Squid Game, Netflix
Photo: Noh Juhan/NetflixSquid Game S1

These are nine of the most popular buzzwords in Japan in 2021

From Ika Gemu (Squid Game) to maritozzo, here are some of the most popular words that defined Japan this year

Kaila Imada
Written by
Kaila Imada

The beauty of the Japanese language is that there are many simple words and concepts that you never knew you needed in everyday life. Many of these terms cannot be directly translated into English as these unique expressions are often created by linking together several terms into a single phrase. As a result, the Japanese lexicon is constantly shifting, adopting terms from other languages and shaping old words into new meanings.

Every year, Japan releases a list of new buzzwords and phrases that have taken the nation by storm. Called the New Words and Buzzwords Awards, the list is compiled by U-Can, an education company that offers courses on a range of professional skills and qualifications such as language classes. 

This year’s list contains a total of 30 buzzwords. Similar to last year, the list comprises a mix of terms related to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as a dash of fun lingo that has been trending throughout the country. In no particular order, here are some of our favourites.

Squid Game
Photo: Noh Juhan/Netflix

Ika Gemu (Squid Game)

The Korean Netflix show has blown up around the globe, becoming ​​the most watched Netflix series of all time. Known as ‘Ika Gemu’ in Japan, the popularity of the dark thriller has shown us that everyone enjoys a little high-stakes, nail-biting drama – even if there’s a bit of gore.

Usseewa (shut the f*** up)

‘Shut the f*** up’ is not exactly a new term to many, but swear words like this are pretty scarce in Japanese vocabulary. The term usseewa was brought to light thanks to teenage singer Ado who has racked up nearly 200 million views on her anime-style ‘Usseewa’ music video (check it out above). After its 2020 release, the single peaked at number one on the Billboard Japan Hot 100 and other music charts in the country.

Rojo nomi (drinking on the streets)

Unfortunately, much of Japan was under a constant state of emergency for the majority of the year. Restaurants and stores closed early and many venues were told to refrain from selling alcohol. To compensate for the lack of drinking, people were taking their kanpais to the streets, picking up drinks from the konbini and enjoying a beer or two at a park, or just while walking around. 

Mokushoku/masku kaishoku (keep your mask on unless eating)

If you did manage to snag a spot in a restaurant before closing time, you’d have to sit behind plastic barriers and make sure to keep your mask on at all times – unless eating. 

Henikabu (variant)

The word henikabu, meaning variant, was on everyone’s lips in 2021 as the world was hit with the Covid-19 delta variant. The word fukuhanno, meaning side effects, was also added to this year’s list as people compared their different aches and pains after getting vaccinated.


The Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics have come and gone. While there were many memorable moments, the human pictogram performance from the Olympic opening ceremony stole the show. The cool performance showcased a fast-paced reenactment of the 50 Olympic sport pictograms and provided a bit of comic relief during the subdued ceremony.

Eataly Harajuku
Photo: Eataly Harajuku


Whether you’re eating at a café or enjoying a fancy afternoon tea, chances are you’ve come across a maritozzo on the menu. These Italian cream buns have been all the rage as of late, and come in many different flavours and iterations. Plus, they’re just as Instagrammable as they are delicious. 


The SDGs, short for Sustainable Development Goals, is a list of 17 global goals pulled together by the United Nations for a healthier, more sustainable future. The goals range from promoting quality education and climate action, to responsible consumption and production. The SDGs have been heavily promoted in Japan this year with many efforts by the Japanese government to adopt and implement the goals into our everyday lives. In our new series Tokyo Meets the World, we’ve taken a deep dive into the goals with ambassadors to Japan from countries around the globe.

Genda Byodou (gender equality)

While Japan still has a long way to go in closing its gender gap, it's good to know that the issue is trending and that people are looking to educate themselves further. The term also sits at number five on the list of global SDGs established by the UN. Want to get involved? Organisations like FEW Japan are working towards motivating and inspiring women in Japan through various programmes and gatherings.

For the full list of buzzwords, visit here (in Japanese only). Note that the words aren’t ranked in terms of popularity – they’re arranged in Japanese alphabetical order.

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