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Which dialects would one normally encounter when visiting/living in Japan (in popular places like Tokyo, Kyoto and and so on) or reading something produced in Japan?

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I have no idea on Kyoto since I only been there once or two for vacation, but in Tokyo, most common dialect other than Tokyo dialect would be kansai-ben (関西弁) –  YOU Jun 6 '11 at 5:03
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3 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The biggest dialects that often come up are.

  • Standard Japanese (Tokyo - What TV announcers speak)
  • Osaka-ben (Manzai and Comedians)
  • Kyoto-ben (Supposedly prettiest female dialect in all of Japan)
  • Okinawa-ben (It's totally out there, and is supposedly the closest to orig. Japanese.)
  • Hiroshima-ben (more so because of Yakuza and their portrayals in movies)

There are of course more, but these are the ones I Believe you have the highest chances of hearing during Japanese language study or TV watching

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Authentic old Kyoto-ben is probably only spoken by a handful of very old Kyotoites. You mostly hear it today from people working in the tourism industry in Kyoto, but very few people, if any, speak it in their daily lives. Modern Kyoto-ben is less pronounced, and quite different than the old one (which is indeed considered to be the most beautiful by many people). Okinawa-ben: Again, 2 dialects. Old Okinawan language, which is an entirely different language and used mostly by old people in Okinawa, and modern Okinawa dialect which is very close to standard Japanese. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 6 '11 at 15:03
    
There are many dialects, or rather, languages in Okinawa. Does Old Okinawan refer to Uchinaguchi? Modern Okinawa is probably Uchina-yamato-guchi. –  syockit Jul 17 '11 at 15:03
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Mark Hosang already gave a good answer, so I'll only try to add more detail to it, and maybe generalize the dialect division some more.

It's hard to answer "how many dialects are commonly used", for two reasons:

  1. Dialects are hard to count - you can subdivide dialects (e.g. Kyoto-ben, Osaka-ben, Kobe-ben) or join them into bigger groups (Kansai-ben).

  2. Some dialects are really common and others are really small, some (Osaka-ben) are very much alive and others ("classical" Kyoto-ben) are practically dead, but it's hard to decide where to put the line.

Generally speaking, dialectal variation in Japanese is dying out, but some bigger regional dialects are still quite strong. The following big regional dialects are rather well-known:

  • Kantō dialect (関東弁) which is centered in Tōkyō and is also the basis for standard Japanese. This is the dialect of central-eastern Honshū (the main island of Japan).

  • Kansai dialect (関西弁) which is centered around Ōsaka, and is especially identified with its Osaka sub-dialect (大阪弁). This is the dialect of western Honshū.

  • Tōhoku dialect (東北弁) which is spoken in north-eastern Honshū. It's considered rather rural and rough compared to the urban Kansai and Kanto dialects, and it's often used to characterize Inaka-people in fiction. It's also considered rather slurred and hard to understand, and it's often called Zuzu-ben (because for southern Japanese speakers words such as sushi and susu sound the same when spoken in this dialect). The Japanese spoken in Hokkaidaō is also very similar to this dialect.

  • Southwestern dialects Here I put everything from Southwestern Honshū (including Hiroshima) to Shikoku and Kyūshū. These dialects (except for Yakuza-style Hiroshima-ben perhaps) are less commonly represented in TV and fiction, and I'm quite bad at differentiating between them, though some of them (especially Kagoshima-ben) are supposed to be quite distinct. Their most striking feature is that most of them use じゃ as copula (instead of や in Kansai and だ in the rest of Japan).

  • Ryukyuan languages are also worth mentioning (although your unlikely to hear them at all in Tokyo), because they are not really a bunch dialects, but rather a tight language group that shares common roots with Japanese. They are utterly unintelligible to Japanese speakers and share little in common even with the most southern dialects of Kagoshima. Of these languages, the Okinawan language is the most famous, but the sad truth is that practically all of them are mostly being spoken only by older people in the Ryūkyū islands and they are dying out.

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@Boaz Yaniv: Okinawan language is very often spoken by young people. It's not dying at all. –  repecmps Jun 9 '11 at 3:28
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@repecmps: I've never been to Okinawa, but are you sure you mean Okinawan and not the Okinawan dialects? These are two different things. All statistical information I've read says there are very few speakers of Okinawan under 40 (or maybe even 50) years old. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 9 '11 at 6:31
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@repecmps: I think Wikipedia explains it quite well: In Okinawa, standard Japanese is almost always used in formal situations. In informal situations, the de facto everyday language among Okinawans under the age of 60 is the Okinawa-accented mainland Japanese called ウチナーヤマトゥグチ (Uchinaa Yamatuguchi "Okinawan Japanese"), which is often misunderstood to be Okinawan language proper, ウチナーグチ (Uchinaaguchi "Okinawan language"). Similarly, the everyday language on Amami island is not the Amami language proper, but the Amami-accented mainland Japanese, called トン普通語 (Ton Futsūgo "Potato Standard"). –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 9 '11 at 6:33
    
I mean ウチナーグチ is often used. TV, music, food and other products, young people...etc. Of course Japanese is used most of the time, it's not like they use uchinaa guchi in everyday conversation. But the traditions stay and it's not a dying language. (at least not when I was there and not in what I've seen recently either when following local news and conversing with friends) Or maybe it's because I'm only acquainted with more traditional people and less average Okinawan (and like me they become old...) –  repecmps Jun 9 '11 at 7:06
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@repecmps: Look, I haven't been to Okinawa, but I know other places where people hype a language as being alive while it most definitely isn't. The definition of a living language is "being used for everyday conversations". Otherwise we'd say Latin is a living language as well. Now, Okinawan is a living language, since it's still being used in conversation. But since it's mostly by other people, linguists call it a dying language. That may very well change (Catalan was dying out and now it is very much alive), but right now it is dying. Using set phrases won't change that. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 9 '11 at 10:00
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I mean ウチナーグチ is often used. TV, music, food and other products, young people...etc. Of course Japanese is used most of the time, it's not like they use uchinaa guchi in everyday conversation. But the traditions stay and it's not a dying language. (at least not when I was there and not in what I've seen recently either when following local news and conversing with friends) Or maybe it's because I'm only acquainted with more traditional people and less average Okinawan (and like me they become old...)

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