This Year in Japanese

On Everyone’s Lips: Candidates Announced for the Top Words of 2018


As the year end approaches, the nation gears up to look back on the 12 months that were. The publisher Jiyū Kokumin Sha on November 7 issued its list of 30 candidates for the words or phrases of the year—the terms that best encapsulated the Japanese zeitgeist for 2018. Read on to see how Japan is talking about its year.

The year 2018 saw the Winter Olympics, political scandals, large-scale natural disasters, and much more take place. The Japanese people responded to the world around them with descriptions drawing on old words in new ways, and by coining all-new phrases that swept through the public imagination.

Each year Jiyū Kokumin Sha, the publisher of the popular language guide Gendai yōgo no kiso chishiki (Basic Knowledge on Contemporary Terminology), selects the “Words of the Year” in a year-end ceremony. On November 7, the company announced its list of 30 nominees for the top prize, to be announced at a Tokyo ceremony on December 3.

Chosen by a committee including actors, academics, and poets, the terms span fields from politics to economics, from sports to the natural world. Browsing the list is a good way to put a finger on the pulse of the Japanese nation, learning a bit more about how its people are talking about the events impacting their lives this year.

Nominees for the Words of 2018

あおり運転Aori unten. Japan’s roadways have seen an uptick in accidents caused by reckless driving, such as tailgating, cutting off other drivers, and running other vehicles off the road. In response, the National Police Agency kicked off a safe-driving campaign informing motorists to avoid and report reckless drivers. Dashboard cameras are also being enlisted to combat the problem.

悪質タックル Akushitsu takkuru. In a May, a defensive player for Nihon University caused a national controversy when he put a late hit on the quarterback for Kwansei Gakuin University during an American football game between the rival schools. Nihon University head coach Uchida Masato came under fire for ordering his lineman to take out the other player. The dirty tackle raised red flags over power harassment and unsportsmanlike play in the Japanese sports world.

eスポーツ E supōtsu. Japan is climbing onto the esports bandwagon as video game competitions grow in popularity overseas. In February, the Japan Esports Union was formed as the governing body of esports in the country. Esports debuted as demonstration sport at the 2018 summer Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, and will be a medal event at the 2022 games in Hangzhou, China.

(大迫)半端ないって (Ōsako) hanpa naitte. This cheer was on the lips of soccer fans as they watched Japanese national team player Ōsako Yūya head in the winning goal against powerhouse Colombia during this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia. Meaning something like “amazing Ōsako,” the phrase was coined by an exasperated rival player during the 2009 All Japan High School Soccer tournament to describe Ōsako’s outstanding skills.

おっさんずラブ Ossanzu rabu. The comic drama Ossan’s Loveossan is a Japanese pejorative for men 30 or older—became a runaway hit on TV Asahi. Taking a page from yaoi manga that depict gay relationships, it tells the story of Haruta Sōichi, played by Tanaka Kei, who is caught between the affections of his middle-aged boss Kurosawa Musashi (Yoshida Kōtarō) and roommate colleague Maki Ryōta (Hayashi Kento). Many critics were surprised that a miniseries on a major broadcaster focusing on homosexual characters was so well received in Japan.

GAFA(ガーファ)  — This acronym, consisting of the first initials of tech giants Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, has found its way into the Japanese lexicon as society debates the pros and cons of the four firms’ ongoing creep into people’s daily lives.

仮想通貨/ダークウェブ Kasō tsūka/dāku uebu. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies based on blockchain technology have been heralded for their security. But traders were shocked to learn that a portion of the ¥58 billion in virtual currency NEM heisted by hackers in January had been trafficked anonymously on sites on the so-called dark web.

金足農旋風 Kanaashinō senpū. Underdogs Kanaashi Nōgyō High School from Akita Prefecture took Japan’s National High School Baseball Championship by storm, powering into the finals of the 100th installment of the annual summer event. Kanaashi fell short of becoming the first school from the Tōhoku region to win the tournament, losing to Osaka Tōin Senior High School 13–2, but managed to capture the hearts of the nation with their amazing run.

カメ止め Kametome. The film Kamera o tomeru na (One Cut of the Dead), a zombie comedy by relatively unknown director Ueda Shin’ichirō and staring amateur actors, became an unexpected blockbuster hit. Made on a shoestring budget of just ¥3 million in 2017 and initially shown at mostly small venues, it made its official debut in June 2018 at just two theaters. Its low-key feel appealed to fans of the zombie genre, transforming it into a juggernaut that by September was screening in more than 300 venues across Japan.

君たちはどう生きるか Kimitachi wa dō ikiru ka. This novel by Yoshino Genzaburō, whose title asks “How will you live your lives?” was first published in 1937. It follows the spiritual and moral development of the school-boy protagonist Honda Jun’ichi. It is still widely read by children and adults. A 2017 manga version by Haga Shōichi renewed interest in the story and went on to be a bestseller with over 2 million copies sold. Director Miyazaki Hayao has announced he was working on an anime version of the novel.

筋肉は裏切らない Kinniku wa uragiranai. “Muscles will never let you down” is the catchphrase of the hit NHK workout program Minna de kinniku taisō (Muscle Exercises for Everyone).

グレイヘア Gurei hea. More Japanese women in their forties and fifties have turned away from dye and are embracing their “gray hair” as a hallmark of more mature, confident beauty.

計画運休 Keikaku unkyū. As Typhoon Trami swept across the country, on September 30 JR East and other railway operators suspended services on safety grounds in “planned stoppages.”

高プロ(高度プロフェッショナル制度) Kōpuro (Kōdo purofesshonaru seido). Work-style reform in Japan aims to reduce excessive overtime that can cause health problems or even karōshi (death by overwork). However, government legislation approved in the Diet in June exempted “highly-skilled professionals” with annual salaries of ¥10.75 million or above from overtime ceilings of 100 hours a month and 720 hours a year.

ご飯論法 Gohan ronpō. Hōsei University Professor Uenishi Mitsuko skewered evasive government lawmakers’ responses to questions about ongoing scandals by describing them as employing “gohan logic,” playing on the double meaning of gohan as both “meal” and “rice.” If someone asks if they have had breakfast (asagohan), they skirt the direct query by answering whether they ate rice (gohan) that morning (asa).

災害級の暑さ Saigaikyū no atsusa. The soaring summer temperatures, which rose above 40 degrees in some areas, led the Japan Meteorological Agency to describe the baking weather as “disaster-level heat.”

A JMA official announces that Kumagaya, Saitama, has marked the highest temperature ever recorded in Japan, 41.1ºC, on July 23, 2018. (© Jiji)

時短ハラスメント(ジタハラ) Jitan harasumento (jitahara). Although excessive overtime has been identified as a problem, it is not always easy to tackle on the individual level. Bosses who bluntly tell their employees to reduce their overtime, without making any effort to introduce initiatives for supporting them, are engaging in what can literally be translated as “hours-shortening harassment.”

首相案件 Shushō anken. Abe Shinzō won a third term as Liberal Democratic Party president this year, but it has not all been smooth sailing. The unearthing of documents labeled “matters concerning the prime minister” has indicated the possibility of his involvement in the cronyism scandals involving educational outfits Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen, dragging his approval ratings down.

翔タイム Shō taimu. It’s “Shō Time”! Baseball star Ōtani Shōhei has had a stunning start to his career with the Los Angeles Angels, even earning comparisons with Babe Ruth. His prowess both at the pitching mound and at the plate earned him the nickname nitōryū, or “wielder of two swords,” landing him on the 2013 list of candidate words as well.

Ōtani blasts his second home run in as many at-bats against the Cleveland Indians on August 3, 2018. (© Jiji)

スーパーボランティア Sūpā borantia. Obata Haruo spends much of his retirement offering his services in search and rescue efforts after natural disasters. The 78-year-old “super volunteer” hit the headlines this year when he discovered two-year-old Fujimoto Yoshiki after the toddler had been missing for 68 hours.

そだねー So da nē. The Hokkaidō-accented version of the phrase sō da ne, “yeah, that’s it,” was picked up on numerous occasions by microphones trained on the members of Japan’s women’s curling team at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. In addition to bringing home the bronze, Japan’s first-ever medal in the sport, the women’s squad charmed fans with their spirited communication on the ice as they competed.

ダサかっこいい/U.S.A. Dasa-kakkoii/USA. The dance/pop musical group Da Pump had one of the summer’s biggest hits with “USA,” a cover of a 1992 Eurobeat track by Joe Yellow. The largely nonsensical lyrics had listeners calling the song dasai, “lame,” but the performers’ unabashed energy and the catchy thumbs-up dance moves inspired the dasa-kakkoii label: lame but somehow cool. The song’s popularity was part of a larger trend of revisiting songs and dance moves from the 1980s and 1990s, as pop stars and TV soundtrack creators raided old CD collections for fresh inspiration.

TikTok — This smartphone app was a smash hit among student-age users this year. Originally launched in 2016 by Chinese developer Bytedance, TikTok lets users share short videos and engage in live broadcasting. The most popular TikTokkers, as users are called, make heavy use of the app’s catalog of music loops to back up their 15-second performances. Lyrics from the most commonly used songs often became buzzwords on the strength of the TikTok user base, as did the hashtags they appended to their uploads.

なおみ節 Naomi-bushi. Phrases spoken by rising tennis star Ōsaka Naomi, who in September became the first Japanese player, male or female, to win a Grand Slam tournament with her victory over Serena Williams in the finals of the US Open. With a Haitian-American father and Japanese mother, the 180-centimeter powerhouse wowed crowds with serves breaking the 200 kph mark. Her shyly delivered, simple Japanese phrases in postmatch interviews charmed fans in Japan.

奈良判定 Nara hantei. The “Nara decisions” were judgments in boxing matches that went for fighters hailing from Nara, the home prefecture of Yamane Akira, who was forced to step down as president of the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation in August after allegations of match-fixing and other questionable activities. Referees who halted matches to give victories to other boxers when Nara pugilists were in the ring reported coming in for torrents of abuse from Yamane.

ひょっこりはん Hyokkori-han. This “pop-out peeper” was a hit on the televised comedy circuit this year. His character name is taken from his signature gag, a hyokkori (popping-out) from behind various props on the stage.

ブラックアウト Burakkuauto. Blackouts affected every household on Japan’s northernmost main island after three coal-burning generators at Hokkaidō Electric’s Tomatō-Atsuma Power Station, the largest in the prefecture, went offline following the powerful earthquake that rocked the south central part of the island on September 6.

ボーっと生きてんじゃねーよ! Bōtto ikiten ja nē yo! Chiko-chan, a child with an outsized head and computer-generated expressions, shouts “Stop living your life like a total space case!” at the adult guests on a weekly NHK program exploring the trivia behind everyday expressions and events. Guests who offer only vague, noncommittal answers to questions like “Why aren’t soccer players allowed to use their hands?”—things that everyone knows, but few have ever given deep thought to—are in for a haranguing from Chiko-chan, described as a surprisingly knowledgeable five-year-old. The program Chiko-chan ni shikarareru (Getting Scolded by Chiko-chan), aired on Friday nights, proved popular, but gained even higher ratings for its Saturday morning rebroadcast slot, perhaps because it followed the broadcaster’s popular morning dramas.

#MeToo — This hashtag and the global anti-sexual-harassment campaign connected to it had an impact in Japan as well this year. First appearing after accusations came to light in October 2017 against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo hashtag saw widespread use in Japan as stories emerged of harassment cases involving journalists, celebrities, politicians, and people from many other walks of life.

もぐもぐタイム Mogumogu taimu. The curling competition at the Pyeongchang Winter Games included breaks for competitors to rest and have snacks to keep their energy up. Fans took to calling these intermissions “chewing time,” and many of them blasted broadcaster NHK for cutting away from live coverage during them. The Akai Sairo cheesecake snacks that Japan’s curlers ate during one break became a runaway hit back home, with purchasers selling packs of them at inflated prices on online auction sites. The city of Kitami, Hokkaidō Prefecture—home to the snack’s manufacturer, Seigetsu, as well as the LS Kitami curling team including several members of Japan’s bronze medalist women’s squad—would go on to host a celebratory parade for the Japanese team that brought some 12,000 cheering fans to the city’s streets.

(Originally published in English. Banner photo courtesy David Hsu.)

language Japanese Words of the Year