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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009
The key words that kept Japan abuzz in 2008
Last October, publisher Jiyu Kokuminsha released the 61st edition of its "Gendai Yogo no Kiso Chishiki (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words)" — a massive 1,614-page tome that retails for just ¥2,980. I have a facsimile copy of the book's first edition, launched on Oct. 10, 1948. In the introduction, the editor notes that in place of such wartime slogans as hōkooku (報国, national service) and messhi hōkō (滅私奉公, sacrificing one's personal interest to the public good) — which had vanished almost instantaneously at the war's conclusion — the postwar process of minshu-ka (民主化, democratization) then under way could herald an avalanche of neologisms.
That book, which sold for ¥90, was a slender 192 pages and carried such American imports as "boogie-woogie," "cheek dance" and サマータイム (summertime, meaning daylight savings) — an unpopular edict imposed during the Allied Occupation and which ended along with the Occupation in 1952.
To better promote its efforts, from 1984 Jiyu Kokuminsha began inviting the public to vote for the Ryūkōgo Taishō (流行語大賞, Trendy Word Grand Prix). From 2003, U-CAN, an operator of correspondence courses and other study aids, started cosponsoring the annual event, in which the top 10 finalists are selected from a list of 60 nominees.
Looking back on the 24 previous years' top buzzwords (which can be found in Japanese at http://singo.jiyu.co.jp/index.html), it's evident that television has long been the main way popular words and phrases have been disseminated.
This was also the case for the two top vote-getters in 2008. Comedienne Edo Harumi won the Grand Prix for her humorous way of sticking up her thumb and overemphasizing the word guuu! グ~！), a corruption of the English "good." (The tilde, referred to as nami dasshu [波ダッシュ, wave dash] in Japanese, is used to convey oral speech, and also in computer messaging, to extend the final syllable or to denote something said in an affected manner, such as バイ~ ["Byeeeeee!"].)
In second place was arafō (アラフォー, "around 40"), which was popularized by the TBS TV drama "Around 40," starring actress Yuki Amami, about the travails of a single woman in that age group. The term gives 35- to 45-year-old women a usefully vague means of expressing their age that's more fashionable than yonjussai-kurai, its native equivalent.
Japanese Olympic softball star Yukiko Ueno received recognition in the form of "Ueno 413," a reference to the 413 pitches she threw in three games over two days to lead Japan to its first gold medal in women's softball in Beijing. Her amazing feat becomes apparent if you compare it with pro baseball, where starting pitchers play on a four-day rotation and are usually relieved after 100 pitches.
Another top-10 entry was "izakaya taxi" (居酒屋タクシー), coined after revelations that hundreds of government officials who worked late hours were transported home in taxis whose drivers pampered them with beer, snacks and, in some cases, even onboard karaoke and movies on DVD.
Other buzzwords in the top 10 included:
• "Kanikosen" (蟹工船), Takiji Kobayashi's proletarian novel about desperately poor workers on a crab trawler in the 1920s, which enjoyed a revival in a 2008 reprint.
• Gerira gōu (ゲリラ豪雨, guerrilla downpour), a term the media used to describe the many unexpected afternoon electrical storms that hit Tokyo and other cities last summer.
• Kōki kōreisha (後期高齢者, late-term elderly), a reference to people aged 75 or older, who now account for around 10 percent of Japan's population.
• Nabakari kanrishoku (名ばかり管理職, manager in name only), the status some companies effectively bestow on employees to avoid paying overtime.
• Maizōkin (埋蔵金, buried treasure), a reference to government reserve funds.
Honors for 2008's top catchphrase in a rival poll among readers of the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun went to former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda for "I'm different from you." When the media pushes, Fukuda was known to shove back, and he bristled when challenged by a reporter who asked if his resignation wasn't an escape from the problems facing the country, saying "Hitogoto no yōni to anata wa oshattaga, watashi wa jibun jishin wa kyakkanteki ni miru koto ga dekiru'n desu. Anata to wa chigaun desu." (人ごとのようにとあなたはおっしゃったが、私は自分自身は客観的に見ることができるんです。あなたとは違うんです, "You said I sound detached, but I am able to look at myself objectively. I'm different from you.")