I’m a huge fan of the annual New Words Awards run by Japanese firm U-CAN. These new Japanese words offer insight into Japan’s evolving culture in so many ways. They tell us, not only what concerned people in Japan most over the past year, but also how Japanese culture is shifting and changing.
Last year’s new Japanese words captured concerns over Japan’s aging society, the growth of tech’s Big Four, and the slipperiness of politicians, among other trends. This year’s buzzwords capture concerns around natural disasters, the debate over women in the workplace, and – of course – rugby.
A total of 30 words and phrases made the finalist’s list. Here are some of the most noteworthy entries.
Natural Disaster Language
It seems Mother Nature has been taking a stick to Japan the past few years. Last year saw a large earthquake in Hokkaido and massive flooding in Western Japan. This year, back to back typhoons – Typhoon 15 (Faxai) and Typhoon 19 (Hagibis) – clobbered the country. Hagibis by itself took at least 88 lives, and caused vast damage as 71 rivers overflowed their banks and flooded local areas.
The back to back incidents led to two entries showing up in this year’s list:
命を守る行動を (inochi o mamoru koudou o) – “take action to protect your life.” Authorities knew early that Hagibis would be a monster storm. Residents in Tokyo and surrounding areas began stocking up on Friday, and most non-essential personnel remained inside all day Saturday. It’s been decades since a major typhoon hit some of the affected areas, so officials and broadcasters used this phrase to emphasize the storm’s danger.
計画運休 (keikaku unkyuu) – “Planned suspension of service.” Both typhoons were so dangerous, and the threat of flooding in various regions so severe, that JR East and other rail companies shut down rail services in advance. For Typhoon Hagibis, there was no train service in Tokyo after 1pm the day the storm hit. JR also stopped most bullet train service.
Women in the Workplace
Regular readers know that we’re huge stans of Ishikawa Yumi and her #KuToo movement. #KuToo is Ishikawa’s campaign to ban potentially painful shoes, such as pumps, from being compulsory at Japanese companies. Her activism won her a place on BBC’s Influential Women of the Year list. And it also made #KuToo a candidate in this year’s new Japanese words.
#KuToo is a clever buzzword that combines 靴 (kutsu), or shoes; 苦痛 (kutsuu; agony); and #MeToo into a single hashtag. That level of linguistic gymnastics (combined with a touch of Dad Joke) should be enough to net Ishikawa this year’s honors, in my opinion.
No Taxation Without Cashback
2019 was a year of big change for Japan’s economy, and this year’s candidates reflect that in spades.
The leading buzzword here is キャッシュレス／ポイント還元 – (kyasshuresu / pointo kangen) – Cashless and Point Rebates. Compared to its Asian neighbors, Japan is a highly cash-centric society. However, both the government and private industry made huge strides this year towards changing that. QR code-based payment services like PayPay hit it big with a popular cashback incentive. In fact, services named *Pay were so big that ◯◯ペイ (nani-nani pei) is another buzzword finalist.
Meanwhile, the government aimed to offset the pain of raising the country’s consumption tax from 8% to 10% by offering up to 5% cashback for any cashless purchases (pointo kangen). The hope was not only to make the tax hike more palatable but also to promote cashless instruments and apps. However, as I noted on Twitter, the system could be implemented so many different ways by stores that many Japanese consumers were left dazed and confused.
The consumption tax actually makes Japan’s buzzwords list a second time with 軽減税率 (keigen seiritsu), or tax reduction. With the new tax hike, some goods – such as food bought at supermarkets, takeout, and other life necessities – were still taxed at the 8% rate. As with the point rebate system, however, the complicated rules left many scratching their heads.
The Booze Plan
This year saw the rise of the word サブスク (sabusuku), a shortened form of the Japanese loan word for “subscription.” Japan saw a boom this year, not just in subscription services for digital content, but for real-world items as well. I covered this a little last year when restaurants started offering subscriptions for booze to combat an increasing trend of drinking at home.
Senior Drivers and “High-Class Citizens”
Earlier this year, I wrote about the tragedy in Ikebukuro where an 87-year-old driver killed a mother and daughter. This incident was so impactful that it generated two entries on this years’ list.
First, the driver in this incident wasn’t arrested, despite him knowing that he shouldn’t have been driving. The man was a former executive director, leading people to coin the term 上級国民 (joukyuu kokumin), or “top-class citizen,” to refer to people who are above the law due to their position in society.
On a more positive note, 75 year old actor Sugi Ryoutarou (杉良太郎) won acclaim when he voluntarily surrendered his driver’s license. This led to another list entry: 免許返納 (menkyo hennou), or returning a license to the authorities.
Foodies may be happy to learn that Japan’s culinary culture gets a double nod this year. First up, we have 肉 肉 しい (nikunikushii). It’s patterned after the similarly pronounced 憎々しい, meaning “hateful.” But the kanji for “hate” has been replaced with the character for “meat.” The word refers to anything that has the same mouth-feel as eating beef. The word’s become popular in recent years as Japan has experienced a boom in “meat bars” and restaurants specializing in aged beef.
Remember when I said foodies may be happy about this year’s words? I said may because our second entry focuses on something that’s become the bain of many living in Japan: tapioca stores. The Taiwanese import has people queuing up for hours at stores around the country. “Drinking tapioca” is so popular that people feel like they needed a verb for it: タピる (tapiru). The word mimics similar neologisms such as ググる (guguru – “to Google something”) that attach Japanese verb inflections to English loan words.
Rugby Brings Five New Japanese Words
Japan played host to this year’s Rugby World Cup. And the timing couldn’t have been better, as Japan also fielded the best rugby team in its history. So it’s no surprise that the event led to no less than five entries in this year’s contest:
ワンチーム (wan chi-mu) – “One Team.” Japan’s rugby team, which is composed of Japanese and foreign-born players, used this motto as their battle cry and organizing philosophy. The phrase was apparently effective, as Japan battled its way into the top eight.
4年に一度じゃない。一生に一度だ (yonnenn ni ichido ja nai. isshou ni ichido da) – “Not Once Every Four Years. Once in a Lifetime.” The official ad copy of the Japan World Cup could be seen on posters all over the country. I can only imagine it also helped motivate the home team.
笑わない男 (waranai otoko) – “The Man Who Won’t Laugh.” This phrase was bestowed upon rugby team member Kakitani Keita (稲垣啓太) after Japan’s victory over Scotland, as all photos of him rushing for the team’s first try show him with a stern countenance.
にわかファン (niwaka fan) – “Bandwagon fan.” A reference to all of the people in Japan who got caught up in World Cup fever and became rugby fans at the last minute.
ジャッカル (jakkaru) – “Jackal.” The nickname given to Japan’s forward Himeno Kazuki ( 姫野和樹 ) for his almost demonic ability to stay standing while beset by opponents.
Other shout-outs went to Ichirou Suzuki for saying “I don’t really have any regrets” upon his retirement; to golfer Shibuya Hinako (渋野日向子), a.k.a. the Smiling Cinderella (スマイリングシンデレラ); and to the Marathon Grand Championship (マラソングランドチャンピオンシップ), the system for Japanese runners to qualify for the Olympic Marathon.
There’s Something About Reiwa
There are a few words on this list I’m leaving out. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the nods to the dawn of a new era in Japan.
As we discussed earlier this year, the ascent of a new Emperor in Japan meant the start of a new Imperial Era. The choice of 令和 (reiwa) as the era name was met with public approval, and even gave Prime Minister Abe Shinzo a boost in his approval ratings.
One politician decided to take advantage of this favorable sentiment to good effect. Yamamoto Tarou (山本太郎) launched his 令和新選組 (reiwa shinsengumi) party this year. Yamamoto took a chance in his party’s first outing that paid off well in this year’s Upper House election, as the party’s two disabled candidates both found themselves elected to office.
Between disasters, sports, and economic shifts, it was a year of big change for Japan – and this year’s new words reflect that. The question is: What new words will the next year bring us?