Japan from the inside out

The Tsugaru dialect dictionary

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 2, 2007

NOW THIS IS A LABOR OF LOVE: Aomori Prefecture apple grower Isao Kumeta (photo) has finished work on a 622-page dictionary of the Tsugaru dialect and printed 1,000 copies at his own expense.


Japan’s mountains and rivers create the perfect geographical conditions for spawning dialects, and it’s anyone’s guess just how many there are. (Defining a dialect is no easy matter, and linguists count some of them as separate languages.) More than a few of these dialects are impossible for outsiders to understand—such as the one in Tsugaru–which meant that the country had to settle on a standard language if it was to develop as a nation-state. That it did, and this standard language is today used comfortably by everyone throughout the country, with the exception of some of the elderly. (There are still a few diehards who scornfully dismiss standard Japanese as Tokyo dialect, but the old guard has no difficulty using it as the situation demands.)

Located in the northern part of the country, the Tsugaru region corresponds roughly to the western half of the largely rural Aomori Prefecture. It takes its name from the Tsugaru Strait, which separates the main Japanese island of Honshu from Hokkaido, and links the Sea of Japan with the Pacific Ocean.

Mr. Kumeta (60) told the local newspaper that he was alarmed by the diminishing use of the dialect and its improper pronunciation by TV announcers. He became determined to compile a dictionary of the Tsugaru dialect, a task that took him nine years.

The amateur lexicographer apparently found the work a lot of fun. He devoted himself to his labors during the long winter nights after the apple harvest. He told the reporter that he wrote out the reference book word by word while sipping whiskey. “The alcohol elicited old memories,” he laughed. “I looked forward to writing every night.”

He named the dictionary the Agadanburi (the local term for akatonbo, or red dragonfly). It contains roughly 7,000 vocabulary entries, complete with pronunciation and intonation symbols. Mr. Kumeta also provided example sentences, many of which are based on apple farming.

When he was stumped by words that are difficult to translate into standard Japanese, or words whose meaning is unclear, Mr. Kumeta consulted with his high school classmates and acquaintances throughout the region for advice.

He also included notations for those words he considered impossible to render into standard Japanese. He thought verb conjugations were particularly difficult to explain, so he left that for a later edition. Mr. Kumeta said he also hopes to publish an anthology of poetry written in the Tsugaru dialect.

Want to buy a copy of his dictionary? He’s going to sell them for 3,800 yen each (about $US 33.00). Those interested should send him a fax with their name, address, and phone number at 0172-77-2886.

If you want to read further on the subject of Japanese dialects, try this previous Ampontan post on the subject. The National Institute for the Japanese Language also has more information—just click on the link at the right sidebar.

2 Responses to “The Tsugaru dialect dictionary”

  1. bender said

    One thing you might also think interesting is Hokkaido-ben. There seems to be some myth going on that Hokkaido-ben is close to the standard Tokyo dialect, but it is definitely not, it’s more close to the Tohoku and Hokuriku Dialects. One joke I heard about my friend from Hakodate is that they always thought they were not “nammatteiru”, but everyone was staring at them when they went to Sapporo(!).

    Hakodate is of course closest to Tsugaru- it’s just across the strait. I went to Oma once and amazed that the only TV program I could watch was coming from Hakodate…from Oma, Hakodate-city glistens over the evening horizon, while Oma is separated from the rest of Aomori by mountains and hills (so you can’t watch Aomori-hoso).

  2. T.K said

    Ever since I read Dazai’s novel about the region, I’ve had an interest in Tsugaru. The local character is probably explained a great deal by the dialect, which of course was missing in the translation I read.

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