Cool City, Cooler Language: 8 Key Characteristics of Kyoto Dialect to Give Your Japanese a Twist

Are you planning a trip to Kyoto and want to speak just like the locals—or at least understand them?

Or do you want to understand a favorite drama that’s set in Kyoto?

Perhaps you finally have the basics mastered and want to delve a little deeper into Japanese?

Kansai-ben, or the Kansai dialect, is spoken throughout the southeast region of Japan. The three major cities speaking Kansai-ben are Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. What you might not realize is that there are quite a few differences between the region’s dialects.

Although there are a lot of similarities between the various Kansai-ben, knowing the differences can help you manage the strange dialects of new places you visit.

As soon as you’ve mastered the basics of Kansai-ben like using あかん instead of だめ which means no/bad, ええ for いい, which means yes/good, and ほんま for 本当 (ほんとう) which means real/truth, you can delve into the more subtle differences. Of course there are special dialects for all the prefectures of the Kansai region, but Kyoto, as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, should be at the top of your list of dialects to become familiar with.

Why Learn Kyoto-ben?

When I first visited Japan after two years of Japanese night classes, I was excited about every opportunity to not only speak Japanese, but listen to how it’s spoken by native speakers.

On the bus, I would listen to the whispered conversations of couples in the seat in front of me. I would ask for directions, even when I didn’t need them. I would write down words that shopkeepers said if I didn’t understand them.

Doing this in Tokyo was easy. I felt like I at least had a grasp of what was going on around me. But then I traveled to Kyoto.

I didn’t know anything about Japanese dialects at the time and was fascinated and horrified to find out that I really couldn’t understand anything on the streets. Despite my accurate perception of people speaking much slower than they do in Tokyo, the words they used didn’t come up in my dictionary, the verbs endings didn’t match any of the formal and informal Japanese that I was taught in class—it sounded like a completely different language.

The Kyoto dialect, or Kyoto-ben, is an exciting part of Japanese to become familiar with.

What Makes Kyoto-ben Different?

Kyoto is much revered as the old capital of Japan, and that’s where you’ll find the deepest history and culture in the country. Kyoto natives are proud of their rich ancestry and it’s reflected in their pride of Kyoto-ben.

Handed down from the Geisha of the past (called Geiko in Kyoto), Kyoto-ben is seen as the most royal, polite and relaxed of all the dialects of the Kansai region. Its nonchalant flow and easy cadence give a relaxed feeling to the language that isn’t present in 標準語 (ひょうじゅんご), which is what they call standard Japanese.

To get you started on your journey, here are 8 essential characteristics of Kyoto-ben.

An Introduction to the Kyoto Dialect: 8 Key Characteristics of Kyoto-ben

1. ~はる

Although used in other Kansai sub-dialects, ~はる is used much more often in Kyoto and in different ways. In other parts of Kansai, ~はる is used primarily by women, but in Kyoto men use it as well. Although it’s a form of 敬語 (けいご), polite speech, in other parts of Kansai, in Kyoto it’s used so often that it has lost much of its formality.

Elderly people even use ~はる for their family members or animals. It’s used much more frequently in Kyoto than anywhere else in the Kansai region and it’s conjugated a bit differently. Instead of using the preceding te- form, the ta- form is often used before ~はる in Kyoto.

Here are a few examples of how ~はる is used:

What are you eating?
Standard Japanese: 何を食べているの?(なにをたべているの?)
Kyoto-ben: 何を食べたはるの?(なにをたべたはるの?)

People from the countryside are relaxed.
Standard Japanese: 田舎の人達はのんびりしている。(いなかの ひとたちは のんびりしている。)
Kyoto-ben: 田舎の人達はのんびりしたはる。(いなかの ひとたちは のんびりしたはる。)

2. い sound in negative irregular verbs

In regular Kansai-ben, negative verbs are replaced with ~へん. For example, the phrase “I don’t understand,” or 分からない (わからない), becomes 分からへん (わからへん).

This is also a staple of Kyoto-ben. However, in Kyoto, when you make the irregular verbs する and 来る (くる) negative, instead of becoming せえへん and けえへん, they become しいひん and 来いひん (きいひん).

At that time, he didn’t reply.
Standard Japanese: あの時、彼は返事しなかった。(あのとき、かれは へんじ しなかった。)
Kyoto-ben: あの時、彼は返事しいひんかった。(あのとき、かれは へんじ しいひんかった。)

Mr. Yamada isn’t coming.
Standard Japanese: 山田さんが来ない。(やまださんがこない。)
Kyoto-ben: 山田さんが来いひん。(やまださんが きいひん。)

3. ~なぁ

In the Kansai area ~ねん is a typical sentence ending particle with no particular English equivalent. Instead of this, Kyoto-ben often uses ~なぁ.

He is a great guy isn’t he?
Standard Japanese: 彼は偉い人だね。(かれは えらい ひとだね。)
Kyoto-ben: 彼は偉い人やなぁ。(かれは えらい ひとやなぁ。)

4. Indirectness

People from Kyoto are known for their politeness and indirectness.

The example usually used to illustrate this concept is the sentence ぶぶ漬けでもどうどすか? (ぶぶづけでも どうどすか?), which means, “How about some (rice) soup?” This expression is used to ask guests to leave after a particularly long stay. Only people from Kyoto would know the true meaning and make a quick excuse to leave.

Of course, nowadays, it’s used only as an exaggeration, but it does highlight the indirectness of the people of Kyoto.

5. Ending ~う

The soft melodic cadence of Kyoto-ben is highlighted in the pronunciation of the う sound in ます or です. Instead of the usual pronunciations of mahss and dess, the people of Kyoto softly pronounce the final u sound. This is a classic characteristic of Kyoto-ben.

6. Syllable Repetition and Onomatopoeia

Kyoto-ben, more than other dialects, relies heavily on syllable repetition and onomatopoeia. For example, people from Kyoto tend to repeat the same word twice for emphasis instead of using words like とても or すごく which means very/really.

It’s really hot today.
Standard Japanese: 今日はとても暑い。 (きょうは とてもあつい。)
Kyoto-ben: 今日は暑い暑い (きょうは あついあつい。)

7. どす

While Kyoto-ben is used by people of all ages, there are some expressions that aren’t so common anymore, but still used by the elderly. You’ll still hear them often while living or traveling in Kyoto, and they seem to express a classic form of Kyoto-ben that sounds elegant to Japanese speakers.

どす is how some older Kyoto residents say です. This traditional accent is highlighted by the Geiko and Maiko (Geisha and their apprentices) of Kyoto. They still use this expression often.

Is that so?
Standard Japanese: そうですね。
Kyoto-ben: そうどすなぁ 。

8. よし

よし is a light command used towards people of equal or lower rank. It’s used almost the same as ~なさい but without as much emphasis.

You should study.
Standard Japanese: 勉強しなさい。 (べんきょうしなさい。)
Kyoto-ben: 勉強しよし。 (べんきょうしよし。)

Other Resources for Learning Kansai-ben and Kyoto-ben:

  • Kansai Dialect Self-study Site – A self-study site for Japanese learners, this site has all the basic grammar and phrases you need to start your journey into the world of Kansai-ben.
  • Colloquial Kansai Japanese Book – This book is a great handbook to start you on your Kansai-ben journey. It covers the differences between regions, useful expressions and hundreds of example conversations that will have you familiar with Kansai-ben quicker than you think.

Now get out there and start using all these great tidbits of information and resources! You’ll be speaking like a Kyoto local in no time.

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