When you try to understand anime as a beginner to Japanese it can feel a little overwhelming to say the least. In this post I want to clarify why this is the case for most people plus explain a little about the dialects used and why it could be worthwhile getting comfortable with the sounds of them.
Which dialect is used in anime? The majority of Japanese spoken in anime will be the standard Tokyo dialect, which accounts for well over 50% of the total language used. Kansai-ben is the second most common and is spoken by around 25% of the characters, with less common dialects making up the rest.
The dialects and accents used can often define a character’s personality, as Osaka-ben and the “bad guy” go hand in hand. This can bring a feeling of familiarity between each show as you start to recognize character traits from the voice acting.
Anime is a good learning resource as the accents and dialects are extremely diverse and interesting.
Even though a lot of the character’s voices are exaggerated and use overly informal, rough language… It is still real Japanese and isn’t too dissimilar from real life.
Before I started studying Japanese, my only real exposure to anime would have been the Dragon Ball series (don’t hate, I still love it ha!) so while I can’t claim to be a true expert on the subject, I can tell you what I’ve learned from immersion and what my Japanese friends have confirmed to me.
This is the number one, most common language spoken in anime. The main reason for this being it’s considered standard Japanese so it’s also the most common language spoken in Japan.
Almost any conversation had in a professional space or between acquaintances will use standard Japanese so it makes sense that most characters would use it.
It’s by far the easiest to understand as it’s the closest to the dictionary form you’ll find.
If every character started speaking Nagoya-ben, I’m pretty sure most of the viewers would think they’ve gone mad. A lot of the dialects differ so much from the standard that they can be really hard to understand, even for Japanese people.
Almost any of the main characters will be assigned Tokyo-ben for this reason. Which is great news for language learners!
Just remember that the language used could be either extremely informal or have so much “masu” your head will explode! (Sorry, sorry. Super bad joke I know… If you’re unsure what I’m referring to, polite Japanese sentences almost always end in “desu” or “masu”)
A lot of this depends on the appearance of the character, young or cool-type characters will generally be informal while the older generations are going to talk like your mean old Japanese teacher’s mother.
Any of the awkward or handsome leading characters will speak standard Japanese along with the shy, cute ones so it’s likely to be the first style you notice.
But it’s not the coolest one!
Quite possibly the coolest. No.
Definitely the coolest sounding dialects in Japan.
Most of my friends in Japan are from the Kansai region, more specifically Osaka. I’ve spent many an hour trying to replicate their damn accent! Much to their annoyance :). This accent is usually reserved for the rouges and the bad guys but Osaka has some of the friendliest people in the country!
Many of the louder or rougher characters will have an Osaka accent. The Kyoto dialect also appears but it’s nowhere near as popular as Osaka’s!
Historically, the Kansai region was looked down on by Tokyo and the people were ridiculed for their accents. However, today with Osaka being considered the comedy capital of Japan, that’s started to change.
Lots of the younger generations have started incorporating elements of Kansai-ben into their everyday vocabulary so it’s not uncommon for your Tokyo friends to use some.
This is quite understandable, surely we can all agree that using Makudo for McDonald’s makes much more sense than saying Makku! For some reason, when I hear “Makku” I can imagine a full grown adult screaming “Makku! Makku!” because they’re hungry.
My friends are weird!
Along with the harsher sounds of the Kansai dialects, they also have completely different and sometimes opposite pitch accents compared to Tokyo. It’s instantly recognizable and I love how colorful and expressive it sounds compared to standard Japanese!
One of the lesser common dialects in anime is Hokkaido-ben.
It’s often difficult for a foreigner to know for sure what they’re hearing is Hokkaido-ben as it’s a mixture of a few other dialects combined.
The main sound is similar to standard Tokyo-ben due to the fact that Hokkaido was fairly undeveloped until the Japanese actively decided to settle there in the late 1800s,
The major difference with this dialect though is the influence from both the coastal Tohoku dialect and the native Ainu language.
Hokkaido-ben is usually used by characters based in the north or in the countryside. To Japanese people, this accent can sound kind of silly and as such it’s kept for some of the less educated sounding folks.
In the show Erased/Boku Dake Ga Inai Machi, the dialect is used quite often as most of the scenes are meant to be in Hokkaido.
If you’ve never checked out Erased I highly recommend it, it’s fantastic. It seems to be on Netflix in a few countries so try your luck there!
The island of Kyushu has gifted many great things to Japan, one being the best pork ramen in the entire world… The cutest accent being another.
Although very rarely used in most anime, it’s used extensively in Ghost Hound/Shinreigari and it does appear in others too occasionally.
I’m sure there are more shows that use it as much as Ghost Hound but I’m yet to find them! If I ever do, I’ll be sure to update this post.
Hakata-ben is gaining popularity on TV so I’m sure that we’ll all be hearing a lot more of it in the future.
A Possible Barrier For Language Learners
While it’s great that so many accents and dialects are represented in anime, oftentimes they are diluted to the point that the native speakers refuse to acknowledge them as being said accent.
It’s not uncommon for the voice actor to be from a different region to the character they’re playing so it can sound fairly unauthentic like an American trying to do an English accent or someone from Scotland trying to sound like… They’re not from Scotland?
Whether this is negative or not depends on your outlook, but don’t expect to become the master of Kansai-ben just by studying the way those characters speak. You might get a nasty surprise when trying to understand real people from the Kansai region at full speed!
That said, it can be such a great tool for studying Japanese when you use it right. You can improve your listening skills immensely just by watching anime with no subtitles!
Did you know anime has its own version of the Oscars? Neither did I! Check out Steve the Nomad’s post if you want to find out some other surprising facts about anime!
Whether you’re a hardcore fan of anime or a student of Japanese (or both!), the diversity of the language adds so much color it’s sometimes a little overwhelming.
But from the sweet, soft sound of Hakata-ben to the often harsh, bullish characters spitting Kansai-ben… Anime just wouldn’t be the same without them.