In the beginning there was the word. More precisely, the prefix. When the Heisei Era officially started, on Jan. 8, 1989, Japan’s economy was still merrily bubbling along. That must have been one reason for the popularity of 超 (chō, hyper-). The prefix itself is anything but new, but the idea to make just everything a “hyperlative” is an early Heisei thing. The 1990 edition of the authoritative dictionary 現代用語の基礎知識 (“Gendai Yōgo no Kiso Chishiki,” “The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words”) lists the prefix, in its shortened katakana version チョ (cho), as one of the newcomers of the year.
超 was to outlive both the bubble years and the “lost decade” that followed. And even though expressions like チョベリグ (choberigu, hyper-very goo[d]) or チョベリバ (choberiba, hyper-very ba[d]) today will make most people shudder — provided they understand them — it is still quite common to stress something with 超. For better, as in 超ご機嫌 (chō go-kigen, a hyper-good mood), or for worse, like 超腹立つ (chō hara tatsu, hyper-angry), 超-emphasis will remain with us in the 令和時代 (Reiwa Jidai, Reiwa Era).
Can’t tell, can’t be, wasn’t to be
The Gendai Yōgo dictionary series is also a useful source for reflecting on what else happened in Heisei, linguistically speaking. For instance, the 2003 edition lists the expression ビミョー (bimyō), which literally means “subtle, delicate” and indicates uncertainty but, like 超, wasn’t that new either. What was new about it, apart from the katakana spelling (in kanji, it’s 微妙), is its capacity to provide short answers to complex questions. Well prepared for the test? Getting along with the new colleague? Flu or just a temperature? From then on it was all bimyō.
Apart from a new word for the vast range of things that you “can’t really tell,” the heydays of Heisei also made some unexpected inroads into the terrain of “can’t be,” or ありえない (arienai, impossible). The air of the impossible became ascribed to virtually anything unpleasant or uncalled-for. In 2005, the linguist 秋月高太郎 (Kōtarō Akizuki) published a whole book titled “ありえない日本語” (“Arienai Nihongo,” “Impossible Japanese”), which discusses many other linguistic “can’t be’s” of the time, including double negations such as 良くなくない？ (yokunakunai?, isn’t it not-good?), and the impossibly positive meaning of the term やばい (yabai), originally used to refer to dangerous or troublesome things only.
A phenomenon that will not quite make it into the Reiwa Era is so-called KY語 (kei-wai-go, KY words), which were all the rage in the second half of the 2000s. As our older readers may recall, KY derives from an acronym of the phrase 空気読めない (kūki yomenai, can’t “read the air”), referring to a person’s ignorance to a given situation. The phrase itself is still alive and kicking, much to the distress of dumb folks like me, but the abbreviation is not. Neither are those many other alphabet terms that came in its wake, from PK for パンツ食い込む (pantsu kuikomu, having one’s underwear encroach into one’s bottom) to CB for, yes, 超微妙 (chō bimyō, hyper-can’t tell). KY — R.I.P.
Language in Heisei Japan — as in societies elsewhere, no matter if they customarily count in imperial eras or not — was strongly influenced by technical developments. Recall that at the end of the Showa Era (1926-1989), people were still playing hunt-and-peck on their ワープロ (wāpuro, word processors). The age of the PC (pī-shī) was only about to begin, and it would take a couple of Yahoo installation CDs thrust upon innocent pedestrians outside electronics stores to pave the way for an entirely new kind of communication.
Enter 電子メール (denshi mēru, electronic mail), as it was first called, though today it is better remembered as Eメール (ī-mēru) or just メール (mēru). With it came a whole category of new words, such as メル友 (meru-tomo, mail friend) and 写メ (shame, an email with photo attachment — wow!), which nowadays feel as though they have somewhat outstayed their welcome.
Another technical innovation with tremendous impact on Japanese was the mobile phone. First called 携帯電話 (keitai denwa, portable telephone), it came to be generally known, and cherished, as ケータイ (kētai). But alas, with the arrival of the スマホ (sumaho, smartphone) in the late 2000s, courtesy of SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, these once-beloved devices and all their fancy functions became branded as ガラケー (garakē), “Galapagos mobiles” hopelessly unfit for survival outside the Japanese biotope. As Heisei is coming to a close, they are going extinct even within it.
Smart or not, portable devices have brought us novel forms of communication that rapidly created new words and expressions throughout the second half of the Heisei years. Here are just a few overall trends in brief:
New kanji readings and meanings, such as 垢 (aka, dirt) as a common abbreviation for アカウント (akaunto, account), and 草 (kusa, grass) for LOL.
New words for new actions, for instance, ふぁぼる (faboru, to like something on Twitter, etc.), リムる (rimuru, to unfollow someone), and 既読スルー (kidoku surū, reading SMS or Line messages without bothering to respond to them).
A number of new quantifiers for counting things on the web, including ポスト (posuto, posts), シェア (shea, shares) and ツイート (tsuīto, tweets).
A most sophisticated set of 絵文字 (emoji) that came a long way from those early DIY handicrafts like !(^^)! and (‘_’). Note that “emoji” is now a well-established term worldwide, and likely one of Heisei’s most successful linguistic exports.
The language of Heisei was more than just the internet and a few buzzwords, though. We also saw a number of important societal developments that left their mark on Japanese. It was at the beginning of Heisei that the mass media first granted the “title” 容疑者 (yōgisha, suspect) to people charged with a criminal offence. Even though you may take issue with this practice today, it can be considered a (somewhat bimyō) improvement to the time of Showa, when people who were merely accused of a crime did not receive any person suffix at all.
Substantial changes also occurred in the medical sector, where a number of disorders became renamed into less discriminatory nomenclature. An example is 精神分裂病 (seishinbunretsu-byō, literally “mind-split disease”) to denote schizophrenia, which is now called 統合失調症 (tōgōshicchō-shō, “integration disorder syndrome”). And acknowledging Japan’s aging society, without a doubt one of the biggest Heisei topics overall, the derogatory 痴呆 (chihō) for dementia was officially replaced by the neologism 認知症 (ninchishō).
Between him and her
Though many would agree that there is still some way to go, Heisei language is also reflective of an overall improvement in gender equality. At work, there is now less discrimination between male and female professions. At least in language, that is, with terms like 女医 (joi, female doctor) or 女流作家 (joryū sakka, female writer) gradually falling out of use, and the distinction between 看護婦 (kangofu, female nurse) and 看護士 (kangoshi, male nurse) done away with in favor of the genderless 看護師 (kangoshi).
As for at home, we must of course mention the 2010 buzzword イクメン (ikumen). A blend of 育 (iku, education) and イケメン (ikemen, an attractive man), it can be taken as an indication that Heisei men are more willing than their Showa peers to get themselves involved in raising children; and take credit for it.
There is also an increased awareness of sexism, in words and in deeds. Note that back in the Showa days the term セクハラ (sekuhara, sexual harassment) didn’t even exist. This made it much more difficult to appropriately define, report and prosecute such behavior. After the term was introduced in the 1990s, a number of similar “-hara words” followed, capturing other social problems that had so far remained below the radar of public attention: パワハラ (pawahara, power harassment), アカハラ (akahara, academic harassment), マタハラ (matahara, maternity harassment), and アルハラ (aruhara, alcohol harassment). This last one includes harassment by drunken people but is primarily known for being associated with the act of pressuring other people to drink. Here, too, “no” means “no” or, in keeping with changing times, only “yes” mean “yes.”
Thirty years is a long time. We got hyper-high in the late bubble years and had that kind of “can’t tell” hangover in the lost decade, learned how to connect and disconnect on the internet, grew older as Japan grew older and encountered many things we once thought were impossible, or hadn’t thought of at all. The language of Heisei has reflected, absorbed and sometimes propelled these developments. Words were imported and exported, invented and discarded, revamped, respelled and re-appreciated.
To be sure, not all linguistic innovations were here to stay, and those that are gone are gone for good. However, many of the words and phrases from the past three decades have taken root and become part of 21st century Japanese. Expect them to still be around when most people know Heisei only from hearsay.