Japan’s Year in Words

December 15, 2009   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — “Herbivorous men,” “fast fashion” and a “change of government.” Those were among the top 10 phrases that best captured the spirit of Japan in 2009 according to the publishing house Jiyu Kokuminsha, which produces the annual list.

Not quite Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” but still a popular barometer of the times, the compilation helps people grasp the societal status quo. This year’s selection portrays a country with a new administration struggling to cement its power while the people battle hard times and fight the flu.

Newly coined words and creative combinations and conjugations of old ones frequently enter the Japanese vocabulary, reflecting the literacy of the people and their penchant for embracing trends. “Pika don,” a term mimicking the flash of light and sound of the blast of the atomic bomb swept the country in 1945. When Japan entered its high economic growth period in the mid-1950s, “the three sacred treasures” departed from their original meaning of imperial relics to refer to a TV, washing machine and refrigerator.

Those terms and many others have practically disappeared from the lexicon, relegated to “shigo” or “dead words.” Use one and you reveal your age. A fellow older parent recently advised me not to use the word “handsome.” The preferred, youthful term is “ike men,” which literally translates as cool mask. The online Japanese Slang Dictionary, which has more than 2,000 entries, dead and alive, says it hopes to “broaden the conversations between people beyond generations.”

This year, the grand prize among the top 10 was bestowed to “change of government,” a phrase that inundated the public ear during the summer parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan won that vote and ended the nearly uninterrupted post-World War II rule by the outgoing Liberal Democrats.

A major policy of the new regime is to wrestle power away from the bureaucrats, and thus the winning phrase “de-bureaucrats.” In a high profile step to that end, last month the government opened the budget review process to the public. Audiences used to closed-door politics lapped up the televised proceedings of another top 10 term, “jigyo shiwake,” literally “project sorting,” that showed humbled bureaucrats answering a tirade of questions on why tax money should be funding their undertakings.

The common person couldn’t have been happier to see some government belt-tightening this year. Amid rising unemployment, the first to be dispensed from businesses were the contractual workers, propelling “haken-giri” or “cutting temps” onto the list.

Strapped consumers crowded budget clothing stores like Uniqlo, H&M and Forever 21, making “fast fashion” a household term. When I asked my English language students to practice the phrase “I cannot live without,” one man pulled up his trouser leg to reveal his long johns and said, “I cannot live without my heat tech underwear,” referring to a runaway Uniqlo sales item.

The Japanese were also beholden to gauze masks as the swine flu spread panic around the country. About a third of the children at my son’s elementary school have had “the new type influenza,” the winning terminology for the illness.

Seishiro Kato, a child acting sensation, cornered the country’s appetite for cuteness with his appearance as the head of a Toyota dealership in a TV commercial, making “kodomo tencho” or “child store manager” an instantly recognizable phrase. At the other end of the scale, a grouchy baseball team manager who retired at the end of the year ushered in the term “boyaki” or “gripes” due to his entertaining, sometimes even poetic, post-game grumbles.

The rest of the Japanese male population is out grazing grass, if the hit phrase “soshoku danshi” or “herbivorous men” is to be believed. Originally coined by an author in 2006 to describe an emerging type of male who is gentle, kind and passive, the phrase is now in everyday use. In turn, Japanese females looked to the masculine, gripped by TV shows and movies about Japan’s 15th to 17th century period of intense civil wars, devouring history books and sightseeing battlefields and castles, giving rise to the term “reki-jyo” or “history women.”

As I contemplate the new year, I’m hoping the cheer of the cute kid and cheap chic will shoo out the gloom of the gauze masks and the corporate axe.