One of the biggest challenges you’ll likely face as you progress in learning Japanese is actually understanding native Japanese people when they speak, especially when they use Japanese dialects.
A lot of the struggle just comes from encountering unfamiliar words and structures, or from feeling like your brain can’t keep up with how fast a person is speaking.
However, dialects are an additional factor that can definitely throw a wrench into some conversations.
Depending on how you are learning Japanese, where you are learning it, and for what purpose, you may not have encountered Japanese dialects before. Or you may already be using one without even realizing it!
In this post, you'll discover the differences between “standard” Japanese and dialects and become more familiar with three of the most common Japanese dialects. Get ready to understand Japanese native speakers better, no matter where they're from.
By the way, if you're getting started in Japanese and want to get to conversational level fast, without getting bogged down with grammar, check out my story-based beginner course, Japanese Uncovered.
What Are Dialects?
Dialects are varieties of language. They are not necessarily “informal” or fit a specific stereotype; rather, dialect is a word to describe different varieties of the same language.
Many dialects reflect a specific region of the country or the world, which is why you may have already encountered dialects depending upon where you currently live and what sort of Japanese you are studying.
Even “standard” Japanese is a dialect, although it is much more difficult to ascribe this particular form of speech to a certain area of the country.
Japan, like many countries, has a number of dialects—quite a lot, actually—and these dialects impact not only how words are pronounced but even how sentences are structured in some cases.
Having a basic understanding of the most common dialects in Japanese will help you to understand more people more often, so that you can level up your Japanese language skills.
Japanese Dialects vs. “Standard” Japanese
Before you start memorizing what makes Japan’s most famous dialects, well, famous, it’s important that you understand how dialects work compared to what might be considered “standard” Japanese.
Standard Japanese is what you learn in Japanese language textbooks, and it’s what you will find being spoken on Japanese TV, in written correspondence from official sources, and for other formal business.
You can speak standard Japanese (often called 標準語 ,ひょうじゅんご, hyoujungo, which is “standard Japanese,” or 共通語, きょうつうご, kyoutsuugo, the “common language”), and most people will understand you easily.
The rise of standard Japanese was a result of the Japanese government attempting to create a common language following World War II. For this reason, speaking in regional dialects used to be heavily frowned upon.
Nowadays, it is much more widely accepted and embraced, so you will still find dialects used all throughout Japan. While some remote locations will have dialects that are nearly unintelligible compared to standard Japanese, many dialects feature small quirks that make them easy to pick up and learn.
Top 3 Must-Know Japanese Dialects For Learners
Dialects in Japanese can generally be broken into two groups: Tokyo dialect and Osaka-Kyoto dialect.
This is based upon the regions of the country, with the Tokyo area being the north-based part and Osaka being placed much further south. Even though Osaka-Kyoto is an overarching branch of dialects, each has its own unique features.
Overall, Osaka dialect (called Osaka-ben; ben is the term denoting dialects) is one of the most stereotypical ones you might encounter.
Osaka-ben is part of a family of dialects more commonly referred to simply as Kansai-ben, or dialects from the Kansai region of Japan. This dialect is notorious for dropping Japanese particles, so if you are speaking with someone who just doesn’t seem to be including particles in their speech, they may be from the Kansai region.
If you have already heard of Osaka-ben, it’s likely because you encountered one of its hallmark features: the use of -hen. Most Osaka-ben speakers will remove the -nai part of a word that makes it negative and replace it with -hen.
This is a simple thing you can do too if you’d like to get started with Osaka-ben:
Wakaranai > Wakarahen
分からない > 分からへん
I don’t understand
Nomanai > Nomahen
飲まない > 飲まへん
I don’t drink
Other characteristics of Osaka-ben are a little less known, but they’re still relatively easy to implement. Try turning your sentence final ne particle to na if you’d like to sound like you’re from Osaka.
Atsui ne > Atsui na
暑いね > 暑いな
It’s hot, isn’t it?
Hajimaru ne > Hajimaru na
始まるね > 始まるな
It’s beginning, isn’t it?
If you’re a bit further south than Osaka, you’ll like start encroaching upon the area where Hakata-ben is used most often. Hakata is an area of Fukuoka, a large city on one of Japan’s southern islands.
Some of Hakata-ben remains iconic thanks to its presentation in anime and pop culture, so you may recognize one of the hallmarks of the Fukuoka-area dialect: the use of -n where -nai should be.
Hakata-ben is infamous for its shortened forms, and use of these constructions is becoming more common than ever now that Hakata-ben is becoming a standard choice for spoken regional news. You’re more likely than ever before to see a mixture of Hakata-ben and standard Japanese on the television!
To create this iconic Hakata-ben form, take the -nai off of the negative form of your verb and just end the verb with -n instead.
Wakaranai > Wakaran
分からない > 分からん
I don’t understand
Shiranai > Shiran
知らない > 知らん
I don’t know
These two are likely some of the most common shortened Hakata-ben words that you might have already encountered. However, the principle applies with any verb you’d like!
You may also be familiar with the way in which Fukuoka residents change the endings of their adjectives. This is another simple option if you’re craving more Hakata-ben in your speaking.
In order to change your adjectives to Hakata-ben, replace the final -i with -ka instead.
Osoi > Osoka
遅い > 遅か
Warui > Waruka
悪い > 悪か
Closer to Tokyo sits Nagoya, some distance away from the southern cities like Fukuoka. Here, dialects more closely resemble the standard Japanese that you might find in business districts like those in Tokyo, but with some minor differences. Some listeners get the impression that people who use Nagoya-ben sort of sound like cats!
One of the most noticeable features of Nagoya-ben is similar to Osaka-ben’s -hen. (Say that five times fast!) In other words, just as Osaka-ben ends its -nai words with -hen instead, Nagoya dialect does something similar. The only difference is that instead of -hen, Nagoya dialect speakers use -sen.
In order to create this construction, remove the -nai from your negative verb form and replace it with -sen instead.
Kikanai > Kikasen
聞かない > 聞かせん
I don’t hear [anything/I didn’t hear you]
Nomanai > Nomasen
飲まない > 飲ません
I don’t drink
This is a common feature of Nagoya-ben, but it’s not what gets most people thinking that Nagoya dialect sounds like a cat. Instead, that comes from the altered endings Nagoya-ben speakers put on sentences, such as replacing the emphatic yo with ni.
Tanoshikatta yo! > Tanoshikatta ni!
楽しかったよ > 楽しかったに
It was fun!
Samui yo! > Samui ni!
寒いよ > 寒いに
How To Use Japanese Dialects As A Learner
Now that you’ve dipped your toes in the waters of Japanese dialects, it might be tempting to come crashing into your next conversation using full-on Kansai-ben. While that temptation can be mighty strong, consider how you want to use dialects.
With most people who are not very close friends, opting for standard Japanese like what you’ve learned from textbooks and the news is still going to be the best, most polite option. The last thing you want is for a Japanese person to feel like you’re mocking them.
That being said, there is a time and place for -ben. If you’ve made friends with a group of Japanese folks from a specific area, slipping a little of that dialect in from time to time can come across as charming and thoughtful rather than creepy and insulting. Moderation is key.
The good news is that dialects are a great way to practice your Japanese in an immersive way—which is the best way to learn! If you can create dialects, you’re well on the path to fully understanding and being able to manipulate the components of Japanese. Keep at it, and use dialects as yet another tool to boost your Japanese learning!