This Year in Japanese

Japan’s Words of 2021: Nominees Announced for Annual List

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On November 4, the publisher Jiyū Kokumin Sha announced its list of nominees for the words and phrases best representing the year 2021. Our complete list of the nominees with explanations.

New Words for a Pandemic Year

Each year Jiyū Kokumin Sha, the publisher of Gendai yōgo no kiso chishiki (Basic Knowledge on Contemporary Terminology), an annual guide to the latest terms in use in the Japanese language, holds its contest to decide the Words of the Year. For 2021, the nominating committee selected a list of 30 terms that have made themselves a part of the spoken and written landscape in Japan this year.

As expected, the COVID-19 pandemic inspired many of the terms, from “recuperating at home” to the “flows of people” potentially spreading the disease and the “viral variants” posing new threats to a public trying to avoid infection. The entertainment and sports world provided their fair share of nominees too, though, pointing perhaps to the importance of escapist media consumption among people staying away from crowds in their free time as they waited for the pandemic to die down.

Below is the list of all 30 nominated terms or phrases, along with our brief explanations. The finalists and the winning word (or words) for the year will be announced on the afternoon of December 1, Japan time.

Nominees for the Words of 2021

イカゲームIka gēmu. South Korea’s global smash hit Netflix drama Squid Game, about a deadly contest between hundreds of debt-ridden players, also found viewers in Japan.

うっせぇわUsseē wa. High school singer Ado expressed her anger toward society through a song titled with an aggressively phrased form of “Shut up!” Originally released in October 2020, it took off in 2021.

ウマ娘Uma musume. In a world in which famous racehorses are reborn as “horse girls” with ears and tails, players of the popular Uma musume puritī dābī (Umamusume: Pretty Derby) mobile game take on the role of their trainers for new races.

SDGs — The abbreviation for the Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all United Nations members in 2015, appeared regularly in the Japanese media this year. The 17 targets include eradicating poverty and achieving gender equality.

NFT — The abbreviation for nonfungible tokens, the unique digital assets that made headlines for big-money sales in 2021, was another phrase also seen in Japan.

エペジーーンEpe jīn. Japan’s men’s épée team surprised many observers by winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Captain Minobe Kazuyasu provided the nickname that translates roughly as “épée teeeam,” while also playing on the meaning of jīn as something that stirs up emotion.

推し活Oshikatsu. “Support activities” refer to anything fans may do to show their appreciation for their idols. The first part of the phrase appeared in the title of the novel awarded the Akutagawa Prize in January, Oshi, moyu (Cheering, Burning) by Usami Rin.

親ガチャOyagacha. The original gacha capsule toy vending machines took their name from the noise they made when dispensing random items, and the term has been further applied to low-cost, random items awarded as prizes in mobile games. The term “parents gacha,” popular among young people in 2021, refers to the idea that children may be lucky or unlucky in which parents they happen to be born to, without having any choice in the matter.

カエル愛Kaeru ai. Gold-medal winning boxer Irie Sena’s amphibian interests drew attention after her Olympic victory, as she emphasized her “frog love,” sharing her hopes that after she graduated she wanted to find a job involving frogs.

ゴン攻め/ビッタビタGon-zeme; bitta bita. Pro skater Sejiri Ryō guided Olympic viewers through the new sport of skateboarding with plenty of specialist vocabulary. These included gon-zeme, an attitude of “fearless attack” that may play on the gongon clattering sound of skateboard wheels on a ramp, and bitta bita, to stick a landing “just right,” possibly a variation on pittari (exactly).

ジェンダー平等Jendā byōdō. The pandemic highlighted the challenges Japan and other countries face in advancing “gender equality,” one of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Women have borne the brunt of job losses as COVID-19 took a toll on the economy, and recent Diet elections saw Japan’s already dismal percentage of female legislators shrink even further. However, bright spots included the October appointment of Yoshino Tomoko as the first ever female president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, Japan’s largest labor group.

自宅療養Jitaku ryōyō. As hospital beds filled during successive waves of COVID-19, “Recuperate at home” was the Japanese government’s request to asymptomatic or mildly ill patients to stay home or at hotels until they had fully recovered to ease the burden on the strained medical system. Subsequently, the country saw a surge in deaths of people with the coronavirus who had been ordered to stay home.

13歳、真夏の大冒険13 sai, manatsu no daibōken. Fuji Television announcer Kurata Taisei coined this phrase while covering 13-year-old Japanese skateboarder Nishiya Momiji’s gold-medal run at the Tokyo Olympics. Kurata’s impromptu comparison of Nishiya becoming one of the youngest Olympic champions ever as a “great summer adventure” was widely repeated on social media.

ショータイムShō taimu. “Shō Time!” was an oft repeated phrase by announcers at Angels Stadium in Los Angeles and in Japan as fans rooted for Ohtani Shōhei in his bid to equal Babe Ruth’s century-old record of double-digit wins and home runs. Ohtani fell just shy of the mark, ending the season with 9 wins and 46 home runs.

人流Jinryū. “Flows of people” were a key factor that the Japanese government sought to track closely via cellular phone and other data in areas including Tokyo, where it had declared a state of emergency amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

スギムライジングSugimu-raijingu. A portmanteau of “Sugimura” and “rising,” the term was coined to describe a specialty throw of boccia player Sugimura Hidetaka. In the boccia individual BC2 class at the 2020 Paralympic Games, Sugimura outgunned the competition with precisely aimed tosses, including his trademark “rising shot,” on his way to winning Japan’s first gold in the event.

Z世代Z sedai. Members of so-called generation Z, a demographic group born from the mid- to late 1990s through the early 2000s, are garnering greater attention for their openness to different opinions and values as well as their ability to use new technology.

チキータChikīta. Olympic table tennis player Itō Mima vexed opponents at Tokyo 2020 by returning serves with a potent backhand flick dubbed a “Chiquita.” The name, taken from the well-known fruit brand, describes the banana-like arc of the ball. Itō proved equally devastating with her “reverse Chiquita,” ending the games with three medals: a gold, silver, and bronze.

チャタンヤラクーサンクーChatan yara kūsankū. Karateka Shimizu Kiyō performed the notoriously difficult Chatan Yara Kusanku kata during her silver-medal presentation at the Tokyo Olympics. The flowing, open-handed style of kata originated in Okinawa. Teammate Kiyuna Ryō won gold in the men’s competition with his performance of the Ōhan Dai kata.

ととのうTotonou. Among sauna devotees in Japan, the verb totonou, meaning “to arrange” or “to prepare for,” describes a state of physical relaxation and mental alertness reached by rotating through cycles of steam baths and soaks in cold water, punctuated by rest periods. Hot springs and public baths serve as community hubs, but the pandemic forced people to curtail or forego trips entirely. Saunas subsequently drew attention as a way to “prepare” for another day dominated by news about COVID-19, being featured in popular television dramas and manga works.

フェムテックFemutekku. “Femtech,” combining the English words feminine and technology, refers to efforts to apply tech to issues that women face in their physical and mental health. The term encompasses everything from technological solutions to ease menstrual pain and improve quality of life for women experiencing menopause to smartphone apps letting users track their menstrual cycle and phases of pregnancy.

副反応Fukuhannō. “Side effects” were a concern for many getting vaccinated for COVID-19 this year, as the media reported additional effects brought about by the shots including pain, itchiness, and swelling in the area where the shot was delivered, fever, chills, and joint pain.

ピクトグラムPikutoguramu. “Pictograms” are nothing new, but a presentation of the images representing the events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics during the opening ceremony—with a team of five pantomime performers including Gamarjobat and the comedy duo Gabez dressed in blue suits and large round heads enacting all of the pictograms in rapid succession—proved popular. Olympic pictograms made their debut at the 1964 Tokyo games.

変異株Hen’i kabu. “Viral variants” or “mutant strains” were big news in 2021 as the COVID-19 threat developed in new directions with the emergence of the Delta and other variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. New viral strains are formed when errors are introduced into a virus’s genetic information as it is copied into a host body’s cells. The Delta strain, first identified in India, was widely seen in Japan from July onward as the nation’s fifth wave of COVID-19 infections got underway.

ぼったくり男爵Bottakuri danshaku. A translation of “Baron Von Ripper-off,” the name given to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach by Sally Jenkins in her May 5 Washington Post column calling on Japan to cancel the summer games in Tokyo. The name was picked up by domestic protestors opposed to what they viewed as the IOC’s heavy-handed demands of the Japanese side during an ongoing pandemic.

マリトッツォMaritottso. The Italian dessert maritozzo was a hit this year in Japan, with restaurants and even convenience stores serving up the sweet, egg- and butter-heavy bread packed with a dollop of whipped cream to eager eaters.

黙食/マスク会食Mokushoku; Masuku kaishoku. A newly coined word for “silent dining,” mokushoku was joined by terms like “the masked meal” as restaurants urged diners to eat without the conversation considered to be a means of viral transmission and to put their masks on whenever they weren’t using their mouths to eat and drink.

ヤングケアラーYangu kearā. “Young carers” are those under the age of 18 tasked with providing nursing or other care for family members at home. The phenomenon of economic and other circumstances forcing these youths into positions ordinarily handled by adults has been talked about since around 2014, but this year it exploded in the public consciousness as a serious problem confronting Japan.

リアル二刀流Riaru nitōryū. “Wielding two swords,” or contributing to his team both as a pitcher and an offensive threat, landed baseball phenom Ohtani Shōhei on the list of nominees for the words of 2013 as well. This year his description was upgraded to a “dual-sword wielder for real,” as he made a serious bid for the Major League home run crown while also winning nine games for the Los Angeles Angels. Another popular phrase in 2021 was なおエ (nao-e, roughly meaning “meanwhile, the A—”), in reference to the comments sportscasters often had to tack on to stories about his amazing individual performances, telling viewers that “meanwhile, the Angels” had lost once again.

路上飲みRojō nomi. “Street drinking” became a pastime among people unable to enjoy their alcohol in restaurants or bars due to repeated requests for shortened operating hours and removal of booze from the menu in response to rising COVID-19 transmission numbers. Groups could be seen gathering in parks and convenience store parking lots to enjoy an outdoor version of the indoor drinking no longer available to them.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Clockwise from upper left, Olympic table tennis medalist Itō Mima [© Reuters], 13-year-old skateboarding star Nishiya Momiji [© Jiji], an electron microscope image of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus [courtesy National Institute of Infectious Diseases], maritozzo sweets [© Pixta], LA Angels star Ohtani Shōhei [© Jiji], a vaccination takes place [© Reuters], a still from Squid Game [© Reuters].)

Japanese Words of the Year language