April 14, 2008
by Kiyoshi Umaba
Kansai Dialect: a music and rhythm of Kansai people
Do you like learning Japanese? Or do you feel that it is difficult for beginners to speak a ‘standard style’ of Japanese? Language learners, especially those from Europe, the United States, and the Middle East tend to think that Japanese grammar, pronunciation, and sentence structure are very different from Indo-European languages or Arabic. If you are one of these people, however, you don’t need to be worried about this because in Japanese, the word order is rather flexible and also, if you mispronounce something we’ll do our best to understand you. In any case, learning only ‘standard’ Japanese is probably not the best way to improve your Japanese speaking skills, because so-called ‘standard Japanese’ is actually a dialect! It is ‘Tokyo-ben’, a dialect of the Kanto region centered in Tokyo. If you either live or plan to spend time in Kyoto and the nearby cities of Osaka, Nara, Kobe, etc. — the Kansai region — you should also learn some “Kansai-ben”!
By learning a Japanese dialect, you can enjoy a little different world, a bit like listening to local music! Different rhythms, distinctive flavors. Nowadays, we Japanese generally accept a person’s dialect as a way of showing that speakers’ identity — a person can express where he or she belongs. And with a little effort, even beginner students of Japanese can communicate with people who speak the Kansai dialect. So, let’s get started! First, some background…
What is Kansai-ben? History of the dialect
Kansai-ben is one of a diverse array of Japanese dialects. (The suffix ‘ben’ means ‘dialect’.) The Kansai region is located at the center of the island of Honshu, Japan’s mainland. Historically, the Kansai dialect has played an important role in Japanese grammatical or linguistic development because for a millennium the capital of Japan was located here: first Nara in the 8th century and then Kyoto (late 8th to late 19th centuries). Since Japan’s emperor, or ‘Tenno’, lived here the local languages in Nara or Kyoto were said to be ‘standard’ Japanese. In the Nara Period (710-794) or Heian Period (794-1192), the aristocrats in the two capitals had a strong power over the decision-making in the governments, and their linguistic style was popularly used in their own culture, which is reflected in literature such as “The Tale of Genji” written by Murasaki-Shikibu in 1009 when Heian-Kyo, now Kyoto, prospered the most culturally and politically. In the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600), when the most powerful samurai generals, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, controlled Japan and built their own castles, the merchants influenced Kansai-culture linguistically because the generals respected the merchants’ own lifestyles and businesses, allowing them to sell goods without paying any special taxes to local overlords. As a result, the mercantile culture prospered to the middle of the 18th century. This culture influenced language: after all, merchants fundamentally had to sell their products and make a profit, and when they negotiated prices on goods with commoners, they had to persuade them in a language both classes could follow.
However, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the capital of Japan moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. The ‘standard Japanese’ of Kansai-ben was now replaced, and the Meiji Government promoted Japanese education by speaking the new ‘standard’ Japanese based on the Tokyo dialect.
After the Second World War, despite the spread of standard Japanese, Kansai dialect regained some popularity with the birth of mass media such as television in the 1950’s. Except for NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai, or Japan Broadcasting Corporation in English), many programs picked up the Kansai dialect as an element of culture. And simultaneously, Yoshimoto Kogyo, the Osaka-based comedy production company, added momentum to the movement and helped make Kansai-ben a kind of standard conversational Japanese form around the nation. Via the media mentioned above, Kansai-dialect comedy shows (including ‘manzai’ stand-up routines) were popularized nationwide. Moreover, within this movement, another big phenomenon has been occurring, called the ‘neo-dialect’: Tokyo’s ‘standard’ Japanese and the Kansai dialect have been mixing, and non-Kansai-dialect native speakers try to imitate the intonation and usage of Kansai people.
So, as you can see, for centuries, Kansai-dialect has in one way or another been a representative element of Japanese culture.
kazami dori no yakata in Kitano Area, the center part of Kobe, the mansion of weathercock
Characteristics of Kansai-ben
The characteristics of the Kansai dialect vary according to the region and city, and since the number of expressions is shockingly enormous, we’ll focus on Osaka-ben, especially the expressions and characteristics frequently used in the economic heart of Osaka city. In this section, we’ll learn about basic and unique aspects of the dialect.
SUFFIXES. In Japanese, generally speaking, we tend to use the suffix ‘~san’ or ‘~sama’ for a person we have never met, or to signify respect for one we have met, such as when we host customers or guests. And they also tend to use these suffixes for gods or emperors to show respect for them in their conversations.
Ten-jin-sama → Ten-jin-san (Ten-jin = an alternative name for Sugawara no Michizane)
Tenno-heika → Tenno-san (*Tenno = emperor *heika = majesty)
okyaku-sama → okyaku-san (*okyaku= customer)
gakusei → gakusei-san (*gakusei = student)
And interestingly, Kansai people tend to personify foods, types of work and even historically famous generals.
ame (candy) → ame-chan*
mame (beans) → o-mame-san
imo (potato) → o-imo-san
kayu (rice porridge) → o-kayu-san
yaoya (fruit and vegetable store) → yaoya-san
Toyotomi Hideyoshi → taiko-san (*taiko = title for retired from kanpaku or ‘lord.’)
*We use ‘chan’ for children, babies or mutual friends, to express kindness or fondness.
Osaka Castle constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Every day, we frequently use ‘shindoi’ and ‘yayakoshii’ in a negative way, but the interesting point is that Kansai dialect is high-context and varies depending on what the dialect’s native speakers want to say by using the words.
In the case of ‘shindoi’ (literally, ‘tired’):
· ah, shindo!: I’m tired!
· kaze de shindoi: I don’t feel very good because I’ve caught a cold.
· byoki de shindoi: I feel sick and worn-out.
· kourei de shindoi: My old age is getting to me!
· seikatsu ga shindoi: I can’t make ends meet.
· chotto shindoi naa: It’s demanding to me!
· aitsu no hanashi wa shindoi: his or her story is tiring to me.
In the case of ‘yayakoshii’ (literally, ‘complicated’):
· yayakoshii hanashi: controversial or complicated stories
· yayakoshii kankei: puzzling relationship
· yayakoshii hito: suspicious person
· yayakoshii suuji: odd money
· yayakoshii koto: troubling or annoying things
· yayakoshii hito mise ni kita: falsely accusing people (or Japanese gangsters) came to my shop!
These are examples of the ways in which Kansai dialect is modest and indirect, instead of expressing complaints directly, out of respect for someone.
Tsutenkaku, the tower located in the center of Osaka City
Kansai people frequently use reduplication for showing sociability towards other people, repeating some words like adjectives and verb-only imperative sentences when speaking to friends or customers. For example:
1. Kyo wa atsui nah! – Atsui atsui!: ‘It’s hot today, isn’t it!
2. Nomi ni ikahen? – Ikou ikou!: Why don’t you go to drink? Yeah, let’s go!
3. Lady first ya, saki nori, saki nori!: Ladies first! After you! After you!
4. Watashino tsukutta ryouri wa umaideeh, hayo tabe hayo tabe!: The meal I’ve made is so delicious! Eat, eat!
5. Aitsu meccha kuiyondeeh. Mou, taberu taberu.: He or she eats so much! Eat, eat, eat…
Finally, I can find in my study that Kansai people can express what they really want to say by using a single adjective instead of directly saying negative words in order to preserve good relations with other people; this is because people in Osaka or other cities in the area have grown in a community of merchants who prosper from healthy commerce. And Kansai people can use these techniques for making rhythms or sounds of Kansai words or sentences to attract customers, friends and neighbors.
Kansai Dialect is very interesting, so I’m looking forward to you visiting this site.