The words of the year in Japan
2021 Japanese Buzzwords: Olympic Games and Coronavirus
How did the Japanese perceive 2021? Let's look for hints with the Word of the Year selection, unveiled each early December 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.
That was to be expected with the postponement of the Olympics in 2021: sport has been in the Japanese’s daily life (a third of the words), as much as the coronavirus 🦠, directly represented by only seven words, but underlying the background of many others. Japanese domestic politics did not make it in the ranking; however, Japanese athletes were celebrated. Japan has been closed for almost 2 years now, but it (or at least Jiyû Kokuminsha’s panelists) seems to be taking a renewed look on the younger generations, who are suffering a lot amid the crisis, but who are also holding great hopes for the future.
リアル二刀流 (Real nitôryû)／ショータイム (Show-time) are the words of the year 2021
Two words made it to the top of the ranking, both referring to Shohei Ohtani (born in 1994), Japanese member of Los Angeles Angels MBL team since 2018. In 2021, he racked up prizes and performances in his sport. He even became the first player since 1919 to be able to play at the same level as batter and pitcher, hence the word "Real nitôryû" ("real two swords wielder"). Shô-time is a pun on Ohtani’s first name, Shôhei, shortened to "Shô" to which was affixed the English word "time," to create the nickname "Showtime, which is to be expected when he enters the field.
His athletic performances and his competitive spirit make the Japanese proud, as well as his good looks and his kindness for which he is also highly praised. It is interesting to note that the awardee is thriving outside Japan, in the United States…
The rest of the Top 10: Sport, Covid and Youth
2. うっせぇわ (Ussee wa)
Ussee wa is the title of a song by Ado (born in 2002), released in October 2020 and that quickly became N°1 of sales and streaming. In a brutal formulation (the title means "shut up!"), the singer is expressing the rejection and the exasperation the younger generations feel towards the never ending injunctions of the society. The chorus is an ear worm that settles from the first listening. The video is a dark animation featuring a high school girl expressing her inner violence and claiming the right to be herself.
3. 親ガチャ (Oya gacha)
Oya gacha is a portmanteau word composed of "oya" meaning "parents" and "gacha" the onomatopoeia from the noise made by a gachapon, the capsule toys vending machine. It means that in the life lottery, destiny is for the most part decided from the moment and the family you were born into, and efforts or willpower will not change much to the situation. This feeling of inequity seems to increase in the youth, who consequently do not abide anymore to the traditional values of effort and perseverance, they tend to find strenuous. This phenomenon has particularly grown with the advent of the coronavirus crisis.
4. ゴン攻め (Gon zeme) ／ビッタビタ (bitta bita)
These two words were used by professional skateboarder Ryô Seijiri, who was a sportscaster for his discipline during the Olympics for Japanese public TV channel NHK. Skateboarding is not a well-known sport in Japan, and the jargon employed may have taken aback the traditional audience. Moreover, Seijiri talked in a very direct and enthusiastic language, totally different from the usual sport commentators. "Gon zeme" could be translated as "particularly proactive" and "bitta bita" as "with precision". By choosing these words, the panelists made sure to send a message to the country’s authorities, asking them to be more straightforward and follow the example of the young man.
5. ジェンダー平等 (Jendâ byôdô)
Gender byôdô – gender equality, entered the conversations in Japan after the misogynistic declarations of Yoshiro Mori, the then head of Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee (and already unpopular due to his many controversial statements over the course of his long political career). His statement has shed a very negative light on Japan at the international level, which affected the Japanese.
The quasi-absence of women at leadership positions has been generally pointed but with the highlight of Gender byôdô, the Jiyû Kokuminsha also tried to bring out other, less visible consequences due to the inequity between men and women, such as financial inequity or unconscious prejudices that are harmful to women in the society.
6. 人流 (Jinryû)
The word means "flow of people" and its use increased with the Coronavirus. It is an essential keyword for managing the health crisis and implementing prevention measures such as the "3 mitsu" (3C) (2020’s word of the year), social distance, and for the various states of emergency that were declared in 2021. Understanding how the population is circulating also helps understand how the past waves developed and maybe how the next will.
7. スギムライジング (Sugimuraijingu)
Sugimuraijingu is a reference to Hidetaka Sugimura, a competitor of the Paralympic Games in the boccia, a kind of lawn bowling adapted to paralyzed persons. His signature move, the "raising", is extremely precise and hard to perform, but he nonetheless succeeded in using it several times and won the gold medal in individual this summer.
8. Ｚ世代 (Zeddo sedai)
The generation Z (people born from the latter half of the 1990s to 2010) caught the eye of the jury, for its characteristic and natural use of the smartphone 📱. Thanks to this object that connects to the world, young people can learn, find friends anywhere in the world and share passions, without even speaking the same language. The young Japanese skateboarding champions are the perfect example as they are involved in a sport that is almost unknown, or ill-considered in their country, but they succeeded in reaching international levels as they could receive motivation, encouragement, and advice thanks to the advent of new technologies.
Generation Z is viewed as the one making the most of the free knowledge sharing, of mutual emulation, in contradiction with the ancient transmission culture, from a master to a selected disciple.
9. ぼったくり男爵 (Bottakuri danshaku)
Bottakuri Danshaku ended up being the infamous nickname to refer to Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee after a column published in the Washington Post, that particularly echoed in Japan in May, when the 4th Covid wave was on the rise and that concern grew regarding the security of the Olympics. Bottakuri danshaku is the translation of "Baron Von Ripper-off" and reflects the Japanese people’s dissatisfaction with their politicians and the IOC that were accused of prioritizing money over safety and practicing a double-standard policy. Thomas Bach was indeed seen carelessly "Ginza strolling" at the occasion of one of his short visits to Tokyo, whereas athletes, who submitted to self-isolation periods upon entering Japan and were frequently tested, were not authorized to visit the country.
10. 黙食 (Danshoku)
Directly connected to the Covid crisis, danshoku means "eating in silence", an injunction seen on posters in restaurants, to avoid contamination risks due to lively conversations around a meal. The word symbolizes the frustration of having to keep control of oneself even in times that should be relaxing and fun.
Great impact of the Olympic Games
2021 was the year of the Olympics and sports naturally took the largest part of the ranking, with a total of 12 words, of which 2 ex-aequo at the top and 10 in relation to the Games. The word エペジーーン (epejiiin) rose 🌹 to popularity thanks to the SNS and reminds of the first gold medal won by the men’s épée (fencing) team, カエル愛 (kaeru ai / I love frogs / Frogs are great) is Sena Irie (born in 2000)’s cry when she won Japan’s first gold medal in women’s boxing featherweight. Karate, the iconic sport of the archipelago, was represented by チャタンヤラクーサンクー (chatan’yara kûsankû), the name of the kata performed by Kyou Shimizu (born in 1993) that won her a silver medal. チキータ (chiquita) is a table tennis jargon that reminds of Mima Ito (born in 2000) and Jun Mizutani (born in 1989) gold medal in Mixed Doubles.
Another interesting phrase is 13歳、真夏の大冒険 (jûsansai, manatsu no daibôken / "[my] great summer adventure at 13-year-old") by Fuji 🗻 TV skateboard sportscaster about the youngest Japanese Olympic champion, Momiji 🍁 Nishiya (born in 2007) who won the women skateboarding gold medal. It is also noteworthy that the other finalists, Rayssa Leal (silver medal) and Funa Nakayama (bronze medal), are respectively 13 and 16 years old. Lastly the ピクトグラム pictograms, animations broadcasted during the Olympic Games 🏅 closing ceremony have moved the Japanese Internet 📶 users.
The Coronavirus is of course, still in the news, with 7 direct words and underlying many other thematic selected this year. On the societal aspect, マスク会食 (masuku kaishoku / masked banquet) is directly connected to danshoku, 路上飲み (rojônomi) is the consumption of alcohol in the street, a phenomenon on the rise due to the closing and restriction measures during the states of emergency. On the medical side, words such as 変異株 (hen’i kabu) "variant", 副反応 (fuku hannô / secondary effects) also ring a bell for the western audience regarding the virus and the vaccines. Home treatment 自宅療養 (jitaku ryôyô) is the solution promoted by the Japanese government to prevent hospitals’ congestion due to Covid.
Lastly, in the context of the health crisis and shortage of workers, ヤングケアラー (yangu kearâ / young carer) shines a light on children and young people who must take on a supportive role in their family, either to care for an elderly, a handicapped sibling, or to compensate the defection of parent, with huge consequences on their education and their opportunities for the future.
Entertainment was not a big topic, but イカゲーム (Ika gêmu) Squid Game was selected as well as ウマ娘 (Umamusume / "Horse-girls"), one of the anime and video games of infamous quirkiness. Alas this anime will not help Japan to improve its score on the SDGs, the UN’s sustainable development goals, regarding gender equality. Women’s health is nonetheless considered with フェムテック (femu tekku / Femtech) that describes all the new technologies playing a positive role in it, and especially women’s fertility. Like in the rest of the world, NFT (Non-Fungible Token) was also a conversion topic in 2021. The Italian pastry マリトッツォ (maritottsuo / maritozzo), made of bread and cream was very much enjoyed in the archipelago in 2021.
推し活 (oshikatsu) is an expression whose meaning tends to be similar to otaku, to talk about young people who devote part of their time to a passion or an artist, activities that were often prevented by the coronavirus. The word was coined from the SNS’s "recommendations". Lastly, ととのう (totonou), means "be ready" / "be done", and describes the particular well-being state in which sauna amateurs find themselves after their favorite activity.
This Top 10 sheds 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 former Prime minister Shinzô Abe’s name was often cited, be it for political controversial decisions or scandals.
- 3密 (san mitsu) or 3C: slogan created by the Japanese Ministry of Health in March 2020 to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus by avoiding the 3Cs: Confined spaces (密閉 mippei); Crowded places (密集 misshû); Close-contact settings (密接 missetsu).
- GoToキャンペーン (GoTo Campaign): an extraordinary budget to sustain Japanese economy during the Coronavirus pandemic. The campaigns have globally reached their goal of maintaining a level of activity, but as they encouraged population travel, They are now considered as one of the way Covid-19 further spread in Japan.
- 鬼滅の刃 (Kimetsu no yaiba): Demon Slayer, the manga by Koyoharu Kotoge, whose publishing ended in May 2020. The movie (Demon Slayer: Infinity Train 🚅) was released in October 2020 and broke all the Japanese box-office’s records.
- ONE TEAM: slogan of the Japanese Rugby Team, the Brave Blossoms, during the Rugby World Cup, to highlight in a positive way the diversity of its members’ origins, with only half of them of Japanese citizenship.
- 計画運休 (keikaku unkyû): "planned cancellation" is the security scheme to stop all transportation means before a typhoon 🌀 hits to limit damages. The expression was often employed in 2019, a year when the meteorological phenomenons were particularly powerful and destructive.
- 軽減税率 (keigen zeiritsu): the "reduced tax rate" is the temporary measure that aims to smoothe the 10% VAT rise, with an implementation limited to non-essential products in its first stage.
- 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.