Column #50 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, February 19, 2004
“New kanji combos show what's hot in Japan”
Every year in November, two giant stacks of 1,500-page paperbacks resembling big-city telephone books make an appearance in bookstores throughout Japan. “Imidas” and “Gendai Yougo no Kiso Chishiki,” revised annually, catalog and explain terms currently popular in the Japanese media.
Old-timer “Gendai Yougo,” (first published in 1948) and relative newcomer “Imidas” are locked in fierce competition for sales. Entries in these two tomes are arranged into a wide variety of topics, including education, health, economics, sports, entertainment and politics. There is considerable overlap in entries from year to year, but terms are dropped as they disappear from popular use.
Kanji aficionados may be pleased to learn that some interesting new kanji compound words appeared in the latest “Imidas” and “Gendai Yougo,” along with the usual plethora of foreign loanwords written in katakana (e.g., ロウフードダイエト roufuudodaieto “raw food diet” and パウハラ pawa hara “power harassment”). Unfortunately, many of these new kanji entrants are heralds of hard times in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Some compounds were coined to express criminal activity never before seen in Japan. 発電狙い (depart-electric-target, hatsudennerai) was first uttered last June by a group of junior-high and high-school thieves in Osaka to describe their modus operandi: picking the pockets of bleary-eyed train commuters on their way to work. 発電(depart-electric) comes from 始発電車 (first-depart-electric-vehicle, “first morning train,” shihatsudensha).
焼き破り (burning-breaking, yakiyaburi) is a new alternative to lock-picking for breaking and entering Japanese homes. Using a lighter or gas burner, housebreakers make a crack in a glass door so they can break it without making a loud noise.
Shoplifting, while not new to Japan, is on the rise. Books and magazines are particularly liable to find their way into the hands of sticky-fingered shoplifters, and the newly popular term 万引き倒産 (shoplifting-bankruptcy, manbikitousan) describes the fate of some hard-hit bookstores.
Tough economic times in Japan were responsible for the debut of 失望者 (lose-hope-person, shitsubousha), a sad play on the long-standing compound 希望者 (aspire-hope-person, “aspirant,” kibousha). It describes the growing number of qualified but unemployed persons who have given up on finding a job.
Lean times are also affecting drinking habits. 宅飲み (house-drinking, takunomi), as opposed to another new term, 街飲み(town-drinking, gainomi), refers to the burgeoning trend among Japanese, particularly young adults, of staying home and drinking with their friends instead of going out to bars. “Imidas” explains the appeal of this: no need to worry about missing the last train or dressing up, and, of course, it's cheaper.
The new compound 生活改善薬 (lifestyle-improvement-drugs, seikatsukaizenyaku) was coined to describe drugs that promote hair growth in balding men, help nicotine addicts give up smoking and alleviate other maladies. Although overworked Japanese seem to have little trouble falling asleep on trains, many are turning to 睡眠改善薬 (sleep-improvement-drugs, suiminkaizenyaku), now available over the counter, to accomplish the same feat in their futon.
Brand-new kanji compounds like the ones above demonstrate one of the most intriguing aspects of Sino-Japanese characters: their superior ability to be joined together to create new words. This ability is particularly serviceable in our world today, where new terms must continually be created to stay abreast of technological/scientific progress and fast-changing social trends.
Picking up the latest copy of “Imidas” or “Gendai Yougo no Kiso Chishiki,” available throughout the year for a reasonable 2,500 yen, is an excellent way to stay up to the minute on new Japanese words, as well as on the many facets of modern Japanese life reflected in them.
Read detailed explanations of an additional 20 popular new kanji compounds and foreign loanwords.
Have you read the latest Reader Response?