When I was first in Shiga, I could barely understand what people were saying. I thought it was just because I’d only taken a year of Japanese by this point, so I didn’t think much of it. This was certainly a factor, but my Japanese friends told me I was at a bit of a regional disadvantage, too: according to them, the Japanese students in the U.S. are taught is different from the Japanese spoken in Shiga and the rest of Kansai (southern-central region of mainland Japan).
Most foreigners are taught a variant of Japanese called 標準語 (hyōjungo), or ‘Standard Japanese’. Hyōjungo is based on a Tokyo-area dialect, much like how Standard American English is based on the Midwestern dialect. However, if you go to different parts of Japan, people will speak a slightly different language. The problem for students studying Japanese is that we aren’t usually exposed to any other types of Japanese, so when we travel to Japan it’s very likely we will run into words and grammatical patterns that we’ve never heard of.
Shiga Prefecture is located within the Kansai region of Japan, which has its own type of Japanese called 関西弁 (kansai-ben), or Kansai dialect. Kansai-ben is one of the most common and well understood dialects throughout Japan. This means that someone from Kansai and someone from Kanto can have a conversation in their respective dialects and understand each other fine, much like how someone from Michigan and someone from Alabama can understand each other even though they speak different types of American English.
We’re going to go through some basic parts of kansai-ben so that you have a higher chance of understanding the locals when you’re in Shiga. Keep in mind that these vary depending on where you are in Kansai, i.e. kansai-ben in Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Wakayama, etc. is slightly different.
[Bold letters indicate pronounced or stressed sounds.]
The first thing you may notice about the dialect is that some sounds that are devoiced (i.e. unpronounced) in hyōjungo are pronounced in kansai-ben. For example, the u in です (desu) or します (shimasu) is devoiced in Standard Japanese, being pronounced like des and shimas. However, this u is voiced in Kansai. So, desu is actually pronounced like desu and shimasu like shimasu. You will often hear shopkeepers say arigatō gozaimasu!
Accent and pitch is also different in kansai-ben. In Tokyo, はし (hashi, chopsticks) has stress on the first syllable and is pronounced like hashi; kansai-ben is the reverse, where it is pronounced like hashi. To make things more difficult, hashi (bridge) is the exact opposite of hashi (chopsticks) in both dialects. Hashi (edge) in Tokyo is pronounced the same as hashi (bridge), so you can’t tell them apart, but hashi (edge) is pronounced differently from hashi (chopsticks) and hashi (bridge) in kansai-ben. Confused yet?
|chopsticks|| はし |
| はし |
|bridge|| はし |
| はし |
|edge|| はし |
| はし |
Some words that contain a short vowel are pronounced longer while those containing long vowels are pronounced shorter. For example, 目 (me, eye) might be pronounced めぇ (mee), and そう (sou) might be pronounced as just ほ (ho -why an h? Keep reading!). People from Kansai also sometimes roll their r sounds, which makes people outside of Kansai think of ヤクザ (yakuza)!
Fun fact: The rechargeable ICOCA card for the JR West rail (you can buy one at Hikone Station for 500¥!) is a pun in kansai-ben. Technically standing for IC Operating CArd, it’s pronounced the same way as 行こか (iko ka), which is how 行こうか (ikō ka, “Shall we go?”) is said in Kansai.
The most common difference in grammar I’ve noticed in kansai-ben is the use of へん (hen) as a way to negate a verb. This happens because the s sound in some kansai-ben changed to h (e.g. さん [san] may be pronounced はん [han]). The s in ~ません (~masen) changed to h at some point, but this mostly happens for verbs in short form.
A similar pronunciation change happened with the copula (a connecting verb, basically ‘to be’) だ (da). In fact, many sentence final particles have a different Kansai version:
|だ / だった |
|や / やった |
|で / わ* |
|の / んだ |
[note: the kansai-ben わ (wa) is different from the ‘feminine’ わ (wa) most of us are taught]
In addition to pronunciation and grammar, kansai-ben has its own words and phrases for things. Keep in mind that some of these, especially greetings, are mostly used by older generations.
|ダメ / いけない |
(doumo arigatō gozaimasu)
(erai ōkini sunmasen)
|いらっしゃいませ / ようこそ |
[note: If you want to check out more, visit this page of kansai-ben vocab!]
*Like lots of words from other dialects, めっちゃ (meccha) has spread throughout Japan and is used in many places outside of Kansai.
**Be careful using アホ (aho) and バカ (baka): it is said that using baka in Kansai sounds much more rude than aho and is less likely to seem like a joke. On the other hand, outside of Kansai aho is much more rude than baka. If you’re not sure which to use, it’s best not to say either.
Kansai-ben has a reputation of sounding rough, direct, and slurred, but people who speak it are also known for sounding lively, fun, and expressive. While the older generations use more kansai-ben, with the younger generation adopting some Standard/Tokyo dialect with a Kansai twist (sometimes called a neo-dialect), it’s important to learn about the local dialect of wherever you are in Japan in order to understand everyone on a deeper level.
There are plenty facets of kansai-ben that we haven’t covered here, including Kyoto-specific honorifics (yikes!), so keep your ears open when in Kansai! For now, let’s put everything we’ve went over together and check out some common phrases:
(hontō da yo)
(honma ya de)
|it’s good; okay|
|it’s good, right?|
|is it okay?|
|no!; isn’t it?|
|that is so|
|don’t do that|
(mō ii yo)
(mō ee wa)
(nande ya nen)
|what the heck?!|