It’s that time again! As regular readers know, I love the annual Japanese New and Trendy Word Awards sponsored by U-CAN. The awards, which honor a phrase or neologism that captures the essence of the previous year, are a nice window into what people in Japan have been celebrating, debating, and thinking about over the past 12 months.
The 2018 list of buzzwords contained five words that were so trendy that even some Japanese people hadn’t heard them. In 2019, rugby fever swept Japan, making ワンチーム (wan chiimu; One Team) the year’s top buzzword.
This year, it should be no surprise that the 30 nominees for the top prize were dominated by pandemic-related buzzwords. So it’s no surprise that the top award went to…
San-Mitsu (3密, “The 3 C’s”)
COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives around the world for the majority of 2020. So it’s no surprise that san-mitsu took top place.
In English, medical experts have asked everyone to avoid “the 3 Cs” – Confined spaces, Crowded places, and Close contact. In Japanese, these translate handily into 密閉空間 (mippei kuukan), 密集する場所 (misshuu suru basho), and 密接した会話 (missetsu shita kaiwa). I.e., all three expressions begin with the kanji “mitsu” (密), meaning “dense” or “density”.
This made san-mitsu a handy way to express the 3 Cs in Japanese. The expression gained additional popularity after a clip of Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko telling reporters 密です (mitsu desu, “too close”) went viral online. The remark even spawned a game where the user, as Koike, runs around Tokyo and disperses violators.
Along with San-mitsu, U-CAN nominated 30 words for this year’s top prize. Here’s what else finished in the top ten.
Crash Landing on You (愛の不時着; Ai no Fujichaku)
With everyone working from home (or out of work), online streaming services have done a booming business. In Japan, it’s led to another kanryuu buumu (韓流ブーム), or “Korean wave”, as Japanese viewers once again return to consuming Korean entertainment. Leading the wave is the Korean drama Crash Landing on You, which began streaming on Netflix in February 2020. The show, which depicts a love story between a privileged woman who crash-lands in North Korea and an NK commissioned officer, has become a huge hit in Japan. Lead actor Hyun Bin has particularly won praise for “personifying a man who supports women in their lives instead of controlling them.”
Animal Crossing (あつ森; “Atsumori”)
Shocking but true! The game that’s helped half of the world survive the pandemic without going completely crazy finished in the Top 10 in U-CAN’s list. Atsumare Doubutsu No Mori (あつまれどうぶつの森) – or “Atsumori” for short – came out just as COVID-19 began raging outside of Asia. The ability to make one’s own personal space in Animal Crossing helped make it a worldwide phenomenon during a time when people were not only looking for something to do but were also looking for different ways to connect with others. In Japan, the national Sumo association as well as fire departments and museums created their own island spaces in an attempt to reach and educate people during the pandemic. In the United States, politicians and activists even created spaces to promote political candidates and to get out the vote.
Abe Mask (アベノマスク)
2020 was not ex-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s year. The public prosecutor scandal dealt a blow to his already faltering reputation. Eventually, his health got the better of him and he was forced to resign. But perhaps the harshest blow came when his government announced plans to distribute two free reusable cloth masks to every household in Japan. Japanese Twitter users ripped the plan apart as an expensive boondoggle that did little to actually address the pandemic. To make things worse, distribution of the masks was slow and plagued with sanitation issues. While Abe should have been basking in the glory of being Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister, he instead found himself the object of ridicule.
Perhaps one of the most entertaining responses to the COVID-19 epidemic was the resurrection of Amabie, an Edo-era yokai (妖怪; mythical monster) who’s supposed to ward off plagues if you draw her picture. An offhand tweet of an 1846 drawing of Amabie by Kyoto University Library resulted in a boom of interest online, with everyone from average citizens to famous YouTubers participating in the “Amabie challenge.”
“Online Everything” (オンライン○○)
In 2020, we all had to learn to do practically everything online – whether we liked it or not. The pandemic led to a huge surge in remote work in Japan after corporations had spent years resisting it. Even Japanese pubs attempted to go online in an attempt to stay afloat during Japan’s emergency declaration and soft lockdown. However, the use (overuse?) of online technology also revealed its limits, as many students and teachers struggled to adapt. And some households that can’t afford Internet service found themselves left behind.
Demon Slayer (鬼滅の刃; Kimetsu no Yaiba)
It’s almost a no-brainer that Demon Slayer would end up in the Top 10. As Noah Oskow wrote recently, the theatrical release of the smash manga and anime hit about a boy and his demon-turned sister. As of this writing, the film has surpassed the domestic revenue of all other Japanese films with the exception of Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away – and experts are predicting it may well eclipse that milestone before year’s end.
Go To Campaign
Earlier this year, Japan seemed to be the “miracle nation” that had somehow gotten COVID-19 under control without a strict lockdown. The Abe government took advantage of the country’s good fortune by launching the Go To campaign. Aimed at revitalizing the nation’s economy, the Go To Travel and Go To Eat campaigns encouraged domestic travel and dining out, respectively, with rebates to customers. But as Krys Suzuki wrote recently, the campaign has come under fire as Japan’s infection rates skyrocket. Government officials refuse to end the program, even as medical professionals say that it has undoubtedly contributed to COVID-19 spread.
Solo Camp (ソロキャンプ; soro kyanpu)
With more Japanese choosing to remain single, many are revisiting activities once thought appropriate only for groups. (The rise in “one-person karaoke” is a good example of this trend.) The latest hot singles activity: camping! With the pandemic making it hard – if not impossible – to meet up with friends and family, more have discovered the joy of disconnecting from “online everything” and reconnecting with nature. By themselves. Alone.
The colorful and popular YouTuber and TV personality Fuwa Haruka (不破 遥香) had a busy year. Not only has she racked up over 750,000 followers on YouTube – she did so while also managing to appear on over 100 TV programs in the first half of 2020 alone. Known for her catchphrase アタオカ (ataoka; an abbreviation of 頭がおかしい, or “are you crazy?”) and her penchant for taking selfies with just about everyone, U-CAN describes Fuwa as the new face of Reiwa-era Japanese talent.