The year 2019 in Japan was full of events, such as the opening of the new imperial era, a G20 summit in Osaka, the Rugby World Cup, the passage of two extremely powerful typhoons, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games preparations. But what are Japanese people’s impressions of these events?
Let's try finding some clue about this with a look on the Word of the Year selection, unveiled on December 2 by Jiyû Kokuminsha, the publisher of the annual Gendai Yôgo no Kiso Chishiki ("Encyclopedia of contemporary words") in association with U-Can, another publisher and provider of distance education courses. Since 1984, about thirty words are analyzed, among which ten of them are chosen at the end of the year to constitute the U-Can shingo-ryûkô go top 10 ("U-Can Top 10 of neologisms and trend words").
The jury was composed of six panelists: intellectuals from the academic world, arts, press and entertainment sectors, and Jiyû Kokuminsha’s encyclopedia publication director. The 10 words or expressions of the final ranking are chosen for what they show of Japanese society at the moment.
ONE TEAM is the word of the year 2019
In 2019, the word of the year, ONE TEAM, was quite naturally derived from the sports field. It was Japan’s rugby team - the Brave Blossoms - slogan during the Rugby World Cup. Their coach Jamie Joseph first used it to help unite a seemingly disparate team, as about half the players were not of Japanese descent. Jiyû Kokuminsha’s panel considered that ONE TEAM is a positive message towards the part of Japan that fears to open to the world, and an incentive to welcome immigration, as it will become a necessity for the country in the future. By choosing this word, they hope to positively move Japanese people, as well as their government and especially Japan’s Prime minister Shinzô Abe.
Who said Japanese people were not interested in politics?
The rest of the Top 10: typhoons and societal issues
The rest of the Top 10 is constituted by typhoons, societal issues, sports and the new imperial era related words.
2. 計画運休 (keikaku unkyû), "planned cancellation"
A "planned cancellation" is the stopping of all the trains in anticipation of a typhoon's passage, so as to limit potential damages on the infrastructures. Japan often undergoes typhoons, but 2019’s ones were particularly violent, especially #15 Faxai in September, and #19 Hagibis in October. The latter was even the cause for cancelling several matches during the Rugby World Cup, for the first time in this competition’s history. The panelists point out, however, that this "planned cancellation" did not prevent the 15 billion yen (~US$ 136,814,502.30) of damages on the Shinkansen JR Hokuriku facilities, due to a flood incurred by the heavy rainfalls.
In the same vein, the catchphrase 命を守る行動を (inochi o mamoru kôdô o), "take action to protect your life," widely used to recall the list of protective measures in case of disaster, was also listed in the 30-words selection.
3. 軽減税率 (keigen zeiritsu), "reduced tax rate"
VAT increased from 8% to 10% in October 2019 in Japan on most of the goods, except for basic food products, whose VAT is still at 8%. Consumers and merchants are nonetheless taken aback by its implementation. For example, a meal eaten at the restaurant will be taxed 10%, whereas the same meal to takeaway will only be taxed at 8%. Mirin rice vinegar, one of the essential condiments in Japanese cuisine, will have a tax level according to its alcohol level. The rise of the VAT is harshly criticized as it has the greatest impact on people with the lowest incomes. The "reduced tax rate" is a temporary measure – it should end in June 2020 – which adds to the consumers worries.
4. スマイリングシンデレラ／しぶこ (Smiling Cinderella / Shibuko)
Shibuko is the affectionate nickname given to a young golf champion, Hinako Shibuno. Although she already scored five wins in the professional circuit, Shibuno became famous in Japan only after she won her first international tournament, the Women’s British Open, in August 2019. She is the second Japanese in history to win a major international golf tournament since 1977, after Hisako Higuchi, another woman. The Smiling Cinderella nickname came from the British radio BBC’s announcers. Shibuno indeed charmed the public with her permanent smile, her calm on the green and her excellent play. She is to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
5. タピる (tapiru)
Tapiru is the mark of tapioca’s third popularity wave in Japan. The consumption of tapioca pearls has been multiplied by 4 compared to 2018! The present trend is Tapioca Milk Tea, a drink associating an Oolong tea or black tea with milk to big black beads of tapioca. Tapiru is a portmanteau word, formed with "tapi" from tapioca and "ru", as in the infinitive form of the verb "suru" ("do", or here,"take") and means "take a drink or a meal made with tapioca". The drink originates from Taiwan; it became quickly popular among young women and high school girls thanks to social networks. It is said to be so popular you don’t need to look for a specialized shop to find it.
A tapioca amateur is a "tapirist" (tapiristo / タピリスト).
#KuToo is a hashtag echoing to #MeToo, playing on the homophonic Japanese words kutsu (靴) shoe and kutsû (苦痛) pain to point out the fact that many women are forced to wear high heels or pumps in the workplace. The first one to use this hashtag is said to be actress and activist Yumi Ishikawa in January 2019. She produced a petition to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to ban this practice. Her plea was even a source of dissent between the Minister of Health of the time, who said the obligation of wearing heels "was socially acceptable, as long as it was necessary and appropriate in the workplace," and his vice-minister claiming that "wearing high heels should never be compulsory". U-can panelists remark that this keyword revealed gender inequality in the workplace.
7. ◯◯ペイ (marumaru pei ), "xx pay"
"Xx pay" is a term designating payment apps, a true revolution in a country where cash payment is still widely used, and sometimes compulsory. Cashless payment do exist in Japan (Japanese credit cards or Suica cards), but the boom of payment apps happened in October 2019, with the VAT increase. Numerous providers, from the more traditional such as NTT, to the newest, such as Line or Yahoo for example, have launched their own apps, and try to develop them and stay independent from the GAFAs.
The payment system is simple to use for both clients and retailers thanks to a QR Code on the smartphone or on the shop’s terminal. Retailers even prompt consumers to favor the payment apps in giving important rebates (from 2 to 5% of the total purchase). The system gave birth to the terms キャッシュレス／ポイント還元 (Cashless / Point kangen), "Cashless / point rebates", which allows to soften the shock of VAT increase. U-Can panelists recognize that the merit of this payment method is to allow Japanese people to keep control over their budget, which was severely impacted by the Abenomics, Shinzô Abe’s economic policy.
8. 免許返納 (menkyo hennou), "returning [driving] license"
This Japanese government’s campaign solicits all drivers aged 65-year-old an above in returning their driving license, and thus stop driving, if possible. The campaign was launched after a sudden rise of accidents caused by elderly drivers, and in particular, the accident that took place in April, in Ikebukuro. An 87-year-old driver mistook brake and accelerator, causing 2 deaths and injuring 10. According to U-Can, in Ikebukuro district, the number of 65-year-old an above drivers’ voluntary license returns rose of 80% compared to 2018. The average percentage of returns is 8,2% in the greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, but is way lower outside big cities, with the lowest rate in Kochi (Shikoku), at 3.8%. Despite their goodwill, elderly people living in rural areas or isolated places still need their car, as they have no other means of transportation.
Ikebukuro’s accident put back into fashion the term 上級国民 (jôkyû kokumin), "upper-class citizen" (as opposed to "average citizen" (一般国民 ippan kokumin). The driver used to be a prominent engineer, who held important functions in the Japanese Ministry of communications, and even direction roles in several prestigious Japanese companies. The police did not arrest him on the assumption he was injured, an elderly person and he was unlikely to flee. However, in the other similar cases that happened afterwards, the police always put drivers under arrest, without consideration for their age or health issues. The renewal in the use of "upper-class citizen" shows a growing feeling of injustice among Japanese people, directed toward the impunity of the so called society’s "élite".
9. 闇営業 (yami eigyô), "underground business"
The expression refers to a scandal in the entertainment industry. Some actors and celebrities were paid to take part in reception events, but they did not notify their agents or the production companies they were in contract with, and thus did not pay them. Moreover, the generous sponsors were no other than mafia groups, some specialized in money transfer scams. The weekly FRIDAY revealed a double-edged scoop, as many production companies, like Yoshimoto Kôgyô, were in fact pointed out for their treatment of their "stars". They indeed used some status ambiguities to avoid bidding any written contract with half of their talents, and the retribution offered was so low it was not enough to afford a living.
Again, Jiyû Kokuminsha’s panelists take the opportunity to indirectly criticize Shinzô Abe, as the Prime minister made an appearance in one of Yoshimoto’s production in April 2019.
10. 令和 Reiwa
Reiwa is the name of the new imperial era, unveiled on April 1, 2019. The popular enthusiasm for this new era is such that the number of marriages doubled in May, compared to the same month in 2018.
The first character of Reiwa, 令 (rei), was also elected the Kanji of the Year for 2019, by the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation. A calligraphy of the character was even displayed during a ceremony in Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera in mid-December.
Sports as the main concern of the year
Only two sport-related words or expressions made it to the Top 10, but they constituted more than a third of the first selection, and most of them were related to rugby. The other words referred to politics both domestic (birth of a new opposition party) and international (new trade tensions with South Korea), to popular culture with TV and box-office’s hits, and the rise of online subscriptions. One of the strangest might be ハンディファン（携帯扇風機）(keitai senpûki), "handy fan", that became an absolute must-have item for summer in Japan, and that is purchasable in any shape or color one can imagine.
This Top 10 shed new light on Japan, and especially on the way some Japanese see their own country. Jiyû Kokuminsha’s panelists do not hide their disapproval of the ruling government, which can be surprising if we believe in Japanese clichés about the uniformity of Japanese society.
Reading their arguments and analyzing the context offer the discovery of many underlying trends and expressions, that are not always visible to a Western audience, due to numerous obstacles such as language and culture.
Words related to sports are still dominant. Politics are quite important as well, and Japan’s Prime minister Shinzô Abe’s name is often cited, be it for political controversial decisions or scandals.
- そだねー (sodanee): "that’s right", was used and popularized by Japan’s women curling team, winner of a bronze medal in the 2018 PyeongChang winter Olympics;
- eスポーツ (isupootsu): "e-sport", the electronic sports, as a Japanese won a gold medal in an Asian e-sport tournament in summer 2018. Sodanee and e-sport were the two first entries of 2018 Top 10;
- ＃MeToo: the famous hashtag ranked 10th.
- インスタ映え (Insta bae): "Instagrammable", to commemorate the advent of the new famous social network;
- 忖度 (sontaku): "assumption", ex-aequo with Insta bae, was used by the founder of Morimoto Gakuen Group, in a fraud scandal of the same name, to which Japan’s Prime minister Shinzô Abe’s name has been linked;
- J アラート (J araato): "J ALERT", at the fourth rank, is the national warning system to alert the population in case of danger. It was widely used in 2017, due to North-Korea’s multiple missile launchings.
- 神ってる (kamitteru): "he’s divine", said about a baseball player who scored two decisive home runs in two consecutive matches;
- トランプ現象 (Toranpu genshô): "Trump phenomenon", ranked at the third place, reflecting the shock of the discovery of the new United States president and his fancy language;
- 盛り土 (moritsuchi): "terrace", ranked sixth, reminds of the difficulties in the the fish market's transfer from Tsukiji to Toyosu. It was postponed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to allow the soil decontamination of the new site.
- 爆買い (bakugai): is a Japanese slang word meaning "shopping spree" that Chinese tourists encounter when visiting Japan, due to their high purchasing power. It is ex-aequo with:
- トリプルスリー (toripurusurii): "Triple Three", accomplished by professional baseball player Tetsuto Yamada with 30% of batting average, 30 stolen bases and 30 home runs over one season;
- エンブレム (enburemu): "emblem", at the sixth rank, to recall the choice of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ‘emblem, which much passionated the Japanese in 2015.
- ダメよ～ダメダメ (Dame yo dame dame): "No way, no, no!", from a Japanese comic duets’ phrase making fun of the Japanese who are yet to learn to assertively say no, even when their government tried to amend the 1947 pacifist Constitution of Japan, in July 2014;
- 集団的自衛権 (shûdanteki jieiken): "the right of collective self-defense", ex-aequo with Dame yo dame dame, and in the same context, is the argument employed by Japan’s Prime minister Shinzô Abe to justify the amendments he wanted to enforce in the Japanese Constitution;
- ありのままで (ari no mama de): "The way I am", at the third place, is the Japanese version of "Let it go", the main song from the movie Frozen, released in 2014, and as successful as in the rest of the world.
- お・も・て・な・し (O MO TE NA SHI): "hospitality". In 2013, four special prizes were awarded, among which one to "hospitality" used by announcer Christel Takikawa during her presentation speech for the attribution of 2020 Olympics to Japan;
- アベノミクス (Abenomikusu): "Abenomics", at the fifth rank, is the name of the economic policy that Prime minister Shinzô Abe has been implementing in Japan since December 2012;
- ご当地キャラ (gotôchi kyara): "the local mascot", at the sixth rank, is a reminder of the trend launched in 2007 by Hiko-nyan, the local mascot of Hikone, to have a fictional character represent a city or a region. In 2013, Kumamon, Kumamoto’s mascot hit a record in popularity.
U-Can shingo-ryûkô go top 10 Official Results (in Japanese)