What Japan’s Hot New Buzzwords of 2021 Tell Us

What Japan’s Hot New Buzzwords of 2021 Tell Us

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Thomas Bach, Ussee wa, Squid Game
Picture: Various
A hot YouTube song, gender equality, and the head of the International Olympic Committee all made 2021's list of Japanese buzzwords. Which word took home the grand prize?

It’s that time of year again! Every year, the folks at educational publisher U-CAN (ユーキャン) publish their list of top 30 Japanese hot new buzzwords. The list aims to capture the current year’s zeitgeist by identifying neologisms and trending topics in news and online media. A few weeks after announcing the candidates, U-CAN selects a grand prize winner.

I love the U-CAN list, which is why I write about it every year. This year’s list of candidates, as one might expect, reflect the overwhelming influence of both the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the much-delayed (and maligned) 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Below, I talk about a few of the 30 candidates. (I don’t cover all of them, because I’m lazy. Also, many of them this year center on the Olympics and I’m not a sports guy.) At the end, I’ll reveal the grand prize winner!

Oya-Gacha (親ガチャ; “Parental Lottery”)

Picture: sasaki106 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Japan’s economy is still struggling to regain the glory days of the 1980s before the bubble burst. It isn’t alone, of course. In both the US, Japan, and elsewhere, young people are discussing their economic plight with renewed fervor. Low wages, crushing college debt, and the soaring cost of housing are among a number of factors preventing the young from enjoying the same level of comfort their parents do.

In Japan, young people expressed this angst partly through the phrase oya-gacha. As many Japan fans know, gacha are the capsule toys you can buy for a few hundred yen from vending machines. Which toy you get is a matter of chance. Oya-gacha thus roughly translates to “parental lottery” – the fact that you don’t choose your parents or the economic circumstances into which you’re born.

In a discussion with BizSPA!, 20-something writer Hioka, himself born into a family without means, discusses why this phrase holds such meaning for him and others in his age group. Being born into a family without means, he explains, means you’re disadvantaged from the start line. And society reinforces the idea that you’re stuck right where you started:



Furthermore, there’s this tendency in today’s society to blame the cause of poverty on the person themselves, which often paints them into a corner. Their self-esteem just continues to drop because they think, “I can’t even save myself,” and “I’ll never be happy.” There are young people who, in these severe circumstances, can’t do anything but sound off anonymously online.

Bottakuri Danshaku (ぼったくり男爵; Baron von Ripperoff)

Thomas Bach
Picture: Olympics.org archive

Now here’s an Olympics term I can get behind.

As regular readers know, opposition to the Tokyo Olympics in Japan was fierce. At one point, some 75% of the polled population was opposed to holding the already delayed summer Olympics in 2021. (UJ talked with several activists who tried – and failed – to stop the juggernaut.) Many both in and outside of Japan saw the insistence on holding the games during a still-raging global pandemic as the pinnacle of corporate greed.

No one person was more of a symbol of this rapacious greed than International Olympics Committee head Thomas Bach. In an op-ed piece for the US newspaper The Washington Post, Sally Jenkins gave Bach an enduring nickname: “Baron von Ripper-off.” The term took off and gained popularity in its Japanese translation, bottakuri danshaku.

SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)

Japanese buzzwords: Sustainable Development Goals
Picture: yukipon / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Despite being a term coined by the United Nations, SDGs don’t seem to be getting a lot of play in the Western English language world. However, Sustainable Development Goals is a big buzzword in Japan. The term denotes a set of goals the UN requests that developed nations aim to achieve by the year 2030. They include such lofty aims as eliminating poverty, achieving gender quality, and creating environmentally sustainable communities.

SDGs have been around since 2015. So why the sudden, explosive interest from Japan? In a discussion with Newsweek Japan, Ueda Souichi, head of non-profit organization Think The Earth, says that it dates back to 2017, when the influential Japanese Business Federation (経団連; keidanren) adopted the SDGs as goals for well-run businesses. Japan’s Ministry of Education (MEXT) followed suit in 2017. As of today, according to Asahi Shinbun, over 50% of the Japanese public knows what SDGs are.

Jendaa Byoudou (ジェンダー平等; Gender Equality)

Picture: mits / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Japan’s taken a beating in both the domestic and international press over its profound lack of women in leadership positions. The country continually ranks near the bottom in the World Economic Forum’s measure of which countries are working to close the gender gap. Recent elections have done little to address this disparity.

Given this, it’s heartening to see gender equality make U-CAN’s list this year. It makes sense given the emphasis on SDGs, as gender equality is among the UN’s goals for member countries.

Femu-tekku (フェムテック; Fem-Tech)

Picture: metamorworks / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Fem-tech – technology, medication, and services that are specifically aimed at women – also made U-CAN’s short list of trending terms in Japanese. Examples include Ida Tin’s app Clue for menstrual cycle tracking, and the Chikan Radar app in Japan meant to supplement the country’s substandard policing of perverts.

Ussee Wa! (うっせぇわ; Shut Up!)

It seems that, no matter where you live, there exists a certain type of parent who has to be irrationally upset about something. When I was a kid in the 80s, it was heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons. In Japan in 2021, the object of concern was a YouTube video. 18-year-old artist Ado released うっせぇわ (“Ussēwa,” “shut up” or “STFU”) in 2020. It enjoyed a revitalization this year and has since climbed past 190 million views. Some parents tsk-tsked that the language of the song was “too violent.” Three guesses on whether that actually convinced any kids to stop belting it out at the top of their lungs in the shower…

ika geemu (いかゲーム / Squid Game)

イカゲーム』予告編 - Netflix - YouTube

Netflix’s new hit Korean drama, Squid Game, was talked about as much in Japan as the rest of the world. The story, about a group of down on their luck contestants who battle to the death, can be seen as a direct cultural descendant of Japan’s famous Battle Royale. The success of the new drama was also accompanied by the usual lamenting of how South Korea is kicking Japan’s ass in the soft power department. (Pssst, Japan – your dramas can be international hits too if you let people outside of Japan watch them!!)

Maritottsuo (マリトッツォ; maritozzo)

Picture: USSIE / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

2021 may go down as the year that Italy invaded Japan. Or, at least, the year its pastries did. Despite the dining restrictions created by COVID-19, a new culinary star rose among Japan’s dessert lovers: maritozzo, a confection consisting of creme sandwiched inside of delicious brioche bread. In Japan, you can buy this lovely confection at any number of local bakeries. If you’re in a hurry, you can find a version at every major convenience store as well.

Unseen Japan on Twitter: “”An image for studying [English] prepositions using maritozzo.” Pictured: various maritozzo with the cream in different positions and captions like “on-tozzo”, “near-tozzo,” etc. https://t.co/y2tMos4PgQ / Twitter”

“An image for studying [English] prepositions using maritozzo.” Pictured: various maritozzo with the cream in different positions and captions like “on-tozzo”, “near-tozzo,” etc. https://t.co/y2tMos4PgQ

The maritozzo craze sparked a number of memes on social media.

Mokushoku / Masuku-shoku (黙食/マスク会食; Silent/Masked Eating)

Picture: buritora / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Problem: You want to dine out with your friends. However, neither you nor said friends want to die at the hands of a highly infectious, airborne disease. What to do?

The Japanese solution: mokushoku, or silent eating. The theory is that, by not talking, participants greatly reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 in the open air. It’s an idea that some scientists say has merit. Of course, it all comes down to how well everyone obeys the rules.

Rojou-Nomi (路上飲み; Street Drinking)

Picture: SA555ND / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Similarly, what do you do when you can’t drink in a bar? One option is to drink at home. Another option – and one that became popular during the pandemic – is to hang out with your buds on the street and quaff your booze there. However, this workaround is anything but safe. An Asahi Shinbun report says that experts warned drinking at home or on the street with people not in your close social circle raises your risk of contracting COVID-19 twofold.

Heni-kabu (変異株; Variant)

Picture: Ryuji / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Calm down, Marvel fans – we’re not talking about Alternate Universe Loki here. heni-kabu is the Japanese phrase for variants of the COVID-19 virus, such as Delta and the suddenly scary Omicron. A sensible pick given the oversized impact that mutations of the coronavirus have had, not just in Japan, but across the globe.

fuku-hannou (副反応; Side Effects)

Picture: kotoru / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

While it got off to a late start due to supply issues, Japan’s government made a huge push this year to vaccinate as much of the population as it could. But it ran into initial resistance as some people worried about the reactions – lethargy, body and arm pain – that some people experience with their COVID-19 shots. In response, Japan’s MHLW and local prefectures launched educational campaigns to counter disinformation. (As of this writing, Japan is 77% vaccinated.)

And The Winner Is…

Shohei Ohtani
Picture: Shutterstock

riaru nitouryuu / Shou-time! (リアル二刀流 / ショータイム)

Japan loves a “Japan kid makes good abroad” story. So it’s not surprising to see that this year’s award goes to, not one, but two words connected to Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani (Ootani Shouhei; 大谷翔平). nitouryuu refers to Ohtani’s rare combination of skills as both a hitter and a pitcher – a talent that earned him Major League Baseball’s year’s Most Valuable Player award. “Shou-time” (showtime) is a clever congratulatory pun an American sportscaster made on Ohtani’s name.

Read Past Years’ Results

2020 Buzzwords

2019 Buzzwords

2018 Buzzwords

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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