When the 新語・流行語大賞 (Shingo, Ryūkōgo Taishō, New Words and Buzzwords Awards) were announced last week, the word on everyone’s lips was … “omicron.”

Well, in Japan it was the オミクロン株 (omikuron kabu, omicron variant) that everyone was talking about, along with 渡航禁止 (tokō kinshi, travel bans), 入国禁止 (nyūkoku kinshi, entry bans) and even 富士山噴火 (Fuji-san funka, Mount Fuji eruption) thanks to a pair of earthquakes near the mountain on Friday that made people anxious.

As these situations have all yet to really pan out, perhaps some of them will be nominated as next year’s buzzwords — but I really hope not.

The 新語・流行語大賞 are organized by the publishing house 自由国民社 (Jiyūkokuminsha), and while they’re mostly just a bit of 年末 (nenmatsu, year-end) fun they can still offer a glimpse of what’s been on the nation’s minds for a year. In 2021, that seemed to be sports.

今年の新語・流行語大賞のトップ10にはスポーツとオリンピック関係の言葉が多く、去年と違って、コロナ関係の言葉は少ない (Kotoshi no Shingo, Ryūkōgo Taishō no toppu ten ni wa supōtsu to Orinpikku kankei no kotoba ga ōku, kyonen to chigatte, korona kankei no kotoba wa sukunai, This year a lot of words in the top 10 New Words and Buzzwords Awards were sports- and Olympics-related and, unlike last year, there were only a few coronavirus-related words).

This shift in language might be because Japan has recently seen a drastic drop in new COVID-19 infections, but with 新語 (shingo, new words) such as No. 6 entry 人流 (jinryū, flow of people) and No. 10 entry 黙食 (mokushoku, silent eating) making the list, we’re reminded of how we’re still living under an 新たな日常 (aratana nichijō, new normal) imposed by the pandemic.

That said, the winner of the 2021 awards are two words related to Japanese baseball player and American League MVP Shohei Ohtani: リアル二刀流 (riaru nitōryū, real two-way player) and ショータイム (Shōtaimu, Sho-time).

The term 二刀流 (nitōryū) can be used generally to refer to a person who has the ability to do two different things at the same time. It literally means “two sword flow” and dates back to a samurai named Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) who could wield a sword with both hands. Ohtani found success overseas as both a batter and a pitcher.

The ショータイム nickname — a play on the English phrase, “It’s showtime,” which is used to hype up a crowd — came from the excitement fans felt watching Ohtani’s historic season with the Los Angeles Angels, resulting in his MVP honor.

Plenty of Olympics-related words also made the top 10 list. Some of them embody a sense of admiration toward the athletes, while others serve as a reminder of the less admirable aspects of how Tokyo 2020 went down.

Professional skateboarder Ryo Sejiri’s turns of phrase while commenting on skateboarding events for NHK at the Games were especially popular. Two terms he used — ゴン攻め (gonzeme, performing aggressively) and ビッタビタ (bitta-bita), an onomatopoeic term used when a move is performed perfectly — both landed in fourth place for this year’s buzzwords.

In seventh place we get スギムライジング (Sugimuraijingu, Sugimura rising), a combination of Paralympic athlete Hidetaka Sugimura’s surname and a technique in boccia known as a rising shot — a move that helped him win his first gold medal.

A lot of negativity surrounded the Games before they took place, however. Buzzword No. 9 is ぼったくり男爵 (Bottakuri danshaku, rip-off baron), the Japanese version of “Baron Von Ripper-off,” a nickname for International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. It was coined by The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins to refer to Bach’s aristocratic-like attitude when he insisted that the Games go on despite growing concerns over the pandemic in Japan.

When Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori made sexist remarks at the start of the year, ジェンダー平等 (jendā byōdō, gender equality) resurfaced as a hot topic of discussion and placed at No. 5 on the buzzwords list. And speaking of inequalities, the term 親ガチャ (oya gacha, parent lottery) — a portmanteau of 親 (oya, parent) and ガチャポン (gachapon), a vending machine that dispenses plastic capsules containing a toy — also made the list at No. 3. The idea here is that, for better or for worse, 自分の親は選べない (jibun no oya wa erabenai, you can’t choose your parents) and you’re just lucky if you’re born into privilege.

Other words that found their way onto the buzzwords list include the term うっせぇわ (usseewa, shut up). The No. 2 entry was the title of a song by Japanese singer Ado and the harshness of the chorus had some parents worried that it would catch on with their Z世代 (zetto sedai, generation Z) children. The nickname for the cohort of people born in the late-1990s and 2000s landed in eighth spot on the list.

With a new year just over the horizon, a lot of people are ready for some change. Whether those changes end up being positive or negative, though, depends on the words they use. Hopefully, when the 新語・流行語大賞 are announced next year, we’ll be able to confirm that those changes have been positive.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.