COVID-19: Twelve Japanese phrases you need to know

October 5, 2020
Dentsu Public Relations Global Communications Team

With many countries affected by COVID-19 having adopted radical measures to contain the virus, the apparent relative success of Japan’s comparatively soft-touch approach, which eschewed hard lockdowns and business restrictions in favor of trusting the compliance of the general public, has been attracting attention from around the world. When seeking to understand the discourse surrounding this country’s handling of the crisis, the new vocabulary that has quickly sprung up around it can provide some valuable insights.


新型コロナウイルス/shin-gata corona uirus (novel coronavirus)

While English-language media around the world quickly adopted the World Health Organization’s official name of COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease 2019) following its announcement in early February, for the most part Japanese media have stuck with shin-gata corona uirus (novel coronavirus) following the use of shin-gata haien (novel pneumonia) earlier in the pandemic. In many cases (including some of the compounds introduced below), this is shortened simply to “corona.” While many businesses have been understandably loath to explicitly reference the disease itself even in relation to products and services clearly launched in response to the pandemic, others have pluckily embraced the term, offering corona waribiki (“corona discounts”), corona wake-ari (“corona-related surplus”) stock and more. Some restaurants offering katsu deep-fried cutlets leveraged the menu item’s phonetic similarity to the Japanese word for “win” (also katsu) with the sales-pitch-meets-rallying-cry corona ni katsu (equal parts “cutlets against corona” and “triumph over corona”).


コロナ禍/corona-ka (corona crisis)

Sometimes used in tandem with コロナショック (corona shokku, “corona shock”), which harks back to historic terms like the oil shocks of the 1970s and the 2007/8 Global Financial Crisis (often referred to in Japanese as the “Lehman shock”). Though the term is by now well established, the unfamiliar usage of the character 禍 did cause some confusion, with many social media users quipping on its visual similarity to 鍋 (nabe, “saucepan”), and some posts and articles mistakenly using another similar-looking character, 渦 (uzu, “spiral”).


3つの密/mittsu no mitsu (the three Cs)

The “three Cs” prescribed by the Japanese authorities as situations to avoid in order to curb the risk of viral transmission—closed spaces, crowding, and close-contact settings. First unveiled in mid-March by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), the term is often shortened to 3密 (san mitsu). Naturally the need to steer clear of such circumstances has had tremendous ramifications, not just for businesses such as restaurants, cinemas, and event spaces, but also from a communications perspective, as conventional press conferences and interviews are forced to move online or at least observe strict social distancing protocols.


濃厚接触/nōkō sesshoku (close contact)

Another new addition to the popular lexicon—pre-pandemic, nōkō (which usually carries a meaning akin to “rich” or “dense”) was more closely associated with particularly indulgent desserts and dishes than with epidemiology. In the case of COVID-19, “close contact” is defined as having been at a distance of 1m or less to a confirmed carrier for a period of 15 minutes or more.


オーバーシュート/ōbāshūto (overshoot)

Throughout the earlier stages of the pandemic, Japan’s public health policy was designed to avoid “overshoot,” an explosive increase in the number of confirmed cases. On April 1, this was clarified by public health expert Shigeru Omi, chair of the government’s advisory panel on policy during the pandemic, as “an order-of-magnitude increase within a two-to-three day period.”


自粛/jishuku (self restraint)

While many countries around the world resorted to hard lockdowns and mandatory business closures to contain the spread of the virus, Japan has relied instead upon the judgment of the broader population. During the usually bustling Golden Week vacation and other holidays, including those introduced to mark what would have been the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, the slogan “Stay Home” was used to dissuade any non-essential, non-urgent (fuyō, fukyū) trips outside the home. Most annual events and festivals were called off, and in the spring most parks banned the cherry blossom-viewing picnics and gatherings that are usually such a staple of the season. As in other markets, this unprecedented shift in consumer behavior has brought various business and communications responses designed to try and provide value and enjoyment even to those stuck at home, from bargain takeout and delivery dining options (which also gave a boost to many restaurants impacted by the pandemic) to online streaming of cancelled live events and festivals, and themed backdrops for people to use in work or social exchanges over video messaging apps.


休校要請/kyūkō yōsei (school closure request)

The first sweeping directive issued by the government at the end of February, strongly requesting suspension of classes at all elementary, middle, high, and special-needs schools nationwide, this request also provided the impetus for numerous companies to expand opportunities for staff who would otherwise be left without childcare options to work from home. Some companies have also helped children keep up with their schoolwork by releasing free study drills, uploading educational videos, and helping students keep up a regular daily routine while taking online classes. One business helped ease parents’ anxieties by providing free devices to monitor their children’s activities.


休業要請/kyūgyō yōsei (business suspension request)

The business equivalent of jishuku, the government stopped short of ordering businesses—including bars, restaurants, gyms, and live venues, among others—to close, instead issuing a strong request and for the most part leaving things to establishments’ own civic mindedness. For establishments that refused to comply, however, local authorities had the scope to upgrade this “request” to a shiji (directive), with the power to publicly name and shame individual businesses.


不要不急の外出/fuyō, fukyū no gaishutsu (non-essential, non-urgent outings)

While there were no hard & fast restrictions of the “one essential outing a day” variety imposed in many other countries, a recurring theme in the early stages of the pandemic was the need to avoid non-essential or non-urgent trips outside the home. Throughout March, many municipalities used their neighborhood-wide public address systems to urge residents’ cooperation in containing the virus by limiting such non-essential movements.


ウィズコロナ (with corona)

From early June, as the government announced an end to the nation’s seven-week state of emergency and the kyūgyō yōsei was relaxed for more businesses, including theaters, cinemas and gyms, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike shifted the focus of messaging from containment to coexistence, explaining that hygiene precautions and social distancing measures would be part of the new normal for some time to come.


コロナ疲れ/corona zukare (corona fatigue)

As relentless worrying news coverage has taken its toll, and with even workers who were initially excited to be able to work from home growing weary of their unchanging surroundings, many have complained of physical and mental exhaustion. This has been an important factor for businesses to be aware of as they try to balance various imperatives from an operational, public health, and employee wellbeing perspective.


コロナ太り/corona butori (corona weight gain)

During the pandemic, between working and studying from home, gym closures, and abstinence from weekend excursions, many have been leading a more sedentary existence. Coupled with comfort eating to tackle the inevitable mental stress, for many this has resulted in fears of weight gain. This in turn has expanded opportunities for fitness bloggers on YouTube and Instagram, while outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and even gardening have seen a surge in popularity.


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