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  • Writer's pictureThomas Nelan

The Standardization of Japanese Language Dialects.

Updated: Jan 30

In this article on the Japanese language, we’ll explore the various dialects spoken in Japan, and the effect advances in technology have had in localizing standard Japanese to these dialects.

Although it could be said that each of the 47 Japanese prefectures has at least some dialect unique to them, overall the Japanese language can be described as having 8 main distinct dialects. While the Japanese language spoken in Tokyo and the Kanto region (a dialect known as 'Yamanote Japanese' for reasons that will be explained later) is considered standard Japanese spoken on each the 4 main islands of Japan (namely Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Okinawa), at least 7 other variations of Japanese are also spoken in Japan.

Did You Know: The 7 dialects spoken outside of standard Japanese are:

1- Hakata-ben (Spoken in Fukuoka);

2- Hiroshima-ben (Spoken in the Chugoku region of Japan);

3- Hokkaido-ben (Spoken on the island of Hokkaido);

4- Kyoto-ben (Spoken in Kyoto and some of the Kansai region of Japan);

5- Nagoya-ben (Spoken in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture);

6- Osaka-ben (Spoken in Osaka and some of the Kansai region of Japan);

7- Sendai-ben (Spoken in the Tohoku region of Japan);

Why did Yamanote Japanese become more popular than the other dialects?

Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the new post-shogunate government sought to build a centralized Japanese nation. Recognizing that having many distinct Japanese dialects spoken throughout the country would not be conducive to this, they sought to set one standardize Japanese language that all could understand and conduct official business through. Because the Yamanote area of Tokyo (known as Edo at the time) was where the Japanese officials overseeing the modernization of Japan lived, the Japanese spoken in the Yamanote area of Tokyo was chosen as the standard Japanese they would promote.

To begin with, written ‘Yamanote Japanese’ was distributed throughout the land by the use of standardized textbooks in the educational system. Later, spoken Yamanote Japanese was spread throughout Japan thanks to the introduction of Japanese radio and television into peoples homes via the national broadcaster NHK.

Now in the internet age, the divide between standard Japanese and local dialects has become clearer to see, with digital-native Japanese grandchildren using different vocabulary to their local dialect using grandparents.

"Nowhere is this more easy to see than on Japanese Facebook settings, where the option is given to choose between using Kansai-ben and standard Japanese dialect".

Here you can see standard Japanese translated to the Kansai dialect, with the Facebook “Like” button changing from the standard Japanese “いいね” (pronounced ii ne) to the Kansai “えぇやん” (pronounced ee yan). Not only that, sites such as Monjiro have sprung up which help translate standard Japanese sentences and texts to the various dialects.

Given that Japanese has been spoken in other parts of Asia at various points in history (in Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and parts of China) and Japanese continues to be spoken worldwide (with the largest Japanese population outside of Japan being in Brazil, while 16.7% of the population of Hawaii are known to speak Japanese), as Japanese translators, we admire their Japanese localization efforts.

You might also like to read the next article in our Japanese series:

Tom Nelan- B.C.L., B.B.S. (M.K.T.), (New York Qualified Lawyer).

Mitsuko Miyake Nelan- B.A. Japanese Literature: Chofu University, Tokyo.

Facts about the Japanese language


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