Thursday, April 27, 2006

Japanese dialects and Hiroshima-ben

Between the ages of nine and fourteen I lived in Plymouth, England. I spoke like most Plymothians did - with an inadvertent love for the letter 'r', unhurried speech, and lengthened vowels. I thought nothing of shopkeepers greeting me with "Awwwrrrrright my luvvverrr", nor of them taking a full ten seconds to get from the first syllable to the last; and no local would be seen dead uttering the standard (grockle) question, "Where is it?" - Plymothians used the far superior "Where's it to?"

I had little inkling at that time that people from other parts of the world might find this speech odd, or country-bumpkinish, or that it could become the subject of fun or derision.

I moved to Gloucestershire when I was fourteen. On my first day at a new school, I entered my classroom with new-boy nerves. I kept my head low, surreptitiously surveying my new, black-blazered classmates. The bearded teacher called the register. The boys answered, "Here", in turn. Nothing unusual or out-of-the-ordinary. When my name was called I did likewise, yet somehow I was unable to shorten my vowels or strangle that 'r'. "Heeerrrre", I said. The teacher looked up from his register with (what I now take to be) a benevolent smile on his face; in unison my new classmates gleefully chorused an excruciatingly elongated, "OOOO-AARRRRR, OOOO-AARRRRR!"

I lost my Plymouth r's, my elongated vowels, and my slower speech pretty quickly - and with it my Plymothian identity. Moving does that to you when you're a child.

Here in Japan, there are a wealth of dialects, stretching from the far north to the islands way down south.

My children lived for five years in Kyoto. They spoke their Japanese with the flavourings of a Kyoto dialect (Kyoto-ben). Everything was ika-haru (I'll go) and ika-hen (I won't go). They were full of okini (thanks) in the shops, and were welcomed home by neighbours with okaeriyasu (welcome home).

Then, after those five years, we moved to the countryside of Hiroshima. My children started to speak a mixture of Kyoto-ben and Hiroshima-ben. It was an interesting few months linguistically, and probably a pretty strange mix for Japanese to listen to. Now, they speak exclusively Hiroshima-ben; they're all buchi and jaken, and the linguistic influences of Kyoto are long forgotten.

I have a pretty firm grasp, now, of what people from various parts of Britain think of accents and dialects from other parts of the country. But, despite being here in Japan for a fair few years, I am still pretty shaky on which dialects are the subject of derision, which are held in somewhat higher esteem, and which, if any, are revered. Of course, we all know what the Osakans think of the Tokyoites and their speech patterns (and vice versa), but what do they feel about Hiroshima-ben? What do people in Kagoshima think about those up north? Is Kyoto-ben really the bee's knees? To find out, take a peek at the following maps. Standard Japanese is spoken here; the most pleasant dialects are here; and the shockers are here!

Although disparaged in many parts of Japan, I have a soft spot for Hiroshima-ben. It is rough and ready, and earthy; fit for the izakaya, the factory floor, or the fields. It also equates somewhat in my mind with Plymouth and the way people speak there. Hiroshima and Plymouth - both with naval port histories, located on the south-west periphery of their mainlands, and with dialects that those in the capitals sneer at.

For a taster of the frustrations a Hiroshima guy feels about this kind of attitude (and some Hiroshima dialect examples), then visit Kaz's website. For a standard Japanese to male Hiroshima-ben translator, this is a bit of a laugh. If you want the female version, it is here. And for a pretty good summary of the finest dialect of them all, then move your mouse over these words and click once.

As the above translator says, 日本の一番ええ方言は広島弁じゃ。

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Commute (11) Koinobori

Only a gentle breeze today, but the sky was blue. Not as many koinobori flying as I had expected - testament to an aging population, perhaps.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Flying carp and death by loudspeaker

This evening a trip down the road to the in-laws for eight-year-old Hiroshi's birthday barbeque. First we erected the magnificent koinobori pole. Atsushi scraped out the hole with his fingers. I spotted a mukade (dangerous buggers with a venomous sting) and warned him. He shrugged and dug his fingers further into the hole without a care in the world. I waited for the shriek of pain. None came. After a fair bit of hassle we attached the carp themselves. The wind blew obligingly and the carp danced merrily 30 feet in the air. They were full of vim and vigour. A good sign.

We ate around the barbeque. The evening was cold, as was a lot of the food. For a culture that prides itself on cuisine, I can never understand why temperature doesn't seem to enter the equation. While we ate our cold food, a notice came booming out over the local community loudspeaker system. It reminded me of a tinny announcement at an English country fair declaring the winner of the raffle, but there was no winner in this raffle. A local resident, Mr Fujisawa, aged 60, had passed away. Details of his wake and funeral arrangements, all with a slight echo over the tannoy, were relayed to everyone within a five mile radius. We continued to eat our charcoal-grilled fare.

Hiroshi's grandparents (no relation to my children) were there. The grandfather cornered me, and with a face full of shishamo fish and wonky teeth, told me how Japan was going down the pan - no safety any more. Kids being kidnapped and murdered and all the news was bad. One of his grandchildren told him his manner of speaking was "frightening". I think she meant the contents of his mouth rather than the contents of his moan, but I can't be sure. Unabashed he continued.

When he'd gone to England, the customs officers (knowing all the Japanese in his day were law-abiding) let all the Japanese through without a word, but stopped all the Spanish. My daughter interrupted him in mid-flow and told him she was pretty sure we'd all heard this story before. We had. I wondered if I should "have a word" with my daughter about her cheek, but we had all heard about those slippery Spaniards at least four times previously, and what's more he had sprayed roughly half of his shishamo over me during our conversation, so I didn't really have the heart to give her an earful. The grandfather doesn't get much respect, but then he does speak with his mouth full.

We moved inside and continued to eat and drink. The cake was great. We sang "Happy Birthday" in English. I had brought Guinness. Cans with the widget, so that when you pour it comes out like draught. I think they're pretty darn good. My sister-in-law thought it tasted of soy sauce, and my brother-in-law failed to pass comment. No more deliveries of "the Black stuff" for them.

Hiroshi enjoyed his birthday. We did too. I hope his grandfather can say likewise. The Fujisawa's, on the other hand, had an altogether different kind of ceremony to mark on April 23.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Stopped by a red light. Fingers drumming on the steering wheel. Window down to enjoy the cooling evening breeze. Music on.

Out of the local shop come a young, wavy-haired father with trousers at half-mast, and his delightful seven-year-old daughter. Contentment is etched on their faces. They chatter, waiting for the "little green man" to let them cross the road. As they cross the father bends low and says something into his daughter's ear. At once she raises her arm aloft, walking confidently in the knowledge that this small arm, held perfectly vertically, will repel all oncoming vehicles. On reaching the safety of the pavement, she looks up adoringly into her father's face; he looks down adoringly, at the four 500ml cans of Kirin Lager beer nestling in his shopping bag.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Neighbourhood spring colours

Took a 30 minute stroll around the neighbourhood with my daughter and snapped a selection of the spring flowers. It really is a fantastic time of year for walking and being in the countryside. Hope that spring doesn't disappear on us too quickly this year. Summer seems to arrive earlier every year. Click this link for a set of photos on flickr.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Bathing with slugs

If you live in Japan, chances are you have bathed with bodies of varying shapes and sizes. People are not shy in their bathing habits. No hiding those C-section (or even more spectacular) surgical scars, here. Beer bellies, love handles, pendulous breasts, and balls that dangle to the cold, stone floor. They're all on show. No one gives a monkey's. If you have a weird body, are aching to loose it from the confines of clothing, and don't want to risk derision whilst you're at it, then a Japanese hot spring is the place for you.

An onsen is a fantastic place. If the waters are particularly potent, then their soothing effects penetrate deep into your fibre, right down to your very core. Muscles relax, blood pumps, pores open, aches dissolve and cares melt away. You just sit and marvel at the process. Mineral deposits on the walls and floors provide their own version of modern art. Post-bathe your skin feels smooth and silky. You feel reborn.

This area is not the creme-de-la-creme for onsen. For the top notch pools you need to go far north to Hokkaido; to the real mountains in the centre of Japan where the monkeys also like to bathe (see some great photos here); or down south to Kyushu. Around here, one of the better onsen is at Kimita. A sign proudly lays claim to being second best onsen in the Chugoku and Shikoku area. The waters at Kimita weave their magic every time, rendering me helpless to the web of sleep. Yano onsen in Joge used to have the same effect.

Alas, we get to the onsen infrequently.

Tonight, I shared my plastic bath in a dingy bathroom, not with monkeys, nor with soothing minerals, but with two slender slugs. They inched their translucent way across the ceiling as I stared up at them. When I could stand the entertainment no longer, I picked them off the ceiling, opened the window, and gave them a satisfying flick out into the night.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Commute (10) bamboo sway

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Touring Tokyo

When visitors come to Japan I get to do things I don't normally do. At the weekend, eight of us (3 big and 5 small) took a Hato Bus Cityrama Afternoon Tour around Tokyo. It was great.

Leaving Hamamatsucho bus depot armed with onigiri and sushi, the three-and-a-half-hour trip took in Tokyo Tower, the Diet Building, the Imperial Palace, Asakusa, and ended up in Ginza.
The guide was an oldish fella who did a lovely line in self-deprecatory quips about Tokyo, Japan, and himself. He spoke quietly but smoothly, and his knowledge was extensive. His patter was so easy on the ear, and he was so likeable, that it felt like listening to your grandfather telling tales of yore. He had stunningly good English, but, for the sake of Japanese authenticity, he steadfastly refused to use any articles, definite or indefinite.

I learned more on that bus tour about Japanese history (and in a far more entertaining manner) than I have from any books.
It was all pretty good stuff, although perhaps the highlight was breathing in the Asakusa incense (wafting in the middle of the photo) in the knowledge that my brainpower was mysteriously improving by the second.

Thoroughly recommended.