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Even language has winners and losers

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

If there’s one thing to be sure of in Japan these days, it’s that by the end of the year you will have a prime minister different from the one you started out with. This year was the sixth year in succession to follow this pattern. Somewhat differently, though, this year there was a general election — not only the first one in three years but also the first one since the triple catastrophe in 2011.

This focus on politics in 2012 is also reflected in the year’s buzzwords, as announced at the beginning of the month — by mere coincidence only about two weeks ahead of the elections. (See Mark Schreiber’s summary published on this page two weeks ago). Quite unusually, the Top 10 hits this year contain no fewer than three terms from the domain of politics.

First, there has been daisankyoku (第三極), referring to the occurrence of a “third force” in Japan’s political landscape besides the new and old — and some would say, ancient — governing Jiminto (自民党, Liberal Democratic Party) and their opponents from Minshuto (民主党, Democratic Party of Japan). Given the plethora of parties that declared themselves representatives of this third category, it might be wise to speak of forces rather than a force.

Among the more prominent of them has been the newly formed Nippon Ishin no Kai (日本維新の会, Japan Restoration Party), which yielded a second political buzzword for 2012: ishin (維新, restoration). Reminiscent of the Meiji Ishin (明治維新, Meiji Restoration), which in 1868 set the country on a track toward modernization, the term itself is not that new, obviously. The party’s message: It’s restoration time again.

A third winner, if only in the general election for buzzwords, has been former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who in summer this year had promised to dissolve the Diet and call a general election “chikai uchi ni” (「近いうちに」, “in the near future”). This statement unleashed a flurry of speculation as to how near this future would be. It turned out it was later, but still sooner than most had thought.

And this brings us to 2012′s losers, in terms of language, that is. Though, quite unfortunately, there is no comparable custom of compiling a list of dying words at the end of the year, Japanese mass media at the beginning of this month made an interesting suggestion for one of the candidates that would definitely have to be included on such a list: the term manifesuto (マニフェスト, manifesto). Why?

Well, in the previous election of 2009 no fewer than five of the major parties had presented themselves to the voters with a manifesto. By 2012, though, everyone had pretty much dropped the term. In light of the many promises that the party failed to fulfill from their previous manifesto, the word itself seems to have lost its former shine. In fact, as Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Shamintō (社民党, Social Democratic Party) was quoted saying, ” ‘Manifesto’ is about to become a synonym for lying.” As a result, most parties looked for ways of selling their messages under a different label. Interestingly, most preferred a native (Sino-Japanese) term over a loan word.

Jiminto, for instance, announced their vision for the future as jūten seisaku (重点政策), which means something like “focus policies.” So did their friends at New Komeito (公明党), though the term manifesto was still visible — in conspicuously thin letters — on their leaflet.

And what about the third-force parties? Nippon Ishin no Kai went with the term honebuto (骨太), which literally means “big bones.” So much for that sticking to the voters. Another newcomer, Nippon Mirai no To (日本未来の党, Tomorrow Party of Japan ) sold their ideas as mirai e no yakusoku (未来への約束, a promise to the future). Somewhat less poetic, the Shaminto this year had renamed their former manifesto into senkyo kōyaku (選挙公約, election pledges). Finally, Minna no To (みんなの党) or Your Party, as they call themselves in English, used the term ajenda (アジェンダ), a loan word derived from the English “agenda”.

As can be seen here, Japanese politics is a surprisingly creative business, at least when it comes to language at election times. Another thing to learn from this is how incredibly fast words that once enjoyed great popularity can fall from grace — a fate they seem to share with Japanese prime ministers.

That’s why I wouldn’t be too surprised if by the end of 2013, too, a person other than the chap currently in charge takes the reins of the country. Let’s hope for the best.