If you’ve been learning Japanese for a while, especially if you’ve visited Japan and heard things you’ve never heard in class or seen in a textbook, you’ve probably come to realize there isn’t just one kind of Japanese.
Hokkaidō-ben 北海道 弁, or more formally Hokkaidō-hōgen 北海道 方言, is the dialect spoken in Japan’s northern island. Thanks to Hokkaido’s history of settlement much of it comes from other parts of Japan, particularly Tohoku. Many of the words I’ll be sharing here are also found in other parts of Japan, because Hokkaido is unique in that it is a melting pot of many different dialects. There are also regional differences within Hokkaido. The Tohoku influence is strongest on the coast and is called Hama-kotoba 浜 言葉 or seashore dialect, while in urban Sapporo people speak more standard Japanese. Even though Hokkaido is considered part of Eastern Japan, there are also influences from Northwestern Honshu, the Hokuriku region. Another ingredient in the stew of Hokkaido-ben is the native Ainu language. This is most easily seen in the place names, but we’ll get to that later.
かわいい (cute) is a ubiquitous word in Japan and probably one you all know. In Hokkaido there is another way to say it. めんこい literally means small face. If someone tells you that you have a small face, they are paying you a compliment. The めん part of めんこい is the same “めん” you hear in kendo when someone strikes at the head. But this isn’t an aggressive word at all. Of all the Hokkaido-ben words here, this is the one I’ve heard the most, usually being squealed by High School girls. A picture of a cartoon bunny is めんこい. A cute haircut is めんこい. Basically anywhere you can use kawaii, you can use menkoi in the same way. It is an い-adjective and functions in the same way as kawaii.
- Tofugu-chan is cuuuuuuuuute!
どさんこ means 北海道生まれ, people born in Hokkaido. I remember clearly a boy coming up to me and saying very proudly “I am dosanko！” This nickname for Hokkaido people comes from the Dosanko horse. Dosanko horses are one of Japan’s native breeds of horse. Like dosanko people, Dosanko horses are born and bred in Hokkaido. They are fairly small, but remarkably powerful ponies, adapted for heavy farm work and harsh winters.
- I’m not afraid of winter or bears because I was born in Hokkaido.
Photo by It wouldn’t be a list of Hokkaido words without some for being cold. しばれる is a particularly frosty kind of cold, a cold that gets into your bones and makes you shiver. It’s easy to remember because しばれる sounds like shiver put into katakana. It doesn’t just mean cold, it means deep, freezing cold. 寒い (さむい), the standard word for cold, just doesn’t capture the extreme cold of Hokkaido the way しばれる does.
- The inside of my house is freezing cold.
gomi ごみ wo を nageru 投げる
When you throw out your garbage in Hokkaido, you really throw it. Or at least you say that you do. The standard phrase is ごみを捨てる (ごみをすてる). But in Hokkaido the word 捨てる, which means dispose, is swapped for 投げる (なげる), which means throw, as in to throw a ball. If you say ゴミを投げる outside Hokkaido, people will think you are throwing and littering your trash all over the place. This is one to be wary of using outside Hokkaido unless you want to be garbage shamed.
- My brother never throws out the garbage.
The formal and standard meaning of 内地 is all the areas covered by Japanese sovereignty, including Hokkaido. It could also be translated as homeland and it crops up a lot in treaties and the Japanese constitution. However, when you are in Hokkaido and you want to talk about the rest of Japan you can also say 内地 naichi to mean the mainland. It can mean just Honshu, or Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku combined, depending on the context. This is a casual usage that Hokkaido shares with Okinawa. If you are at either end of Japan and you want to talk casually about the middle then you can say 内地.
- He is on a trip to the mainland.
はっちゃきこく is the Hokkaido way of saying isshoukennmei 一生懸命, ‘to the best of one’s a ability’. That sounds a little dry, so maybe a better translation is ‘hustle’, ‘work your arse off’ or ‘work like crazy’.
- If I don’t study like crazy, I will be eaten by an alligator-crab.
ばんきり is the Hokkaido way of saying いつも, always. People don’t always use ばんきり, but when they do… they’re probably speaking Hokkaido-ben. Grammatically, it works the same way as the standard いつも.
- Grandpa always speaks in Hokkaido dialect.
How to Sound like an Old Hokkaido Man
Some Hokkaido-ben has fallen out of fashion with young people. Though you’ll hear some phrases ringing in the halls of high schools, others you will only hear from people over 50. They are still pretty fun though. Some people took great joy in teaching me these phrases. They thought it was funny to hear them coming from a young foreign girl.
There are very many ways to say very in Japanese. You can use なまら in the same way as とても and it has the same meaning, ‘very’. This word emerged in the 1970s, but is not popular with young people these days, who prefer the slang めっちゃ. なまらうまい ‘it’s very delcious’ is a catchphrase of Hokkaido born entertainer Yo Oizumi. If you are eating Hokkaido’s delicious food, it’s hard not to say なまらうまい！
- My cat is very cute!
You might think you know this one. こわい (怖い) means scary. Except in Hokkaido, where it means tired. It’s tempting to think that old Hokkaido folk are just messing with you, taking a perfectly good word and changing the meaning completely. To make things more confusing, the standard use of こわい is also common in Hokkaido. It’s all about context. I often heard older teachers saying “体がこわい” (からだがこわい) as they complained about the seven hours of basketball practice they’d done at the weekend. If you are feeling exhausted or woozy, you can say it too.
- After jogging, my legs are exhausted.
いずい is a word for something that you’ve probably experienced, but never had the perfect word for in English or in standard Japanese. It’s a kind of itchy pain, like getting grit in your eye. Alternatively it can mean a pinching tightness, like wearing underwear that’s too small. You’ll also hear people complaining about いずい in Miyagi Prefecture and some parts of Tohoku.
- My eye is itchy and my underpants are tight. Life is awful.
Dialects Within a Dialect
I spent three years living in Nemuro, the easternmost town in Hokkaido. In addition to being one of the most remote places in Japan, it is also one of the foggiest. Even in the summer when there was brilliant sunshine shining across the whole island, Nemuro would be covered in a thick sea-fog. So it’s not surprising that the locals had some special words for fog. I’ll share them with you, but you should be aware that if Hokkaido-ben is often misunderstood outside Hokkaido, Nemuro-ben can’t be understood even in the next town over. So it’s basically useless unless you’re planning a trip to Nemuro (which I would recommend.) However, it does show how many variations there are in dialect, even within one island.
じり is a variation of the standard word for fog 霧 きり. The people of Nemuro are fog connoisseurs and there is a difference between じり and きり. きり is a standard fog, but じり is a heavy fog with visible droplets in the air. It gets under your umbrella and inside your clothes. There is nothing you can do to stop じり from soaking you through.
The second word for fog is ガス. This comes from the English word ガス. Gasu is a less wetting fog than じり. It rolls off the sea and into the town, usually in the afternoons.
Now you know two Japanese words for fog that you will probably never have a chance to use. But if you do find yourself in Nemuro, then you will really impress some people by saying, “なまらじりね！”
Speaking of living in strange town, let’s take a look at Hokkaido’s strange town names.
I Lived in a Root Room
Hokkaido’s place names don’t seem to make much sense. Down on the mainland, most names of towns and cities have a certain logic to them, even if they sound poetic. Tokyo 東京 means eastern capital. Kanazawa 金沢 means golden marsh. Aomori 青森 means blue forest. Most place names are drawn from the natural world or administrative terms.
But when you get to Hokkaido logic doesn’t seem to apply anymore. Sapporo 札幌 means bill hood. Betsukai 別海 means different sea. Wakkanai 稚内 means juvenile inside. Nemuro 根室, where I lived, translates as root room. The names don’t seem to match up to the real landscape as they do in the rest of Japan.
That is, until you learn that the town names in Hokkaido are often transliterations of the original Ainu names into kanji. The artefacts of the Ainu language can still be seen in Hokkaido’s place names. Muroran 室蘭 might seem strange translated as ‘room orchid’, but its original name was ‘Mo Ruerani’, meaning ‘bottom of a little slope,’ which makes a lot more sense. Wakkanai in Ainu is ヤㇺワッカナイ Yam Wakannay and means ‘cold-water river’. Many towns have the sounds “betsu” and “nai” which both mean river in Ainu. Instead of matching the meanings when the towns were given their kanji names, officials matched the sounds, often using kanji such as 別 or 津 for the Ainu ‘betsu’ and 内 for the Ainu ‘nai’. Place names in Hokkaido don’t teach you much about local geography, unless you look beneath the surface.
If you have become なまら interested in Hokkaido-ben and want to find out more, here are some resources to help you.
The Online Hokkaido Dialect Dictionary (3rd Edition) is a little dry, but can be useful.
A めんこい girl teaches you Hokkaido-ben in this series of videos made by Hokkaido Fan Magazine. Here’s an example:
Here is a Hokkaido-ben grammar primer.
If you want to get playful, there is a Hokkaido-ben karuta set.
If you are looking for a place to study Japanese, I would certainly recommend Hokkaido. Since most of what you learn is very close to standard Japanese, you won’t have any problems being understood wherever you go, even if people do think you are throwing your garbage around. Plus, there is still a thriving local dialect to give your studies some pop! I might sound like a 70 year old fisherman sometimes, but that’s okay with me.