Whether you view your anime subtitled, raw or dubbed, if you have watched enough of it, you most likely have learned that not all characters speak the same way. For those who prefer dubs, have you ever wondered why a certain character has a faux southern drawl or a British accent? The reason is because the character uses dialogue that deviates from the “standard” way of talking in the original Japanese. Keep in mind, however, that not all the characters who speak with an accent in Japanese get dubbed that way in English; only a select few do, and usually it’s because cultural differences are present as a part of the story or as a comedic element.
Before we get into the wonderful world of dialects, we have to get two misconceptions out of the way:
1. The way anime characters speak is not entirely representative of how Japanese people speak in daily life. Ask a person from Osaka to speak like the Osaka from Azumanga Daioh, he will probably either laugh or feel insulted. Keep in mind that sometimes the voice actors are not from the region and do only an adequate job imitating the dialect, or that the script is made to enhance only certain aspects of the dialect to make a character behave in a certain way. To those who watch anime to learn Japanese, I have to say that you should use it as a frame of reference to pick up words and slang. Proper conversation should, in most cases, still require a more standard learning process (yes, that means hitting the books and listening from teachers).
2. English dubs do not really capture the complexity of dialects. You have to remember that for centuries, Japan was a series of feudal kingdoms with little contact with each other due to the topography of the land. Not only specific accents developed, but a lot of different words, slang and grammar usages were introduced in the process. Thinking about the United States for example, most of the differences are mostly accent-related. A better source of comparison would be a character speaking “American” and the other “Australian”, or Mexican Spanish versus Argentinean Spanish. Obviously, using that in a dub would be awkward since the characters usually come from the same country, and therein lies the need for the next best solution: accents.
So what do the characters speak in our beloved anime?
There are several dialects, but four have the most prominence:
1. Most of the characters are supposed to speak Hyojungo, which is the standard Japanese taught in schools. However, they will most likely speak Tokyo-ben or Ibaraki-ben, the two most similar dialects to Hyojungo and almost indistinguishable. This represents about 55% to 60% of the characters; several notables are Ayukawa Madoka from Kimagure Orange Road, Tatewaki Kunou from Ranma ½, Tsukino Usagi from Sailor Moon, Narusegawa Naru from Love Hina, Chiyo-chan from Azumanga Daioh and Daidouji Tomoyo from Card Captor Sakura. In fact, most girls who are supposed to be shy, proper, smart and cute will definitely use this dialect. The same thing happens with most of the tall, stoic, handsome and quiet heroes.
2. Kansai-ben is the second-most used dialect in anime. About 30% of the characters speak it. Its main spinoff, Osaka-ben, is usually associated with comedy and used both in anime and live television for puns and sketches. Because people in Osaka are famous for being carefree, loud and party animals, most characters that are loud, crass and perhaps a bit sneaky usually have this type of accent. Examples of this are Kero-chan from Card Captor Sakura, Osaka from Azumanga Daioh, Kawachi Kyousuke from Yakitate! Japan, Asahina Arumi and Imamiya Satoshi from Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi and Konno “Kitsune” Mitsune from Love Hina.
3. Touhoku-ben is the dialect found in most anime with rural settings. If you were to ask a Japanese person who lives outside of the Touhoku region to describe the people living there, he will probably tell you they are hicks and bumpkins. Touhoku-ben is considered to be somewhat clumsy, and the people who speak it do so a bit slowly and with a tendency to be more passive and idle. The farming cast from Only Yesterday (with the exception of Okajima Taeko) speak this dialect. Kasuga Kyousuke from Kimagure Orange Road and Kazuma Azuma from Yakitate! Japan also use derivations of this dialect as both are country boys coming to the city.
Sleepless in Hokkaido? Nah!
4. Hokkaido-ben is somewhat of an enigma. It is not entirely different from regular Hyojungo, because Hokkaido was annexed last among Japan’s prefectures, and by then standard Japanese was mostly agreed upon. Hokkaido-ben has little nuances that lend some influence from Touhoku-ben. Nevertheless, whenever an anime setting is done in the far north of Japan (usually related with winter scenes), this dialect will be used. Series like She, the Ultimate Weapon are done entirely in this dialect, although only a handful of anime will make an extensive use of it. Some characters from Figure 17 also make use of Hokkaido-ben since the setting for that anime is also Hokkaido.
Obviously, Japan has several other dialects, one of which is debatable that it can be considered Japanese at all (Okinawa-ben), but these four are the most likely candidates to be represented in your anime of choice. For those of you who are enthusiastic about the Japanese language and anime, now is a good time to start honing your listening skills and start noticing those differences!