Japanese Numbers, Dates, and Wordplay

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November 4th is considered "Nice Butt Day" - here we see Japan's popular "Butt Detective" celebrating it
If you browse Japanese sites on November 1st, you’ll probably see lots more dog photos than usual. Similarly, if you browse Japanese sites on November 4th, you’ll suddenly see lots of butt pictures everywhere. That’s because November 1st is considered “Dog Day” and November 4th is considered “Nice Butt Day”.

But why dogs? Why butts? And why these exact days? The answer lies in a form of Japanese wordplay known as goro awase.

In this article, we’ll briefly look at how numerical goro awase works, and how it’s used throughout Japanese culture. We’ll also look at goro awase in Japanese games, and how translators struggle to make it work in English.

What is Goro Awase?

The Japanese term goro awase (pronounced “goh roh ah wah seh”) means something like “mixing and matching the way stuff sounds”. In simple terms, goro awase is a way of playing with the Japanese language to spell words in alternate ways.

Personal tip: If you see the word goro awase so much in this article that it starts to lose all meaning, replace it with “number wordplay” or just “numberplay” in your head.

Goro awase is often used as a memorization technique, but it’s also used in entertainment and just for fun. Goro awase is everywhere – on billboards, on television commercials, in games, in business names, in nicknames… Basically, if you step foot in Japan, you’ll be surrounded by goro awase immediately.

In particular, if you’ve ever played a Japanese game, read Japanese manga, watched a Japanese TV show, or anything else like that, you’ve probably already encountered numerical goro awase wordplay at some point, without ever realizing it. So let’s focus on that topic specifically.

Numbers and Goro Awase

Take the number 07892. In English, you’d normally read it out loud as “zero seven eight nine two”… or you could read it as a more comical “oh, seven ate nine, too”. Japanese goro awase is kind of like that, just more complex. Here’s how it works.


Japanese numerical goro awase wordplay is why Nissan and the number "23" are closely linked
First, many characters in the Japanese language have multiple possible readings.

As a simplified example, the character 二, which means “two”, can be read as ni or ji, depending on the situation. Similarly, the character 三, which means “three”, can be read as san or mi.

So, using goro awase, the name “Nissan” can be represented with the number “23”, because ni is one possible reading for “2”, and san is one possible reading for “3”.

Of course, you could use “23” to represent something else too. For example, “23” could represent the name “Jimmy”, because ji is a possible reading for “2” and mi is a possible reading for “3”.


With that quick explanation out of the way, here are some Japanese readings for the numbers 0 through 10:

NumberPossible Japanese readings
0rei, zero, wa, maru, o
1ichi, i, wan
2ni, ji, fu, bu, pu, tsū
3san, sa, za, mitsu, mi
4yon, yo, shi, fō
5go, ko
6roku, ro, ru, ra, mu
7shichi, nana, na
8hachi, ha, ba, ya
9kyū, ku, gu
10tō, jū

I’ve simplified the list above – there are actually many more possible readings for each number. And with so many possibilities to choose from, goro awase allows you to write all kinds of stuff in Japanese with numbers alone.

For a stronger grasp of goro awase, try using the list above to convert the following Japanese words into numbers!

  • ba na na (“banana”)
    Answer: 87 or 877
  • ku sa i (“stinky”)
    Answer: 931
  • mu shi ba (“tooth cavity”)
    Answer: 648
  • shi bu ya (an area in Tokyo)
    Answer: 428
  • shi ni na (“die!”)
    Answer: 427

Goro Awase and Phone Numbers

Everywhere you look in Japan, you’ll find goro awase-filled advertisements. This is because goro awase can turn phone numbers into catchy, memorable phrases:

Of course, this phone number thing isn’t exactly unique to Japan – we do something similar in English:

Still, phone number goro awase is fundamentally different – it plays with the Japanese language itself, while English phonewords play with the standard phone keypad layout.

Goro Awase as a Learning Device

In school, you probably learned special phrases to memorize stuff – things like:

  • “Every Good Boy Does Fine” – for learning to read sheet music
  • “SOH-CAH-TOA” – for learning basic trigonometry
  • “My Very Excited Mettaton Just Sold Undyne Nachos” – for remembering the planets of the solar system

Japanese goro awase is sometimes used as a memorization technique too, especially when numbers are involved:

As an example, let’s say you wanted to memorize the years a bunch of games were released. Pac-Man was released in 1980, so a good goro awase to use would be iku hamaru (“go get addicted”).

Goro Awase and Dates

You know how English-speaking Star Wars fans call May the 4th “Star Wars Day” because it sounds like “may the Force (be with you)”? Japanese goro awase can do something similar with dates, but with much more flexibility:

This numerical wordplay also explains the reasoning behind “Dog Day” and “Nice Butt Day”:

Just for fun, some other goro awase-based days include:

  • March 3 – Ear Day
  • March 4 – Sewing Machine Day
  • April 4 – Yo-Yo Day
  • April 6 – White Day
  • April 18 – Good Teeth Day
  • May 2 – Traffic Day
  • May 3 – Garbage Day
  • May 18 – Word Day
  • July 8 – Pick-Up Artist Day
  • August 2 – Underwear Day
  • August 2 – Herb Day
  • August 7 – Banana Day
  • September 6 – Black Day
  • October 4 – Sardine Day
  • November 3 – Good Birthing Day

These are just a few examples I’ve heard of. I’m sure there are many more, including a bunch of good ones that nobody has even thought up yet!

Goro Awase and Names

Sometimes people will use goro awase to create a stylish nickname, pen name, or Internet name:

Goro Awase in Games

As we’ve seen, number-based goro awase wordplay is used a lot in Japanese. It appears in Japanese video games all the time too, in ways you might not have noticed before.


Golbez in Final Fantasy IV

For most of Final Fantasy IV – and during a flashback in the sequel – Golbez is the main villain. In both games, his evil self has 2943 HP, which is goro awase for nikushimi (“hatred”).

After Golbez is freed from his evil brainwashing, his HP changes to (and remains at) 2971, which is goro awase for tsugunai (“atonement”):


Konami

Using goro awase, the number “573” can be read as “ko na mi”. This is why you’ll see the number 573 all the time in official Konami games, documents, websites, and more:


Other Examples

Of course, there are many more instances of goro awase in Japanese games. If you come across any others, let me know – I’d like to update this section from time to time with even more examples!

Goro Awase and Translation

As we’ve seen in other articles, wordplay rarely works in a straightforward translation – it usually requires localization instead.

But, as a translator, what happens when you run into goro awase wordplay? How do you localize something that’s so deeply tied to the Japanese language?

Every case is different, but there are two main solutions that I’ve seen to this problem:

  1. Drop the wordplay entirely and/or make up something completely new. If there’s no way to make it work, then there’s no way to make it work. Forcing an unworkable joke can pull the audience out of the moment due to confusion or distraction.
  2. Don’t even localize the wordplay. Instead, you temporarily break the hidden wall between translator and audience and explain how the joke works in Japanese. I usually see this when the wordplay is a key part of whatever’s being talked about.

Here are some examples of Solution #2 in action:

Neither method of dealing with goro awase is ideal – a lot gets lost either way. In fact, goro awase is a probably good example of something that’s almost untranslatable.

With all that said, I’m sure there have been some rare situations in which everything aligned just right, resulting in a nice localization of goro awase wordplay. If you know any such examples, definitely let me know!

Final Thoughts

Goro awase wordplay isn’t something they teach heavily in Japanese language classes – most of it is just stuff you pick up over time. It’s a fun topic to explore, though, and it can even be pretty useful. So if you’d like to learn more, here are some good resources:

Trying to translate foreign jokes and wordplay is always difficult, and trying to explain how they work can be even harder. Even so, I hope this explanation of goro awase makes some sense, even if you don’t know any Japanese at all. It’s certainly a lot to take in all at once.

So, until next time, 3476!


If you liked this look at how wordplay works in Japanese stuff, check out these articles too!

51 Comments
  1. Anime fan subs and fan translated manga often go the “explain Japanese” route when it comes to word plays, and it’s done in a style much like two final screenshots. It’d be tough to do in an anime dub or video game voiceover, though. Editor notes and parentheticals can be digested pretty naturally, I think, while having a character explain Japanese in expository fashion with the actor matching original lip flaps is a little much.

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    1. “Editor notes and parentheticals can be digested pretty naturally, I think, while having a character explain Japanese in expository fashion with the actor matching original lip flaps is a little much.”

      I have never really had much of a problem with it if the dub actor has to explain it that way. It really comes down to preference.

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      1. When it comes to dubs, I put a strong preference on the scripts sounding like real life dialogue, even if that means deviating significantly from the source material. Personally I think there are too many barriers and conflicting priorities in the localization process to make such a thing a routine reality for me, so I’m not really the in target audience for dubs, at least in the way that has become industry standard. As you say: preference.

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        1. I agree that having good dialogue is preferable. I think you could easily have a dub with an on-screen note to explain wordplay if it were totally necessary.

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          1. I agree with you, MasterMarkus, especially since I prefer dubs myself.

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  2. What about the Idolmaster? 765 productions,Na Mu Ko.

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    1. Namco uses that number a lot, and since merging with Bandai they also sometimes use 876 (Ba-Na-Mu, apparently from contracting “Bandai Namco” to “BaNam”). Bandai Namco’s official YouTube channel is 876 TV, and the Hot Scramble Gundam’s model number is BN-876.

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      1. Pac-Man is has the maximum ghost value be 7650 points, which is the same reference.

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        1. Correction, Pac-Mania.

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    2. Idolmaster does this with all of their production names! SideM’s 315/sa-i-ko production is used in a ton of the group songs as a “we’re the best!” unifying cry, and Shiny Colors’ 283 tsu-ba-sa production ties in with the wing and feather motifs of their game. And then the main series antagonists are all from 961/ku-ro-i production… It’s a bit goofy, but part of the series charm.

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  3. They did this in Ocarina of Time. The 231 code was 兄さん一番 in Japanese.

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    1. Would be cool to see a Japanese game that uses numbers (with furigana). Some sort of number puzzle (XD)

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    2. Cool thanks you just blew my mind a little. In hindsight, *of course* “23 is number 1” sounds like an awkward attempt at translating wordplay, but despite already knowing about goro awase it never even crossed my mind until just now. I guess props to the original translation team, not only did their choice clearly work perfectly fine, but how many of us still have that phrase memorized 20+ years later?

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      1. absolutelynotkareem

        When I first happened across that in 1999, I thought it was a reference to how well-regarded Michael Jordan was at the time; his most well-known NBA number was 23 of course.

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  4. A Pokemon manga, Diamond and Pearl Adventure!, did something like this with a character’s name. Unnamed until the final volume, a recurring comic relief baddie was recognizable by his swollen butt. He eventually reveals that his name in his organization is K-2, which has the joke that it’s similar to a word for “butt”.
    In English, he gives his code name as “B-2”, and the joke is that it sounds like “booty”.

    …well, they tried.

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    1. A-55 would have worked.

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  5. There’s also Ryukishi07 (rei na) – a reference to FFV’s Lenna/Reina. The device shows up within his works as well: the character of Takano Miyo from Higurashi is associated with the number 34 (mi yo), for instance. This wordplay is expanded further by a related character in a later work named Lambdadelta – λδ, or 34 in Greek numerals.

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  6. It took me a while a while to realize why the Hatsune Miku/Vocaloid fan community uses the number 39 for everything. Eventually, I thought to try reading the digits in Japanese: *san kyuu*. And I went “Ohhh…”

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    1. Also *mi ku*, which I wouldn’t have known without that chart up there.

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      1. …wait a minute. Hatsune Miku’s birthday is August 31. 8/31. 31+8=39. Hahahahaha, that was right under our noses this whole time!

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  7. Speaking of 999 and goro awase, the “9 = Q” twist works in both Japanese and English.

    In Japanese, 9 can be pronounced “kyuu”, whereas in English, the lowercase letter q looks like a 9.

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    1. IIRC, they still needed to rework it a bit in the localization; in Japanese the rules were explained over the intercom, which wouldn’t work in English because “q” doesn’t SOUND like “9”, so in English they had the intercom tell the characters to read the instructions that had been slipped into their pockets.

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      1. Describing ‘9’ as a “curly cue” might work. That might seem esoteric, but, from what I understand, 999 is a game revolving around puzzles and riddles so it might not be too big an issue.

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    2. And speaking of Zero Escape in general:

      In Virtue’s Last Reward, there are robots named GAULEMs, and the characters meet one in particular. The characters just start calling him GAULEM while speaking to him, because, you know, he’s a GAULEM, but he insists to call him by his name, GTM-CM-G-OLM. Of course, they just go, “G-OLM, so… golem,” and he’s like “Touché.” In the original Japanese, though, his name is GLTM-KM506, because 506 can be read as goremu. A bit ruder than the localized version, perhaps, because there are so many other ways they could pronounce it to respect his wishes.

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  8. Uchu Sentai Kyuranger’s pink ranger was named Raptor 283. She could fly. Take a good guess without looking it up what 283 means.

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  9. I never knew the words in phone numbers were based on three-letters-per-number keypads. I always thought it was a joke, or that American phone numbers had letters in them for some reason.

    There’s an insurance company called Hastings Direct whose phone number I still remember after all these years because they sung it as a jingle: “oh-eight hundred-double nine, ten sixty-six.” It’s how I remember that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.

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  10. As for actual goro awase, in Soul Eater, the number used to contact Death is 4242564 (shini shini goroshi), which means “die die kill.”

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  11. * Adding on to the “niku”, adding Friday or kinyobi in Japanese, equals kin niku. Because of that, every 29th in a month that falls on Friday is Kinnikuman day, a day celebrating Yudetamago’s classic manga franchise.
    * The Marvel image for National Nice Butt Day is especially appropiate considering that is “America’s ass”
    * Just noticed that the Piccolo Day screenshot was your translation!

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  12. I’m pretty sure the “hayaku iku ossan” truck went viral because of the sexual connotation.

    Yes, it literally means “the old man who goes quickly”, but the joke might come across better if it were translated as “the old man who comes quickly”.. 🙂

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  13. As far as I can tell that Hot Hints commercial just says “It’s fast, fun, and a dollar sixty-five a minute” with there being a HARD cut right before that price. Some people in the Youtube comments figure the last word was going to be “free”, but whatever it was, it was clearly clumsily changed in editing.

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  14. One of my favorite examples of goroawase is a phrase that has permanently lodged an absolutely pointless bit of trivia in my head. The Earth does a full spin around its axis every 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds. How do I remember this? “Ni san go ro shi”. Needless to say, killing your older brother because you can’t remember something so useless is an arresting image.

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  15. In Xak II: Rising of the Redmoon, you start the game off with 1870 gold. I forgot what 1870 reads again, but it had to do with the game’s main developer, Hideyuki Yanagishima (concept & game design, graphic design, art director, graphics, executive producer).

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    1. I looked into it real quick and couldn’t find any real info, except that he might’ve sometimes gone by Hiyana, which would match “187”. I dunno if the 0 has a meaning or if it’s just to make the number actually useful when you start the game.

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  16. That confirmed my suspicion on why Japanese Yakuza fans decided to designate May 6th as Goro (Majima)’s Day. I never knew numberplay went so deep over there though.

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    1. Here’s another numberplay I know of: the navigator reploid in Megaman X Command Mission has a pair of 7s on her chestplate. Her name, of course, is Nana.

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  17. A good example of a translation that worked perfectly is actually one you already mentioned in the article: Gitaroo Man!
    The main character’s name is U-1 in both versions, but in the English voiceacting it’s pronounced like the English name “Ewan” instead of “Yuichi”.
    Nice case of stuff just coincidentally working out!

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  18. There is a TON of this kind of thing in One Piece, particularly in the letter’s column in the graphic novels where readers submit ideas for characters birthdays. Probably like 90% of the birthdays are these kind of number puns. And the English editions will usually just go the route of having an editor’s note explain it.

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  19. Oh! I actually knew about this prior to this article, but I didn’t know what it was called. When I was younger, I used to be really into the Bleach manga. The main character (Ichigo) has red hair, and because of that, he has the nickname “strawberry”. He’s also 15 years old, and the number 15 shows up a lot in the various mid-chapter artworks. I’m willing to bet all of that wordplay is a lot more obvious in the Japanese version… Related, apparently Ichigo naturally has black hair, but he bleached it to be red, hence the name of the… entire series… But now I’m wondering if that was maybe added by the localization to make the “strawberry” nickname work in English while also sort of explaining the name of the series… Or maybe it was always like that and the fact he has red hair just makes the nickname work regardless (Even though you lose the significance of “15” being everywhere, besides that being the character’s age). It wasn’t until a long time after learning a few Japanese numbers that I realized that 15 could be read as “Ichigo”, and it took me even longer until I learned that “Ichigo” can mean “strawberry”! It’s a surprisingly layered bit of wordplay when you really break down everything about the character that is based on it. xD

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  20. Regarding the Konami example, I know one of their arcade boards based on the PS1’s hardware was called “System 573”.

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  21. Uncanny Japan had a pretty interesting episode on this very topic!
    https://www.uncannyjapan.com/episode-12-tricky-numbers-goro-awase/

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  22. I first found out about goroawase from the Super Pitfall II prototype – the unreleased translation of Atlantis no Nazo.

    There’s a level that has the goroawase Nagoya, telling you how many times to bomb each pyramid. The Super Pitfall II prototype simply changes the text to 758.

    http://wecmuseum.org/index.php?title=The_Mystery_of_Atlantis#Cancelled_Nintendo_Entertainment_System_version

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    1. Apparently the domain name for that site expired today?

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  23. Can’t forget Pi Day (3 14) as a western example.

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    1. Oh and 9mm Day (9×19). Though it really that should be 9mm week since there’s 9×17 (.380 ACP) 9×18 (9mm Makarov), 9×19 (9mm Luger/Parabellum/NATO), 9×20 (9mm Browning Long), 9×21 (9×21 IMI), 9×22 (9mm Japanese Revolver. Also 9mm P.A.K., though that one isn’t really a firearms cartridge), 9×23 (9mm Bergmann AKA 9mm Largo and the separate, much newer, 9mm Winchester), though only the first three are made in any serious quantity now days.

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  24. 69 (rokku) popped up a few times in the Rockman (Mega Man) series, andmany of the classic enemy names contain wordplays and puns, examples including “Metall K-1000” (a train enemy. 1000 = sen, and keisen = “track”), “Plasma±” (Purazuma Purasumainasu) and “V” (buoy).

    Anyone knows if the names CWU-01P, M-445, Hirarian 427, SRU-21/P, and CFN-24 have a meaning?

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  25. Interesting! I remember hearing about this phenomenon from the One Piece fanmail page–Oda would respond to questions about characters’ birthdays by responding with goofy puns. One of the translators didn’t bother explaining this at all, leading me to first think Oda was joking by throwing out pointless numbers, then when I was older wonder if certain numbers had connotations in Japanese. Eventually, one of the other translators threw the collective readership a bone and explained numbers could be read in various ways, with various connotations. It opens up for a lot of cool and fun wordplay potential, so it’s really nice to get to see it explained more in detail.

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  26. I’ve always found this interesting since I learned about it x3 Another example: The Pokemon gym leaders in Sword/Shield all have various numbers associated with them, based on this kind of wordplay, related to the Pokemon type in some way: for example Milo, the Grass leader, is 831 – yasai (vegetables) and Nessa, the Water leader is 049 – oyogu (swim), the ones revealed before release explained here: https://twitter.com/canicuIa/status/1148243349469454336

    Now that the game is out (well, technically since the images were leaked) we also know the other numbers: 187 (Fire), 910 (Fairy), 188 (Rock), 361 (Ice), 241 (Dragon) and 061 (Dark), anyone have any idea for these?

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    1. Fairy is probably ku-i-z(ero) as the gym leader is specialized in quizzes
      Dragon is Tsu-Yo-I (strong)
      Ice is Sa-Mu-I (cold)

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  27. Browsing pixiv and the Japanese side of twitter, I have seen goro awase. When there are specific day dedied to something like a pokémon, several people will draw it and add the goro awase date as a tag to the picture. Eevee was mentionned but I know Vulpix have its own day as well.

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  28. This is also why modern Puyo Puyo games always have exactly 24 playable characters, and why 2424 is a common placeholder high score (when the high score on an unplayed mode/game isn’t just 0). 24 can be read as “puyo”, and so it’s a recurring number throughout the series. I think it’s even the price of some things that can be bought from shops in some of the games.

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