya instead of da is common in many different dialects. In some dialects, ja is used instead of da.
Wikipedia, Japanese Dialects
Standard Japanese: わかる (to understand) (wakaru) (pronounced with a low-high-low pitch pattern- waKAru)
Kansai Japanese: わかる (to understand) (wakaru) (pronounced with a low-high-high pitch pattern- waKARU)
Head to LanguageARC to participate in the Japanese Dialect Project and other citizen science language projects. Find LanguageARC on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, or heard directly to the LanguageARC website to contribute. Look forward to more blog updates in the future.
Heinrich, Patrick, and Yumiko Ohara, eds. Routledge Handbook of Japanese Sociolinguistics.
Onishi, Takuichiro. "Mapping Japanese Dialects." Dialectologia: Revista Electrònica (2010):
YouTube. (2021, July 22). Standard Japanese vs dialects (Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima). YouTube.
Retrieved April 14, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVwZosGJ6wA