Language Attitudes in Hirosaki, Japan

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Rebecca Greene

QP Fest 2005

March 28, 2005

Language Attitudes in Hirosaki, Japan

Changes in Japanese that originated in and spread out from Kyoto, the historical cultural center, especially from the 14th to the 16th century, apparently did not reach peripheral regions like Tohoku, or “Northeast,” Japan (Shibatani 1990: 202-207). Therefore certain features of these regions’ varieties lend themselves to being seen as archaic.  Given the fact that these regions tend to be rural and socio-economically inferior, these dialects have been heavily stigmatized as sounding “country-bumpkin-ish” and unsophisticated (Booth 1995: 53-146). This study used qualitative and quantitative means to investigate local language attitudes in Hirosaki, a regional center in the Tsugaru region, which lies at the northern tip of island of Honshu. The local dialect is referred to as Tsugaru dialect, and is considered one of the Tohoku dialects.

Along with a general convergence in Japan of regional dialects toward Standard Japanese (Carroll 2002: 12), the definition of dialect itself in Tsugaru seems to be shifting away from referring to traditional, nonstandard words, and toward including intonation and even innovative use by young people. The fourteen interview respondents offered multi-layered and recursive (Irvine & Gal 2000: 37) definitions of dialect.

The value attached to dialect also appears to be shifting. Among the survey data, collected from 109 Hirosaki residents by the Stanford Japanese Dialect Research Group, Young people were more likely than older people to claim to use dialect a variety of situations, and were more likely to want to pass dialect on to their children (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Examples of survey results



There was a gap between the judgments of retired-age respondents and those of college- and working-age respondents. The fact that the oldest group tended to be more negative toward dialect than the two younger groups is likely due to the difference between pre- and post-WWII Japanese societal ideologies surrounding language (Carroll 2001, Twine 1991).

However, women in the oldest age group showed a more complex and affectionate opinion of dialect than did men of that age group. It seems men internalized negative pre-WWII attitudes to dialect more strongly than did women.

Among college- and working-age respondents, women’s attitudes toward dialect were more negative than those of men. This is likely related to the widespread tendency of women to rely more than men on the symbolic capital of standard language (Labov 1990: 210-215, Eckert 1989: 256). Hirosaki residents expressed very practical attitudes toward dialect. All interview respondents stressed the importance of tsukaiwake (lit. ‘usage division’), or the practice of using the appropriate kind of language for each situation. Most said it is important to speak standard to people who do not understand dialect.

The image of dialect in Hirosaki contained both negative and positive aspects. For respondents, dialect seemed familiar, honest, and natural, but also appeared uneducated and even vulgar at times. Overall, the affective and cognitive components of attitudes suggested a positive orientation toward dialect, and the behavioral component suggested a negative one.


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