Language

‘The Year Book of the Contemporary Society’ celebrates the Japanese buzzwords that will lead us into the new year

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Last week, the 2019 edition of 現代用語の基礎知識 (Gendai Yogo no Kiso Chishiki), published annually since 1948 by Jiyukokuminsha, went on sale. Its Japanese title literally translates as the fundamental knowledge of contemporary words, but its publisher decided on a slightly different English name: “The Year Book of the Contemporary Society.” That’s close enough, I suppose.

Weighing in at 1,226 pages, it’s a heavy tome indeed, and while it retails for ¥3,200 plus tax, it’s well worth the outlay as a useful reference book as well as a text book for learners of the language. It offers something for everyone and its greatest appeal lies in it being the kind of book you can pick up and begin reading from anywhere.

In acknowledgement that 2019 will mark the end of the current Heisei Era, when Emperor Akihito abdicates in April, the book incorporates several special sections that review the previous three decades.

From page 937, for instance, there’s ことばでたどる平成30年 (kotoba de tadoru Heisei 30-nen, following 30 years of Heisei through words). The Heisei Era began in January 1989 and in the months that followed there occurred ドイツ統一 (Doitsu tōitsu, the reunification of Germany) and ソ連崩壊 (Soren hōkai, the collapse of the Soviet Union), earning it the description ポスト冷戦 (posuto reisen, the post-Cold War period).

A variety of social and cultural trends are put into perspective. From page 1,183, there’s 平成の食文化年表 (Heisei no shokubunka nenpyō, A year-by-year chronology of Heisei food culture).

Within, I recognized a term that popped up around 1992, 個食 (koshoku, eating alone) alternatively written 孤食 (koshoku, solitary eating), a reference to the fact that from around this time busy family members were increasingly taking meals apart from one another. Another term from the same year was ペットボトル症候群 (petto botoru shōkōgun, PET bottle syndrome), used in reference to overconsumption of sweetened soft drinks leading to diabetes and related problems.

Jumping ahead to 2013, ハーラル認証 (hāraru ninshō, halal certification) came into common use, reflecting how Japan began catering to the growing number of inbound visitors from Islamic countries.

Immediately following the above section, 10 pages are devoted to a panel discussion on グルメ漫画 (gurume manga, illustrated stories about food, chefs, ingredients and so on). The forerunners of this genre date back to before the start of the Heisei Era, or as the book describes it, 昭和少々、平成30年 (Showa shōshō, Heisei 30-nen, A little bit of Showa and 30 years of Heisei).

My perennial favorite, beginning in the latest issue on page 902, is the section labeled 若者 (wakamono, youth). This represents the wild and woolly side of Japanese, where amazing new words and phrases seem to pop up like magic on the streets of Harajuku and other popular youth haunts.

The section on youth lingo is segmented into various categories, such as 大人もつい言ってしまう (Otona mo tsui itte shimau, Terms that were finally picked up by adults); 短く省略して使う (Mijikaku shōryaku shite tsukau, Usage through shortening or abbreviation); 意味、使用法の進化系 (Imi, shiyōhō no shinka-kei, Words that have evolved in terms of meanings or ways of use); 通話をつなぐ、間を埋める (Tsūwa o tsunagu, ma o umeru, Joining words together or “burying” the breaks in between); 強調する言い方、評価する言葉 (Kyōchō suru iikata, hyōka suru kotoba, Words for emphasis and words for assessment); 世相を感じる言葉 (Sesō o kanjiru kotoba, Words that have a feel of the zeitgeist); 遊び仲間 (asobi nakama, playmates); and学校、大学、就活 (Gakkō, daigaku, shūkatsu, School, university and job hunting).

Among recent neologisms are such words as インパ (inpa, to go to places like Tokyo Disney Resort, short for “in park”) and 聖地巡礼 (seichi junrei, literally to make a pilgrimage to a holy place, but in this case meaning to visit a locale featured prominently in a manga, work of literature and so on.)

There’s also a category named in English: “Love & Sex.” It includes such terms as 好き避け (sukisake, to really like a person but shy away from him or her).

A person who has given up trying to find a love interest is referred to as 恋愛ニート (ren’ai niito, love NEET), a term that includes the acronym NEET: Not in Education, Employment or Training).

Finally I had a chuckle when I saw スパダリ (supadari), which is short for スーパーダーリン (sūpā dārin, super darling). That word is used for men who are physically tall, earn a high salary and have an advanced education, and are therefore considered to be extremely desirable catches).

Sometimes the origins of new words are easily identifiable and credit is acknowledged accordingly. For instance, the term 団塊の世代 (dankai no sedai, literally “cluster generation”), used to describe Japan’s post-World War II baby boomers, appears to have originated as the title of a 1976 novel by economist Taiichi Sakaiya.

I remember my own frustrations, years ago, trying to pin down the origin of 援助交際 (enjo kōsai, “compensated dating,” a euphemism for teen prostitution). Even the author of a nonfiction book titled “Enjo Kosai” told me he didn’t know who coined the term, explaining that it was believed to have come into vogue in the early 1990s among teenage users of NTT’s voicemail service, ダイヤルQ2 (daiyaru kyū-tsu, Dial Q2).