Know the Local Lingo – Ibaraki Dialect (Ibaraki-ben, 茨城弁)
By Avi Landau
In Tsukuba City and the rest of Ibaraki Prefecture we are everyday exposed to two types of Japanese. One,of course, is Standard Japanese (hyojun-go), the language of Edo’s elite, so successfully propagated throughout the archipelago by NHK, and the other, the more earthy, highly syncopated local dialect — Ibaraki-ben. The most famous feature of this Northern Kanto hogen (dialect) is the application of PE, or BE at the end of a sentence. For example, the standard Japanese — nan desu ka (what is it?) — is more usually intoned — nan da pe — by locals (especially the older ones).
It is also important to know, while you are here, that certain basic words in standard speech have a DIFFERENT MEANING when spoken in Ibaraki-ben. Let me tell you what happened to my friend and I the other day to give you an idea of what I mean.
A friend was visiting , and I wanted to show him around my neighborhood, which is filled with historical and natural curiosities (if not wonders). We were walking past some vegetable fields when a farmer caught sight of us. He looked a bit distressed, wiped his sweaty brow, leaned back against a small tree and muttered, as if to himself –AH KOWAI !
My friend, who has been diligently studying Japanese (hyojun-go, of course), took strong offense at this. He had learnt that kowai meant SCARY and imagined that the farmer had seen two foreigners approaching and fearfully vocalized his xenophobia with something like — YIKES!
My friend’s interpretation was in fact COMPLETELY OFF THE MARK. This is because in Northern Kanto, as well as in parts of the North-East (Tohoku) kowai means TIRED. The farmer was actually just expressing his exhaustion after hard work on a hot day and probably even wanted to go onto some small talk with us. I would have translated what he said with a colloquialism like — jeez, I’m bushed, or gosh, I’m pooped!
In my experience, the older farmers who have never studied English can deal and converse (in Japanese of course) with foreigners in a much more comfortable and relaxed way than their more educated counterparts who feel the pressure of having to speak English. I would recommend striking up conversation with local farmers as a way of practicing Japanese and also getting to know some extremely kind, generous, and in many ways knowledgeable people.
I hope to write more about our local lingo in future postings. In the meantime, always keep in mind that there is more than one Japanese you will be hearing while you are in Tsukuba.