Trendy Japanese words

Every year, the U-Can New Words and Buzzwords Awards (ユーキャン新語・流行語大賞) selects a list of popular new words that have become part of the public’s vocabulary. To recap the wild year so far, here are 20 trendy Japanese words that defined the best and not-so-great moments in 2020. 

For more articles on Japanese language, check out these:

1. Animal Crossing (あつ森)

Trendy Japanese words - animal crossing
Image credit: @k.h.k.s.k

The coronavirus was not the only virus to have hit Japan and the world in March. At the height of the pandemic, and with countries declaring emergency lockdowns, the hit Nintendo Switch video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons became an oasis for people who were suddenly confined to their homes. 

In Japan, the game is better known as あつ森 (atsumori), which is an abbreviation of its Japanese name, “集まれどうぶつの森” (atsumare dōbutsu no mori)

Like the rest of the world, people in Japan became enamoured with this popular life-simulation game. Even Natsuki Hanae, a popular voice actor, hopped on the bandwagon and released a series of videos of himself enjoying the game. 

2. Amabie (アマビエ)

Trendy Japanese words - amabie
The first record of Amabie in a woodblock print (1846). 
Image credit: Kyoto University 

According to historical records, the amabie (アマビエ) is a yōkai (supernatural being) from the sea. Legend has it that during the Edo Period, the creature made predictions about the future – first a bountiful harvest, followed by a dreadful epidemic. In order to stop the disease from spreading, the amabie urged people to draw a picture of it and disseminate the drawing. 

Trendy Japanese words - amabie
Amabie-shaped daruma dolls.
Image credit: @daruma_city

Once obsolete, the yōkai experienced a resurgence of popularity – thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic – as netizens began to reshare photos of amabie on social media platforms for auspicious purposes. 

The sea yōkai has gotten so popular that it now appears on an array of goods, from hand sanitisers to daruma dolls (traditional wishing dolls). 

3. Go To Campaign (Go To キャンペーン)

Trendy Japanese words - go to travel campaign
Image credit: White Bear Family 

One of the biggest victims of COVID-19 is the tourism industry, which has been heavily hit by international travel restrictions. In an attempt to save the industry, the Japanese government rolled out the Go To Travel Campaign (Go To キャンペーン) in July this year.  

By offering major discounts on accommodation and tour packages for residents, the campaign aims to stimulate domestic tourism. However, it was not without opposition. Naysayers have criticised the government for encouraging travel amidst the rising number of cases.  

4. Time at home (おうち時間)

Trendy Japanese words - ouchi jikan
Image credit: @halnyan1118

Against the backdrop of a worsening virus outbreak, Japan declared a nationwide state of emergency in April. Suddenly confined to their homes, the Japanese took to posting on social media with the hashtag #おうち時間 (ouchi jikan), which translates to “spending time at home”. 

From having solo afternoon teas to embarking on knitting projects, people used the popular hashtag to share how they were enriching their time at home. 

5. Telework/ Workation (テレワーク・ワーケーション)

Trendy Japanese words - workation
Image credit: Takahama Town

In response to the COVID-19 threat, many companies in Japan have allowed their white-collared employees to transition into remote working, or to telework (テレワーク) from home whenever possible.  

Local governments have also latched onto the concept of “workations” (ワーケーション) an amalgamation of “working” and “vacation” to boost regional tourism. National parks, ryokans (traditional inns), and even theme parks in Japan have started to offer workation packages to attract office workers who want to have a leisurely yet productive time. 

6. Kagopaku (カゴパク)

Trendy Japanese words - kagopaku
Image credit: Lohaco

In a bid to reduce the usage of single-use plastic in the country, a national law was passed in July. It is now mandatory for all retail outlets, such as supermarkets and convenience stores, to charge at least ¥1 (~USD0.0096) for single-use plastic bags. 

As a result, cases of kagopaku (カゴパク) increased. Customers who do not have eco-bags and are unwilling to pay the extra fee ended up bringing home shopping baskets with their purchases in it. The term “kagopaku” is derived from a combination of “kago” (籠; shopping baskets) and “pakuru” (パクる; stealing). 

7. Ongaeshi (恩返し)

Trendy Japanese words - hanzawa naoki
Image adapted from: TBS Holdings, Inc

Known for its many iconic moments and catchphrases, the hit drama series Hanzawa Naoki made a comeback this year and expectant fans were not disappointed.

We won’t give away too many spoilers, but Teruyuki Kagawa, who plays Akira Ōwada, stole the show with his dramatic delivery of the line “恩返し” (ongaeshi; to return a favour). As expected of a professional kabuki actor, Kagawa also trended on social media for his exaggerated “顔芸” (kaogei; face acting)

8. Kōsui (香水)

Trendy Japanese words - kousui
Image adapted from: Eito 

Kōsui (香水; perfume) is an acoustic song by 22-year-old indie singer-songwriter Eito. His debut song was released in April 2019, but it only achieved commercial success this year, topping various charts in Japan.  

The journey to success was quite unusual – the song became a hit thanks to Tik Tok. In April, Nakajima Sota – a member of the J-pop group FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE – uploaded a cover of the song on Tik Tok. The rest is history – Kōsui became a viral hit as more and more users started to post videos of themselves covering the song.  

9. BLM Movement (BLM 運動)

Trendy Japanese words - naomi osaka wearing black mask
Image credit: @naomiosaka

The Black Lives Matter movement, or BLM movement (BLM 運動; BLM undō), is an activist movement advocating against racism and systemic police brutality against black people. Though it has its roots in the USA, the movement has made waves globally. 

In particular, tennis player Naomi Osaka sparked conversations in Japan when she protested against police brutality. Besides pulling out of competitions, she also wore 7 black face masks, each bearing the name of a black person who was a victim of racial violence and police brutality, to her matches in the US Open.

10. Jishuku keisatsu (自粛警察)

Trendy Japanese words - jishuku kaisatsu
“To stop the spread of COVID-19, refrain from inter-prefecture travel”.
Image credit: @ys_wada

Jishuku keisatsu (自粛警察) refers to vigilantes who, of their own accord, took to their neighbourhoods to enforce social distancing policies. Often, these “self-discipline police” would also take law enforcement into their own hands.  

Some examples of policing include berating and shaming shop owners who kept their shops open during lockdowns, scolding people who don’t wear masks, and even divulging personal information of people who did not stay at home.  

11. Fuwa-chan (フワちゃん)

Trendy Japanese words - fuwa chan
Image credit: @fuwa876

Donning neon colors from head to toe, complete with a signature sports bra, Fuwa-chan (フワちゃん) was all the rage this year. 

From appearing on variety shows to exchanging quips with Governor Yuriko Koike, the Japanese comedian and YouTube personality has been a familiar face on media sites in 2020. Fuwa-chan also went viral after she accidentally peed her pants while laughing on a live broadcast, much to the amusement of netizens. 

12. Crash Landing On You (愛の不時着)

Trendy Japanese words - crash landing on you
Image credit: IMDb

Quarantine life has had everyone binging on Netflix series after series, and the Korean drama Crash Landing On You became hugely popular in Japan. Better known as “愛の不時着” (ai no fujichaku) in Japan, the love story between a rich South Korean heiress and a North Korean army officer garnered a loyal following during the pandemic. 

13. New normal (新しい生活様式)

Trendy Japanese words - new normal illustration
Image credit: Cabinet Office Government of Japan

As overused as it is, the phrase “new normal” (新しい生活様式; atarashii seikatsu yōshiki) has become an indispensable part of our vocabulary in these virus-stricken times. The trendy phrase describes how the general population has acclimatised to new living conditions – from wearing masks to diligent hand sanitisation. 

14. Solo camp (ソロキャンプ)

Trendy Japanese words - solo camping
Image credit: @reo_outdoor_only

Thanks to social distancing, solo camping (ソロキャンプ; soro kyanpu) has understandably experienced an unprecedented boom in Japan. It is a great option for people who want to escape the confines of their homes, safely. Camping in remote, picturesque places alone ensures that their wanderlust can be satisfied while abiding by pandemic rules.  

15. Uber Eats (ウーバーイーツ)

Trendy Japanese words - uber eats
Image credit: @UberEats_JP

For those who are cautious about eating out, food delivery services have been real lifesavers. In Japan, the demand for Uber Eats (ウーバーイーツ; uubaa iitsu), an online food delivery platform, grew exponentially during the pandemic period. During peak hours, hordes of delivery personnel throng the streets, carrying the all too familiar Uber Eats backpack. 

16. Online 〇〇 (オンライン〇〇)

Trendy Japanese words - online nomikai
Online nomikai (drinking party).  
Image credit: Recruit Jobs Co., Ltd

Besides work and classes, many other aspects of daily life in Japan have also moved to the virtual realm. The term “online 〇〇” (オンライン〇〇; onrain maru maru) is a general expression for anything that is held online via video chats.  

Most notably, online nomikai (飲み会; drinking parties) – a cornerstone of Japanese culture – has become hugely popular. As gathering in large numbers is discouraged, people in Japan are opting to drink and bond over video calls. The best part? You can get wasted without having to worry about getting home since your bed is just a few steps away.  

17. Abenomask (アベノマスク)

Trendy Japanese words - shinzo abe with mask
Image credit: Reuters

In an attempt to assuage public fears about mask shortages, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in April that the government would be distributing 2 face masks to every household. 

Following the announcement, dissatisfied netizens took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with the hashtag #マスク2枚 (masuku nimai; 2 masks) and a meme fest was spawned. 

Trendy Japanese words - abenomask meme
A meme featuring the family from Sazae-san, the longest-running cartoon in Japan.
Image credit: @punxjk

In particular, a post involving the family of 8 from Sazae-san, a long-running manga and anime series, struck a chord with netizens. The parody showed the family members forcibly sharing 2 masks, ridiculing Abe’s policy and reflecting public sentiment.

Apart from the ill-thought-out policy, many also found the masks too small and uncomfortable to wear. The term “Abenomask” (アベノマスク) is a satirical spin on Abenomics, a series of policies implemented by Shinzo Abe to revive the Japanese economy.  

18. Kimetsu no Yaiba (鬼滅の刃)

Trendy Japanese words - demon slayer mugen train
Poster for Demon Slayer movie
Image credit: Kimetsu Official 

Kimetsu no Yaiba (鬼滅の刃) has always been huge in Japan. But it was in October, when Demon Slayer: Mugen Train made its cinematic debut, that the nation went into a demonslaying frenzy. Surpassing big names such as Your Name and Titanic, the movie swept box office records and is poised to overtake Spirited Away to become the top grossing film in Japan.  

Trendy Japanese words - demon slayer signboard
A highway sign board in Saga reminding drivers to drive safely with Demon Slayer catchphrase
Image credit: @teeta_memo

Even the traffic police in Saga latched onto its popularity, displaying the Demon Slayer breathing techniques on highway road signs to remind drivers to drive safely. With season 2 of the anime series rumoured to be in the works, we can expect the hype to last for a while. 

19. Zoom-bae (Zoom 映え)

Trendy Japanese words - working remotely
Image credit: @osamaru030

Some of us feel perfectly fine appearing on Zoom meetings with dishevelled hair and day-old pyjamas, but others prefer to look their best even when it’s through computer screens. 

Zoom-bae (Zoom 映え) means “to shine on Zoom”. Simply put, the term refers to looking good while attending online meetings. From makeup looks to camera angles, there are even tutorials online offering tips on how to present your best side, albeit digitally.

20. Sanmitsu (三密)

Trendy Japanese words - sanmitsu
Image adapted from: Tokyo Metropolitan Government

Sanmitsu (三密) has been selected as Japan’s top buzzword for 2020. The nowubiquitous term is Japan’s slogan against the coronavirus, which stands for 密閉 (mippei; confined spaces with little to no ventilation), 密集 (misshū; crowds), and 密接 (missetsu; close contact). 

The term gained traction after it was popularised by Yuriko Koike, the Governor of Tokyo, as she would incessantly remind the general public to avoid the 3 mitsu in order to curb the spread of COVID-19

Trendy Japanese words in 2020

With the unfolding of a viral pandemic for most of the year, it’s no surprise that more than half of our list of trendy Japanese words in 2020 are related to the coronavirus. Here’s hoping that 2021 will be a better and virus-free year. 

For more articles on Japanese culture, check out these: 

Cover image adapted from: @reo_outdoor_only, Reuters, @k.h.k.s.k, and @halnyan1118

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