The Famous and Powerful: Kansai-Ben
Every country has a variety of dialects spoken within it. So does Japan. In many cases, a certain dialect is so vital to the region that you cannot live without it. Kansai (関西) is no exception to this. The Kansai region once prospered as a capital of the nation, and thus has many historical remains dating back to ancient times. It is one of the popular sightseeing places for travelers, and most likely you will be visiting this region at least once during your stay in Japan.
The following problem arises then: most people in Kansai don't speak Standard Japanese, which most of you are learning. Famous for their pride in their culture and vitality, Kansai people love to speak their dialect, regardless of whom they are talking with, even if you are a foreigner. Here you will learn the most essential “Kansai-ben” (関西弁) expressions to help you survive in the region.
1. Akan!（あかん！）= NO!
This is a very important word, not just because it is used so very often, but more because it means no. The Standard Japanese equivalent is dame (だめ), which usually gives a warning tone of rejection in a casual style. For example, a famous slogan for drug abuse prevention in Japanese is “Dame. Zettai.” (No! Absolutely No! [to drugs]). But in Kansai, you will find this word “akan” in many official signage or slogans instead, as in “Chikan Akan” (No to Molestation). So if someone says this word to you in an alarming tone, it means, “you're better off what you are doing right now!”
2. Nande?（なんで？）= Why?
This word is now used casually by people of other areas and regions as well, but what makes it uniquely Kansai is its intonation. In Standard Japanese, the stressed (or raised) tone will be placed on the first syllable, as in “nande?” But in Kansai-ben, you must raise the last one: “na-n-de?” So just because the tone is different from the Standard Japanese doesn't mean that they're angry at you or accusing you. This is just how they simply ask “why” for Kansai-ben speakers.
3. Ookini（おおきに）= Thank you
I have to say that this word could be becoming outdated, though it is still frequently used as a symbol of Kansai-ben. Historically, the Kansai area had been a prosperous centre of business and trading, and the culture of money making is still strong in the area. So for them, one way to have a good business is to have a good communication with customers. People engaged with any type of sales business here would say “ookini” to you when you make a purchase at his or her place. And you might also want to say “ookini” back to them, for your next pleasant business opportunity.
4. Nandeyanen!（なんでやねん！）= You must be joking!/What the heck is that!
One of the distinctive characteristics of the Kansai people is that they love comedy and comedians. It's a famous stereotype that you can tell a funny joke if you are from Kansai. This is probably the most well-known Kansai word to describe the Kansai comedian spirit: “nandeyanen.” It is used often, yet so hard to master for many non-native Kansai-ben speakers. Just remember: when you make a goofy joke and your Kansai friend says this word to you, just laugh. You have just shown appreciation for your friend's quick comedic response (unless he or she said it angrily…).
5. Donai?（どない？）= How/What …!?
Kansai people are stereotypically talkative. They will talk to you even if you're a stranger, even from other country. Whether or not you are from their culture, they like to comment on things in an engaging way. Let's say you are at a store in Kansai. A lady, looking at the same product as you are, suddenly says, “kore donai?” (how is this?/what do you think of this?). You are unexpectedly invited to her question. If you can respond to it, that's great! You will have a great conversation with her. If you cannot, please don't worry. Just let her talk. She will be still enjoying talking.
So, “donai deshita?” (how was the article?). Every language carries its unique culture in its background. The same goes for dialects. Understanding the cultural aspect of a language you are learning is also a key to become a proficient speaker. If you stay in or visit the area of Kansai, please remember these expressions, and they will help you communicate better with the people of Kansai!
For more linguistic and grammatical explanations of Kansai-ben, please visit Kansai-ben.com.
References for Readers
“Dame. Zettai.” A slogan by Drug Abuse Prevention Centre. Official website: (http://www.dapc.or.jp/), retrieved on March 14, 2015.
“Chikan Akan”. A catchphrase used on a poster to raise awareness of illegality of molestation by Osaka Prefectural Police. Revived poster with the catchphrase on the Internet (URL: http://www.aurora-design.sakura.ne.jp/archives/poster/chikan_akan.html), retrieved on March 14, 2015.
Kansai region. Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kansai_region), retrieved on March 14, 2015.
For more Kansai-ben expressions and grammar: Kansai-ben.com
Hero image by author, taken August 2010.