This Year in Japanese

“Dual Sword Wielder” Ohtani Shōhei on Top in 2021 Words of the Year

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Japan’s “Words of the Year” are out for 2021, with riaru nitōryū and Shō taimu taking top honors. The phrases both describe baseball phenom Ohtani Shōhei, who “wielded two swords for real,” both on the mound and in the batter’s box, as he wowed fans with his “Shō Time” performances.

Ohtani Terms Top the List

Los Angeles Angels star Ohtani Shōhei cleaned up this season in Major League Baseball, winning the American League MVP Award, the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award, and many other accolades. A slugger in the running for the home run crown, finishing with 46 homers, he was also a threat on the mound, where he racked up a 3.18 earned run average over 23 starts.

This rare combination of talents on the pitcher’s mound and at the plate propelled him to the top of this year’s Words of the Year ranking, chosen annually by a selection committee organized by 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. We covered the full list of 30 nominees last month. Today, the committee announced its short list of 10 finalists and the two winning terms, both referencing Ohtani, judged to have become a vital part of the Japanese language this year.

Given the high profile of COVID-19-related terms in last year’s ranking, it was somewhat surprising to see just a pair of entries associated with the pandemic in the 2021 finalists—mokushoku, or “silent dining” aimed at preventing viral transmission, and jinryū, the “flows of people” tracked by researchers hoping to pinpoint infection routes. The postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics proved more productive, with three finalists coming from comments by sports announcers, a para-athletics competitor’s name, and criticism of the International Olympic Committee for putting profit ahead of public health.

As some of the selection committee members noted, their task was made difficult this year by the major stories in Japan—the summer games and the pandemic—pulling people’s attention, and language, in different directions. The poet Tawara Machi stated: “The news we followed was an uneven patchwork, with stories about the Olympics interspersed with stories about COVID-19. . . . We’d see a phrase like ‘highest number ever,’ and need to read on to learn whether it referred to Japan’s medal count or new infections.” Amid all this, she noted, Ohtani’s performance stood out brightly.

University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Kang Sang-jung, too, commented that “just like the previous year, 2021 was one during which we could never break free from the shadow of the coronavirus. But people seemed to be seeking for something brighter in the words that came to their lips, leaving the impression that dawn is finally beginning to break . . . I’m hoping to see some truly fresh, exciting new phrases make their appearance next year.”

The actress and writer Muroi Shigeru, meanwhile, noted that while the Olympics and Paralympics provided their share of new terms, they seemed likely to fade quickly along with the fleeting excitement of the games themselves. “I was struck rather by the words that are likely to be with us for longer—the United Nations SDGs, gender equality, and generation Z, for instance.” She also expressed her hope that 2022 will bring different new words to a world recovering its vitality, “the kind of words that bring a smile to your face as you say them out loud.”

The Winning Words of 2021

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.

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.

Other Finalists

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sugimura Hidetaka celebrates his boccia gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics on September 1, 2021, at the the Ariake Gymnastics Center in Tokyo. (© Jiji)
Sugimura Hidetaka celebrates his boccia gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics on September 1, 2021, at the the Ariake Gymnastics Center in Tokyo. (© Jiji)

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.

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.

黙食Mokushoku. A newly coined word for “silent dining,” mokushoku was joined by terms like マスク会食 (masuku kaishoku), “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 were not using their mouths to eat and drink.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Ohtani Shōhei in action on the mound [© Reuters] and at the plate [© Jiji].)

Japanese Words of the Year language