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Sanmitsu” — the “Three Cs” approach to preventing COVID-19 infection by avoiding closed spaces, crowds and close-contact situations — was chosen Tuesday as Japan’s buzzword of the year.

With the novel coronavirus pandemic dominating everyday lives, words that made the top 10 were largely related to the virus. They included:

  • Abenomask,” which literally means “Abe’s mask” and describes one of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s signature COVID-19 policies of distributing two cloth masks per household as stores across the nation faced a shortage
  • Amabie,” a mythical sea creature that first appeared in the popular consciousness back in the Edo Period (1603-1868) in Kumamoto Prefecture, which is said to predict both a rich harvest and a pandemic
  • “Go To campaign,” which refers to a series of government programs intended to minimize and revitalize the economy amid impacts of the pandemic, especially in the hard-hit tourism, food and entertainment sectors

The buzzwords, selected annually by publishing house Jiyukokuminsha, provide a unique insight into the nation’s social trends, as well as the political, business and sports news of the year.

The term sanmitsu, awarded the top prize, was popularized by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike who used it frequently to remind the public to practice social distancing.

At the ceremony, linguist and selection committee member Hideho Kindaichi said the phrase embodied a linguistic trick specific to the Japanese language, while simplifying the complexity of avoiding situations that could otherwise heighten the risk of COVID-19 infection.

“Apparently this catchphrase has had a huge impact (on our lives). … It has raised the public’s awareness of potential risks and therefore helped (us) proceed with implementing measures to curb further viral transmission,” said Koike, who joined the ceremony via a live video stream from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

The governor said she was hopeful the selection of this year’s top buzzword would serve as a reminder to support efforts to prevent the virus from spreading further.

'Sanmitsu' is revealed as buzzword of the year on Tuesday in Tokyo. | KYODO
‘Sanmitsu’ is revealed as buzzword of the year on Tuesday in Tokyo. | KYODO

This wasn’t Koike’s first victory. She also won the top award in 2005 when, as an environment minister, she spearheaded the “Cool Biz” campaign encouraging people to wear lighter, more casual work wear in the summer to reduce the use of air conditioning and cut emissions.

Other terms that made the top 10 list included the manga series “Kimetsu no Yaiba,” which became a run-away box office hit this fall. Titled “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train” in English, the big-screen anime version attracted an audience of more than 20 million.

“Atsu-mori,” short for the game Atsumare Dobutsu no Mori (Animal Crossing: New Horizons) created by Nintendo, also made the list. It became widely popular and went viral on social media during the state of emergency in April and May, as well as under lockdowns around the globe.

Competition organizers speculated that if the pandemic hadn’t forced Japan to postpone the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, this year’s buzzwords would likely have been inspired by the sporting extravaganza.

The winners were chosen based on readers’ answers to a questionnaire included with an annually published encyclopedia explaining current news events.

The annual year-end contest has been held since 1984.


The top 10 buzzword candidates

Ai no Fujichaku (愛の不時着)

“Ai no Fujichaku” (“Crash Landing on You”) is a Netflix-produced South Korean drama series, which enjoyed huge popularity at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

Ranking in Netflix’s Top 10 most watched content for weeks, the romantic comedy revolves around Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin), the high-class heiress of a financial conglomerate, and North Korean military officer Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin).

While its positive portrayal of North Korea spurred discussion, the cast and unique plot of the drama — a South Korean paraglider blown off course into North Korea — swayed Japanese viewers, offering them a fantasy that they could escape into during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The drama’s popularity, along with the rising fame of K-pop groups such as BTS and Blackpink, has contributed to a fresh wave of Korean pop culture appreciation in Japan.


Atsu-mori (あつ森)

“Atsu-mori,” short for Atsumare Dobutsu no Mori, is the latest installment in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing game series. It became popular and went viral on social media during the state of emergency in Japan as well during lockdowns around the globe.

Introduced as Animal Crossing: New Horizons in English, the game topped 5 million downloads in the first months after it hit the stores, and is expected to become the biggest hit of its series.

The game immerses players in a fluffy world populated by people and animals. The game, the fifth main Animal Crossing title, enables people to virtually visit the islands of their friends and family, which can also be personalised for individual preferences.

Perhaps because the structure of the game itself is simple, it has allowed people to experience something approaching normality while staying at home, which may be one reason behind its popularity.


Abenomask (アベノマスク)

“Abenomask,” which literally means “Abe’s mask,” is a name that was bestowed upon the cloth face masks distributed to every household by order of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a time when people were struggling to obtain masks elsewhere.

The name is a play on “Abenomics,” a series of measures Abe introduced to reignite Japan’s economy.

The compact face coverings were greeted with mockery on social media and elsewhere after some arrived in people’s post boxes complete with stains and insects, while many households received them late — well after disposable masks became available again.


Amabie (アマビエ)

Amabie is an obscure, mythical, mermaid-like being believed to prophesize both harvests and epidemics. It became an unlikely symbol of national unity this year in the face of COVID-19.

Depicted as having long hair, a beak, three legs and scales from the neck down, the yōkai — supernatural monsters and apparitions popularized through Japanese legends and folklore — inundated social media with its likeness and has been featured on countless items of merchandise and advertisements.

Netizens began posting drawings, sculptures, cosplay photos and other interpretations of amabie on social media under various hashtags including #amabiechallenge. The health ministry has promoted the monster to raise awareness of the dangers of the pandemic, while the creature has been featured on merchandise including craft beer, snacks, accessories, amulets and apparel.


Onrain marumaru (オンライン○○)

A whole slew of activities that can be held online amid the coronavirus pandemic gained popularity this year, giving rise to the phrase “onrain marumaru” or “online something something.”

One of the activities that went online was drinking parties among friends, family and colleagues, with online video apps connecting participants.

Other activities to go online during the pandemic have included job interviews, business meetings and medical consultations.


‘Kimetsu no Yaiba’ (鬼滅の刃)

The manga series “Kimetsu no Yaiba” (“Demon Slayer”) was a big hit this year, with comic book sales topping 100 million copies during its publication from 2016 to 2020. It surpassed the popular “One Piece” series which had been the most read manga in Japan.

Set in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), the story follows a journey of a young boy who fights demons to save his cursed younger sister.

This dark fantasy series was made into an animated film this year, which brought more than 20 million people to movie theaters amid the pandemic. Despite some of its graphic contents, the manga and the animated film has attracted both younger and older fans.


Go To campaign (GoToキャンペーン)

The Go To campaign is a series of government initiatives aimed at revitalizing the economy impacted by the pandemic, especially in the areas of tourism, food, and entertainment.

While the country closed its borders to overseas tourists, the government sought to boost domestic travel, restaurants and events.

The campaign comprises Go To Travel, for tourism, Go To Eat, promoting restaurants and bars, and Go To Event, for event organizers.

The Go To Travel campaign has offered discounts on hotels plus alongside coupons travelers can spend at their destination on food and souvenirs among other things.


Sanmitsu (3密)

Sanmitsu” refers to the “three Cs” approach to the pandemic: avoiding closed spaces, crowds and close-contact situations.

The central government started using the phrase as a way to raise awareness of the need for social distancing amid the pandemic.

But it became popular after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike began using it frequently. When Koike addressed a herd of reporters, giving voice to the phrase, her comments went viral.


Solo camp (ソロキャンプ)

Solo camp, or going camping alone as opposed to with a group of people, grew in popularity as one of the leisure activities people could do while maintaining social distancing.

Camping sites started luring solo campers and outdoor shops were stocked up with products for them, such as small gas burners, barbeque grills and tents.


Fuwa-chan (フワちゃん)

YouTuber Fuwa-chan became a hit with her YouTube channel “Fuwa-chan TV,” which has more than 750,000 subscribers.

Known for her colorful tank top bikini and shorts, the comedian has steadily been gaining popularity over the past few years but went viral on social media after former AKB48 member Rino Sashihara introduced her on TV in 2019 as a comedian who she believed would become a smash hit.

The 27-year-old, who also speaks English and Chinese, appeared in a video for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in August, speaking in English about the need to maintain social distancing.

(Additional research by Eriko Yamakuma)

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