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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Speaking with an Accent in Northern Japan: Discrimination and Dialect Ideologies

  • Author(s): Everhart, Edwin Keely
  • Advisor(s): Kroskrity, Paul V.
  • et al.

This dissertation investigates the practices by which local language activists and college students in the Touhoku (Tōhoku 東北) region reproduce and challenge stigma toward local language (“dialect,” “accent”). Touhoku has for decades been a source of labor and other resources for the national economy of Japan which favors the urban core, and language standardization reinscribes Touhoku speakers as belonging to a periphery. People of this region, subject to metropolitan cultural hegemony in the post-war period, often came to bear an inferiority complex about local culture due to linguistic discrimination and cultural marginalization. Registers of local language here tend to absorb weighty meaning from social relations of power, as emblems of shameful backwardness, tourist appeal, political resistance, and fashionable authenticity by turns. Following the last “dialect boom” (1980s-90s), local language activists (“dialect activists”) have pursued projects of language documentation, language valorization, and language revitalization in a spirit of renewal after the triple disasters of March 11, 2011. Meanwhile institutions like media and schools, which the state set up to privilege national “standard” language (i.e. Tokyo-style language), have never been decolonized.

This dissertation is based on 16 months of ethnographic research primarily in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, with college students at Iwate University, as well as with language activists, drawing on established approaches in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics. It draws together a range of approaches to analyze language varieties as registers, that is, as products of enregisterment. Part of this dissertation addresses language activism e.g. in the case of Kesen and Yam�ura Harut�ğu (Yamaura Harutsugu). In addition to discussing such language activism (largely among elders), this study asks how young people in northern Touhoku experience local language: what are their language ideologies vis-�-vis local language, how do they express social identities using linguistic resources, and how is their agency to use language constrained? People in northern Touhoku are experiencing a form of language endangerment, but local language is by no means “extinct,” though commoditization and linguistic colonization are dominant forces. Analysis of life histories and everyday interaction demonstrate that speakers use local language as a resource for negotiating cultural authority.

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