When I was a kid, I didn’t understand why Chinese was sometimes called “Mandarin,” or “Mandarin Chinese.” What does that mean? Is it Chinese or not? What is Cantonese?
My past misunderstanding is a common one. It’s easy to conflate language with the modern nation-state in the morass of modern politics, and this confusion is a deliberate creation. Our understanding of language, much like everything else in our world, is shaped by institutions and ideologies whose goals are not to objectively define an existing phenomenon but instead to prescribe a definition that is convenient or suitable for an ideological goal.
The difference between a “language” and a “dialect” is often more an issue of politics than strictly description, particularly in a modern context. If a Mandarin speaker goes to a village in southern China and can’t understand their “dialect,” then can it be called a dialect? At what point is it a different language entirely? Linguistic scholars have argued for centuries over these definitions, and I don’t have a concrete answer. I do, however, know one thing: Japanese, much like Chinese and English, is not a monolith. It is a diverse group of vernaculars worth learning about in its entirety. Without taking into account the history and diversity of the Japanese language, we cannot fully understand the context in which anime and other Japanese media is produced. In this article, I will talk briefly about the history of “standardization” in Japan before breaking down some dialectical differences and looking at the challenges these complexities pose to translators.
If you were to take a Japanese language class at an American university, you would be taught a form of Japanese that is referred to as “standard Japanese” or “standard language” by most people living in Japan. It is a form of the language that originated in the elite households of Tokyo in the 1800s. This style was designated as standard Japanese by the government of Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912).
Before, there was no “official” form of Japanese, at least not in the modern sense. The early modern polity that the Meiji government replaced, the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868), wrote all official documents in an older style of written Japanese. Most domain elites across the country could read the style of writing that the shogunate used in its missives, but there wasn’t yet a national education system or official standardization of language. Japanese historian Amino Yoshihiko notes in Rethinking Japanese History that his friend and fellow researcher Tsukamoto Manabu found that the writing style of local village documents tended to change to match the style of the current lord of their domain. The written language thus varied quite greatly depending on who was writing the document, to whom they were writing, and from where they were writing.
Despite this clear variance in writing style, there was still a relative consistency to the written language due to the limited number of people who had the chance to learn to read and write. The same could not be said for the spoken word. One shogunate official who visited the northern city of Morioka in the Nanbu domain (now located in the modern-day Iwate prefecture) in the late-eighteenth century recounted that he could only understand two or three out of every ten words people in the city spoke to him. The daimyo (lord) of the domain gave the official two local interpreters to help him understand the words of local villagers, but even the Morioka-based interpreters could not understand the speech of villagers in some areas of Nanbu.*
*This account is taken from Edwin Everhart’s PhD dissertation, which I will talk about more later in this article.
Clearly, the languages spoken in different parts of the Japanese archipelago were not mutually intelligible. Even within individual domains, the language from village to village could vary enough that people from different villages could not understand each other.
When the Meiji government took over after the collapse of the shogunate in 1868, officials were seriously moving towards the “modernization” of Japan into a cohesive nation-state that could rival the states of the West. Their first linguistic goal was a similar one that societies all over the world struggled with: the push to write in vernacular language, or, in other words, the push to match the written script of Japanese with the language currently spoken in Japan. But what was the vernacular of Japan? What “dialect” should become the “standard?” Although some people argued for the dialect spoken by elites in the ancient capital city of Kyoto, the proponents of the Edo (which had been newly renamed Tokyo) variant ultimately won the day.
*Note: the following paragraphs on the development of kokugo are indebted to Neriko Musha Doerr’s article “Standardization and Paradoxical Highlighting of Linguistic Diversity in Japan,” published in the October 2015 issue of Japanese Language and Literature.
But the truth about linguistic variation in pre-Meiji Japan was complicated and didn’t fit the unifying goals of the new government, so a form of linguistic and literary heritage would have to be retroactively created. This took shape as kokugo, or “national language.” Meiji intellectuals envisioned a linguistic heritage that all citizens of the Japanese nation-state would share, even in areas that had never been a formal part of “Japan” before the 1800s, such as Okinawa. Kokugo, thus, prioritizes unity over diversity; classical texts such as the tenth-century Tale of Genji are held up in kokugo as exemplary texts of “old” or “traditional” Japanese, an imagined form of Japanese that kokugo proponents argued as being the basis for the modern variants spoken by people across the archipelago. This form of written Japanese may have existed in the courtly estates of Kyoto nobility, but it was most certainly not a form of Japanese familiar to many of their contemporaries living elsewhere.
Starting in 1900, the government required children to take kokugo as a subject in all public schools. By standardizing the language of instruction in classrooms across Japan, the government could expose citizens from all corners of the country to the “standard” form of Japanese and impress upon them a shared heritage, thus creating a modern hierarchy of “dialects” with Tokyo dialect at the top. Kokugo classes remain a required part of curriculum in Japanese schools to this day. Think of them sort of like a hybrid between the American high school English class and Latin class. There’s a mixture of modern literature but also quite a bit of literature written in a form of Japanese that modern speakers cannot read without devoted study.
Despite the unifying influence of standard language and kokugo classes, there are still many dialects in Japan today. One of the dialects best represented in Japanese pop culture is Kansai dialect, a variant of Japanese spoken in the Kansai region of Japan. Kansai is home to the second most populous metropolitan area in the country; cities within its borders include Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe. However, there are also different variants within Kansai dialect. My friends in Osaka have told me on multiple occasions that Osaka dialect is distinct from Kyoto dialect, for example. When I asked what the difference was, one said that Kyoto dialect speakers sounded more “old-fashioned.” Kyoto was the former capital and home of the Japanese emperor for over a thousand years, and its linguistic reputation reflects its history.
People from Osaka, on the other hand, have been paradoxically described to me as “friendly,” “aggressive,” and “funny.” Many of the famous comedians who launched their careers during the modern boom of manzai comedy in the 1980s were from Osaka. The city was also famous in the early modern period for its wealthy merchants, a reputation that has continued in some form or another to this day. These social factors have influenced Osaka dialect’s image all over Japan, even within the ranks of the local speakers themselves. Osaka dialect is a source of pride for many Osaka natives. One friend explained the phenomenon to me through the finger gun joke. If I were to point a finger gun and “shoot” someone in Osaka, they would flinch. But if I did the same to people in Tokyo, he argued, most people wouldn’t play along. He cited this argument as one of the reasons why Osaka is “more fun” than Tokyo. I have yet to verify these claims, but he is not the only one to tell me something along these lines.
Even more confusingly, some people argue that there are multiple dialects within Osaka dialect! Osaka prefecture (the capital of which is Osaka City) supposedly has many variant sub-dialects depending on the town. To make matters more confusing, dialects don’t just magically change the moment you cross the modern political boundary of “Osaka prefecture.” People living near the border speak with varying degrees of influence from the Osaka cultural center in the city.
All of this is to say that the subject of Japanese dialects is quite confusing, even in a modern context. At what point are we just splitting hairs? How many of the differences are linguistic, and how much of it is just a regional pride thing? The answer probably varies case by case and is never black and white.
So if there are plenty of different dialects, how do they differ from each other in actual conversation? The first and most obvious answer is that different dialects have different lexicons. Put another way, dialects use different words to represent similar ideas. For example,
とても (totemo) = very (formal standard dialect)
すごく (sugoku) = very (casual standard dialect)
めっちゃ (meccha) = very (casual Kansai dialect)
なまら (namara) = very (casual Hokkaido dialect)
Standard dialect words such as totemo and sugoku are also used in other dialects with varying frequency. Likewise, although meccha is generally understood as originally being from Kansai dialect, many younger people around Japan have come to use it, perhaps in part due to the many comedians who speak variants of Kansai dialect on television.
There are also grammatical differences between dialects. For example, the negative form of verbs conjugates differently in standard dialect and Kansai dialect.
Standard dialect: たべない (tabenai) = (do) not eat
Kansai dialect: たべへん (tabehen) = (do) not eat
Standard dialect: できない (dekinai) = cannot do
Kansai dialect: できひん (dekihin) = cannot do
The “nai” sound becomes “hen” (or “hin,” depending on the vowel sound before) in Kansai dialect.
Furthermore, sometimes pronunciation is different even if the words and conjugations are the same. In the Tsugaru region (in Aomori prefecture), many unvoiced consonant sounds become voiced in conversation. For example, the word for “six” in standard dialect, usually pronounced “roku,” is often pronounced as “rogu” by speakers from the area around Tsugaru.
Japanese is a pitch-accent language, which is functionally similar to English’s use of stress to enunciate words (and not to be confused with tones from languages such as Chinese). Japanese has two pitches, high and low, that native speakers fluctuate between when speaking. For example, in standard dialect, the word 箸 (chopsticks) “hashi” is pronounced HAshi, with the “ha” sound high and the “shi” sound low, but the word 橋 (bridge) “hashi” is pronounced haSHI, with the “ha” sound low and the “shi” sound high. Check out the below video to hear these words pronounced out loud:
However, in many dialects in the Kansai region, these are actually reversed, with bridge pronounced as “HAshi” and chopsticks pronounced as “haSHI.” Totally not confusing at all.
The combined lexical, grammatical, and pronounced differences all add up to very different sentences. Take the below example, sourced from a speaker of Nagasaki dialect:
(Nagasaki dialect) でも同じ九州やけん、いいよることはまあ理解出来る。
(Standard dialect) でも同じ九州だから、いっていることはまあ理解出来る。
(Nagasaki dialect) demo onaji kyuushuu ya ken, iiyoru koto wa maa rikai dekiru.
(Standard dialect)demo onaji kyuushuu dakara, itteiru koto wa maa rikai dekiru.
Well, since we’re all from Kyushu, I can more or less understand what they are saying.
“Da,” which is the casual form of “desu,” often becomes “ya” in Kyushu dialects and “kara” likewise becomes “ken.” The present progressive tense also conjugates differently in Nagasaki dialect. In standard dialect, something called the te form (so-called because the form ends in the hiragana character for “te”) of the verb is followed by the verb “iru,” but in Nagasaki dialect, the stem form of the verb is used instead and is followed by the verb “yoru.” In this basic sentence alone, there are three significant grammatical/lexical differences.
This example sentence is from a text conversation where I asked the speaker from Nagasaki how easy it is for her to understand people from Kagoshima, another prefecture on Kyushu island. She responded by saying that she can mostly understand what they are saying but also added that when Kagoshima people speak fast or get angry she often cannot understand them. Even now, in the twenty-first century, dialects from neighboring prefectures can sometimes be almost unintelligible to each other.
Efforts to preserve dialects in the face of the spread of standard dialect are also complicated. Local governments and tourism agencies have in recent decades attempted to advertise distinct local flavor through the use of dialect in promotional materials. Sometimes these advertisements are meant to appeal to local residents as a sign of regional pride. Other times, they are supposed to evoke a sense of local charm for tourists looking to get a “true local” experience.
Unfortunately, these marketing attempts tend to oversimplify or even outright incorrectly define different dialects. Edwin Everhart noticed this ironic phenomenon while conducting dissertation research in Iwate prefecture for the University of California. He describes an example in northern Iwate where a small fishing village called Kuji is supposedly renowned for its use of the interjection “je.” However, most linguists and actual inhabitants of the town will tell you that the expression was only used by a small part of the town in the past. Now that Kuji has become associated with the term, townspeople sometimes feel obligated to use it in order to be seen as a “true” native of the area.
“Machi okoshi” movements, a term used for regional revitalization committees that try to bolster the economically-faltering countryside of Japan, often contain these contradictions. In their attempt to create a marketable product, they blur historical lines and package them into something easy for tourists to understand. Many times, government and local efforts to preserve the diversity of the Japanese language run the risk of erasing certain local dialects in favor of others. Viewers of the P.A. Works anime Sakura Quest might recognize this marketing conflict as one of the key issues the characters face as they try to increase tourism to a rural town.
Unfortunately, all dialects are not made equal in the eyes of society. The mere concept of “dialect” already implies a sort of hierarchy, and it doesn’t take much looking to see this playing out across modern Japan.
During his time at Iwate University, Everhart interviewed several students in detail about their experience with dialect. As a relatively renowned university in northeastern Japan, Iwate University attracts students from all over. Two of the students Everhart interviewed, Sawada and Narita, both came from Tsugaru and spoke with a Tsugaru-area accent, famous even in the northeast as being difficult to understand. Sawada took great pride in her language abilities, even going as far as to teach fellow students from different regions about her dialect. In contrast, Narita felt ashamed about his accent when he first arrived at university and felt unable to participate in conversations with others. He had difficulty speaking in standard Japanese and worried that his accent would single him out among his peers. There was an unspoken pressure for him to speak standard dialect and speak it well.
The relationships that people have with their spoken dialect are complicated and heavily influenced by their own social experiences. Attempting to mirror this relationship when translating dialogue into another language brings this complexity to a whole new level. How does one convey the characters’ feelings towards their accents or the accents of others? Searching for an “equivalent” dialect of English when translating dialects such as Tsugaru dialect is probably an impossible task, but there are some translators that have taken on the challenge.
Jake Jung, a translator for Sentai Filmworks, has written the subtitles for many different anime series, such as Made in Abyss and Flying Witch. Flying Witch, a story about a witch named Makoto who moves in with her relatives in the countryside while she learns witchcraft, poses a particularly difficult challenge to translate. Makoto’s family lives in Aomori prefecture and her elder relatives and neighbors speak Tsugaru dialect in the original Japanese. The dialect is so heavy that Makoto, as a Yokohama native, must sometimes get her younger cousins to interpret for her.
I spoke with Jake briefly about his experience translating Tsugaru dialect into English.
Could you tell me a bit about your process in translating Tsugaru dialect in Flying Witch? What sort of English did you use, and why?
Jake: I translated Flying Witch for Sentai four years ago now, but I’ll do my best to recollect my process. To give you some background on the situation, the main character, Makoto, hails from Yokohama (near Tokyo) and speaks standard Japanese. She moves to Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, where people speak Tsugaru dialect. If I remember correctly, her cousins speak in a way that is somewhat close to standard Japanese. However, her uncle has a very thick Tsugaru accent to the extent that it was a plot point that Makoto has trouble understanding him, and her cousin has to “translate” what he says into standard Japanese for her. So, against that backdrop, I asked myself what the dialect was trying to accomplish within the story, so I could attempt to reproduce that in English. And I also asked what a rough equivalent would be in terms of (an American) English accent. Normally, I don’t try to overdo accents, but here it was quite important to be rather over-the-top, as I wanted it to be painfully obvious the uncle was speaking in a non-standard way to the point that, like the original Japanese, his speech was almost hard to understand. In the context of Japan, Aomori Prefecture is fairly rural, and Makoto’s uncle is a farmer, so I went with a Southern U.S. country accent. I suppose I channeled something like a slightly toned-down Boomhauer from King of the Hill.
How would you describe the characters’ feelings towards Tsugaru dialect and standard dialect? How do you feel that Tsugaru dialect is viewed by people who speak standard dialect, and vice versa?
Jake: Sometimes when a character from the countryside moves to Tokyo, their dialect can be ribbed or ridiculed to some extent. However, in the case of Flying Witch, Makoto moves away from the Tokyo area to Aomori, and the show in general portrayed Aomori and its relaxed pace of life in a very positive light. So, basically people from Aomori (such as Makoto’s cousins) know that Tsugaru dialect is hard to understand for someone who grew up speaking standard Japanese, but the accent is never shown in an “Oh, those dumb uneducated country bumpkins” kind of way. On the flip side, Makoto’s cousins speak something closer to standard Japanese, which mirrors real life as younger people in rural Japan typically speak in a toned-down local dialect compared to their (grand)parents’ generation.
What was the most challenging part of working with a property in which dialect plays a relatively prominent role?
Jake: Deciding on how I wanted to approach the issue wasn’t that hard, actually. However, the challenge was in the nitty-gritty of choosing the actual words of each individual sentence, as I myself grew up in Michigan with a Midwestern accent as opposed to a Southern one.
Translating dialects from another language into English is challenging. Tsugaru dialect doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English, so translators such as Jake Jung have to be creative with how they localize dialogue. In the case of Flying Witch, Jake accounted for the rural setting and Makoto’s difficulty understanding her older relatives and selected a dialect familiar to many English speakers that has similar associations in popular fiction. Check out Jake’s Twitter for more about his translation work.
Japanese dialects have a complicated history that appears deceivingly simple in language standardization efforts and tourism promotion campaigns. Far from uniform, Japanese is a constantly evolving language with a wide variety of spoken forms. There is a myth, encouraged by modern political discourse and then sometimes unwittingly spread online by fans of Japanese media, that Japan is a homogeneous country where everyone speaks a monolithic language. This is misleading at best. The diversity of the Japanese language is such that speakers of one dialect will struggle to understand speakers from other parts of the country. The social relationships between these linguistic variants are rife with issues, and fans of Japanese pop culture can better understand the media they consume by taking notice of these complexities.
*A special thanks to TheMamaLuigi for his help proofreading!
This article is part of my series on the Japanese language. If you enjoyed this article, please check out the other entries in the series!
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