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Students' dialect research leads to popular 'prefecture affection rating' service in Japan

Professor Koichi Shinozaki and his seminar students analyze issues based on evaluations obtained from users of the dialect chart, at Tokyo Women's Christian University in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of Koichi Shinozaki)

TOKYO -- A service that allows users to determine their degree of attachment to and love for their hometown based on their use of Japanese dialects was recently released online.

    A Mainichi Shimbun student reporter asked the developer, professor Koichi Shinozaki of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tokyo Women's Christian University, and his seminar students about the project's aims.

    The 64-year-old Shinozaki, a Japanese literature specialist, got into dialect research when he was a student at the graduate school of Tokyo Metropolitan University, which was famous for its work in the area.

    "Terms listed in books as dialects are not the real thing. I want you to feel excited when you hear the pronunciation," Shinozaki said. He explains to his seminar students the importance of field research, saying that the key to studying dialects is to listen directly and feel them firsthand.

    The basis of the "prefectural identity assessment" released on June 21 is the "dialect chart," an online service that the students in Shinozaki's seminar began developing in 2008 under the professor's guidance.

    Professor Koichi Shinozaki (right row, back) and students experience real dialects at a social event with local people on the last day of the seminar in the town of Mikawa, Yamagata Prefecture, in September 2019. Every year before the coronavirus pandemic, Shinozaki's seminar students visited Mikawa to conduct a language survey. (Photo courtesy of Koichi Shinozaki)

    The dialect chart asks the question, "Do you use the following word?" By answering "yes" or "no" to these questions, the service gradually narrows down where the respondent is from by the areas across Japan where those words are used, or not. The service was spread through social media and is a big hit, with more than 10 million users so far.

    What makes it possible to determine the user's place of origin is the diligent research of successive generations of Shinozaki's seminar students. By carefully collecting dialects still spoken across multiple generations, they have been able to accumulate data on the distribution of dialects by region. The dialect chart has been continuously improved, and now two services, including the latest version, "dialect chart 100 Plus II EX," are available on the website.

    Based on the results of the dialect chart, they began developing the prefectural identity assessment in 2019. It started with Shinozaki's desire to comprehensively determine people's degree of attachment to certain prefectures.

    In the assessment, users first select a prefecture, enter their age group, and an estimate of their own "prefectural identity." They then answer six questions using the dialects spoken in that prefecture.

    The dialects used in the questions are divided into three ranks -- A, B and C -- in order of usage. Those that are used daily in the region are ranked A, those used by a few people are ranked B, and those rarely used are ranked C. If you use or know a minor dialect that is ranked C, you are judged to have a high level of prefectural affection.

    As a native of Shizuoka Prefecture in central Japan, I expected to get a 75% prefectural identity level, but when I tried it, I was 13 points higher than I predicted. The message read: "Your Shizuoka prefectural identity level is 88%, you have a deep love for Shizuoka!"

    A screenshot of the result of the "prefectural identity assessment" by a student reporter from Shizuoka Prefecture.

    The seminar students research and collect dialects to be used for evaluation. They divide the country into six areas and assign researchers to each area. The students always check the dialects with the locals who use them daily. To gather reliable information, they work hard to collect data through their relatives, friends, part-time workplaces, and other contacts.

    Of the nine prefectures in central Japan's Chubu region, Chika Takekawa, 21, a fourth-year student, ran the survey in Shizuoka, Yamanashi and Ishikawa prefectures. Takekawa, a native of Shizuoka Prefecture, said, "Until I was in high school, I'd felt that the local dialect was just normal, everyday language, but I'm glad to know that it can be transmitted to the rest of the country as something unique to Shizuoka."

    The students are also in charge of creating questions to determine the degree of prefectural identity. Tuzumi Uchikawa, 21, a fourth-year student, said, "Even if you know the meaning of a dialect term, it is difficult to form a sentence and match the style."

    "It was very interesting to learn that the words I use in my daily life are in the local dialect, to come across wonderful dialects that I would like to use myself, and to find dialects that cannot be simply rephrased in standard Japanese," she recalled.

    When Uchikawa asked those who helped with the research to try out the service, she received comments such as, "I was reminded of the old days and felt nostalgic while I was busy with chores and work away from my hometown," and "I was moved to tears due to the fact that I could not return home because of the coronavirus pandemic."

    We have spent a long time apart from those we want to see, but our hometown dialects may be a way to bridge the distance between our hearts.

    You can try the prefectural identity assessment and dialect chart at https://ssl.japanknowledge.jp/hougen/ (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Chihiro Kubota, Japan Women's University and Campal reporter)

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    Campal

    A portmanteau of "campus" and "pal." The official name is "Mainichi Shimbun Campal Editorial Department." The first article from Campal was published on Feb. 4, 1989, and appeared every Tuesday in the Mainichi Shimbun evening edition in the area covered by the paper's Tokyo headquarters. About 20 student reporters, mainly from Tokyo metropolitan area universities, are engaged in its activities. The department's mission is "to convey things students want to know." Students do everything from planning to reporting and writing. It has expanded to nine areas nationwide.

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