Imagine you’re flipping through channels on a hypothetical Japanese television. The first show you land on is animated; a boy with spikey black hair rides a small cloud across the sky, a young girl in blue armor grasping on to his orange gi as she joins in his mid-air journey. As the two children talk to each other, you notice their clearly affected manner of speech. Both refer to themselves as “Ora (オラ),” a distinctively masculine self-descriptor. The girl lets out a “dabe (だべ)” as a sentence ender, indicating emphasis. The Japanese being used tells you one thing right away: both characters are from somewhere in the sticks of this fantasy world.
You flip the channel. This time, you’re in the midst of a live-action comedy film. A gaggle of bedraggled high school girls walks alongside a country railroad, verdant submerged rice fields on either side. As the girls, covered in mud, complain of their ordeal (“I’m getting a tan!”), their sentences trail off into a telltale sign of their location. Their common sentence-ender is “-ndazu (-んだず)!” The film, you can tell, is set in rural Yamagata Prefecture.
You change the channel yet again. Once more you’re met with animation, although this time of a much higher caliber. A small white car drives across a bucolic vista festooned with sunflowers. A twenty-something couple speaks about agricultural ethos; one does so in a heavy accent. Later, at a farmhouse, the young woman from the car speaks with the young man’s family. Their accents are so strong you have to strain to understand them. It’s clear this is a world far removed from the urban sprawl of Tokyo.
These three programs couldn’t be farther apart in subject matter. Toriyama Akira’s classic Dragon Ball is a gag comedy about superpowered martial artists in a fantastical version of China. Swing Girls is a popular 2004 live-action comedy about a group of high school girls unexpectedly finding themselves through big band jazz. Only Yesterday is a highly-regarded Ghibli film about the ways little childhood traumas stick in the subconscious, and how women are constrained by Japanese society. Yet all three are united by one theme: the use of dialects from the northern Tohoku region to signify that characters are from the most rural, off-the-beaten-track areas possible.
The Narrow Road to the North
The Tohoku region (東北地方) of northern Honshu stretches from Fukushima in the south (not terribly far from Tokyo) to distant Aomori in the north. Altogether, the area consists of six large prefectures (Fukushima, Miyagi, Yamagata, Iwate, Akita, and Aomori) with an area of nearly 67k square kilometers. Historically, Tohoku was the northern terminus of Japan; long before Hokkaido, land of the Ainu, was colonized, Tokoku represented the cold and daunting ends of the Japanese earth. In the 12th century, legendary warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune found refuge in Tohoku, then ruled as a separate state. Even in the late 17th century, the region still represented a harsh and remote hinterland; famed poet Matsuo Basho’s travelogue from this era, Narrow Road to the Deep North (おくのほそ道), fired the Japanese imagination and led to many retracing the haiku master’s footsteps through breathtaking Tohoku vistas.
In other words, Tohoku’s history already places it as Japan’s remotest backwater. (Indeed, with Japanese society first forming around Kyushu and southern Honshu, Tohoku was the last area of the original main islands to come under ethnic Yamato sway.) Add to this the unique vocalizations present in the wide variety of dialects in Tohoku – collectively called Tohoku-ben (東北弁, Tohoku Dialect) – and we can start to see why Japan as a whole stereotypes Tohoku Japanese as “hick” language.
As such a large area, Tohoku can hardly host just a single unified dialect. In reality, each prefecture is home to many unique varieties of spoken Japanese. Take southern parts of Fukushima, for example. Language there tends to hew pretty closely to standard Tokyo Japanese. In mountainous western Fukushima, however, the Aizu dialect begins to switch up “g” sounds for “k” (people order sage instead of sake); locals add emphasis by placing a “-dabbe (〜だべ)” or “-dappai (〜だっぱい)” at the ends of sentences; whole new words appear, like beko for cow (usually ushi in standard Japanese).