Ampontan at Japundit has written a fascinating piece about the many dialects in Japan. I honestly didn’t realize there was that much variance.
One of the first things my new boss told me after I came to Japan to work as an English teacher in the early 80s was that “all Japanese are bilingual”. By that, he meant that every Japanese was fluent both in hyojungo, the standard language used for television, radio, books, and magazines, and in the local dialect that people use to varying degrees to conduct the business of everyday life in their communities. I soon found out that he wasn’t exaggerating; despite taking three years of Japanese language courses at university before coming to Japan, in the first months after my arrival in Kyushu I often had no idea what people were saying in the local dialect.
I wasn’t alone. While Japanese know and understand the most common traits of the many dialects in the country, they can get sucked into the verbal quicksand just as quickly when people get down and dirty with the hardcore version of their local language. In fact, the leaders in Kagoshima at the southern end of Kyushu encouraged the use of their arcane dialect during the feudal period as an instant detector of spies from the Shogun or Imperial court, who didn’t have a prayer of keeping up linguistically.
When I was staying with the Matsumotos in Yatsushiro, my host sister Yoko confessed with embarrassment that her friends say she’s fluent in Kumamoto-ben, the local dialect. I guess my Japanese really wasn’t all that great at the time (2001), because I couldn’t tell the difference between how she spoke and how people spoke on TV, where the Tokyo dialect is overwhelmingly used.
Now, of course, I can hear Kawachi’s dialect in Yakitate!! Japan (he speaks the Kansai dialect [I think], and has, for example, a completely different word for “I”). So I am learning, a little.