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Dialects, History etc

Just as all languages evolve, Japanese has evolved over the past 2000 or so years into a series of dialects. The difference between each dialect is much less pronounced than with languages such as Chinese, but the variation is arguably a little more than the various dialects of English. Dialects take time to evolve.

The history of Japanese settlement has been such that the language slowly spread over the course of around 1000 years from the western parts of Japan to the east and north as the Japanese speaking ethnic group gradually conquered the archipelago and established what we now know as Japan. As a result areas of Japan such as the northern island of Hokkaido have a much briefer history of settlement by Japanese speakers than say Kansai or Kyushu. Over this long period of time, Japanese evolved into regional dialects. This process was accelerated, as it has been in many other countries, by:

  • isolation on islands, peninsulas, or from other communities by geographic barriers such as mountain ranges,
  • the natural limits imposed on trade and domestic migration by pre-industrial age transport technology,
  • the social restrictions on trade and domestic migration imposed by long periods of feudalism,
  • a largely agrarian economy,
  • intermittent or constant civil war and social dislocation.

    Tokugawa Ieyasu
    Tokugawa Ieyasu - 1542-1616 Mikawa warrior
    & unifier of Japan
    Prior to the 17th century Japan was basically a series of independant and often warring fiefdoms/countries. One of these countries was called Mikawa, and was the stronghold of a feudal lord who was eventually known as Tokugawa Ieyasu (born in Okazaki castle in 1542). During a long period of civil war, Tokugawa Ieyasu used the Mikawa region as a stronghold. This was partly due to its strategic location (all movement between Eastern and Western Japan had to go through the Mikawa), partly because in an era of frequent betrayal - it was safest to rely on one's own clan. The Tokugawa ruled Japan without interruption throughout the Edo period until the opening of Japan and Meiji "restoration" in 1868.

    After more than 100 years of more or less constant civil war and upheaval, the enforcement by the Tokugawa Shoguns of a long peace meant the re-establishment of transport links and an increase in trade. The movement of the capital to a new location (a former fishing village on what is now known as Tokyo Bay was quickly transformed into one of the world's largest cities) meant a dramatic increase in traffic along the main arterial road - the Tokaido - which naturally runs through Okazaki just below the castle. The increased trade meant that new words and vocabulary spread further and more quickly than before.

    The main impact though was that with the movement of large numbers of Mikawa warriors and Tokugawa clan members into positions of power (both in the new capital known as Edo and in strategic points around the country) there was a greater amount of centralization than previously encountered in Japan. The Mikawa dialect became the base for the language used by the military government in Edo, and all who had dealings with it. To prevent rebellions, the Tokugawa shogunate maintained a policy whereby the various regional lords (daimyo) had to spend a significant period of time in Edo each year, maintain houses and servants, and leave their families in Edo as hostages when returning to their fiefs. The result was that many of the words, phrases and pronunciations used in the Mikawa were widely transmitted. It was these systems that unintentionally began the systemization of a standard dialect - at least amongst the ruling class, much as strong central government from Paris in France had a similar impact on linguistic variation in regional France.

    However, the feudal social system in place during the Edo period, and the difficulty of travelling long distances also meant that dialects persisted (as they still do of course). It was only with the advent of genuine mass-media that the 'standard dialect' - that by the Meiji period (after 1868) was spoken by government officials, the educated, and people in frequent contact with both - could be diffused widely. It was written Japanese which was standardized quickest - due mainly to the role of printing presses, newspapers and publishing. Textbooks, curriculum and testing procedures became standardized. The spoken language has also changed dramatically; the role of nationwide broadcasting, mass media, easier intra-country travel etc has diffused the 'standard dialect', officially known as 'hyoujungo' ("hyoujun" meaning standard, "go" meaning language). Linguistic variation is increasingly based more on generational than regional influences, though the later does continue to some extent particularly in regions such as Kansai, Kyushu, Shikoku and Tohoku.

    In modern day Japan all young people are taught in hyoujungo and use it almost universally in schools and workplaces - at least if others are also using it. Many older people still use the dialects only, though can usually understand hyoujungo without trouble.

    At Yamasa (as with all schools) you will be taught in hyoujungo. If you homestay you will find that almost without exception, family members will speak hyoujungo. In this regard, a homestay in Okazaki City is probably more beneficial than a similar stay in a Kansai dialect speaking area. As a foreigner learning Japanese it is usually best to learn the hyoujungo first, and then study dialect variations later as hyoujungo is the dialect that will help you in your future studies or career. However, this does not mean that you should ignore dialects or regional differences in Japan's language, food, customs and culture. A Kansai dialect speaker in Kyoto is just as Japanese as a Hiroshima dialect speaker in Iwakuni. It is these differences that enrich Japan's culture. And appreciating the regional variety will leave you with a better understanding of Japan.

    Examples of dialect

    The hyoujungo "kirei desu ne" (meaning = isn't it pretty) can vary in the everyday speech of Japanese depending on the region they live in. In the Kansai dialect it would often be rendered "kirei ya na". The Kansai dialect covers most of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Wakayama and Mie. The same "kirei desu ne" in Hiroshima dialect is "kirei nakatta ne" - interesting because "nakatta" is usually used as a negative in hyoujungo.

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