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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
|Number||Possible Japanese readings|
|0||rei, zero, wa, maru, o|
|1||ichi, i, wan|
|2||ni, ji, fu, bu, pu, tsū|
|3||san, sa, za, mitsu, mi|
|4||yon, yo, shi, fō|
|6||roku, ro, ru, ra, mu|
|7||shichi, nana, na|
|8||hachi, ha, ba, ya|
|9||kyū, ku, gu|
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.
- ba na na (“banana”)Answer: 87 or 877
- ku sa i (“stinky”)Answer: 931
- mu shi ba (“tooth cavity”)Answer: 648shi bu ya (an area in Tokyo)Answer: 428shi ni na (“die!”)Answer: 427
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.
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”).
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:
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!
Sometimes people will use goro awase to create a stylish nickname, pen name, or Internet name:
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.
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”):
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: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!
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:
- 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.
- 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!
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:
- Goroawase: Japanese Numbers Wordplay (Tofugu)
- Japanese wordplay (Wikipedia)
- Goroawase Number (TV Tropes)
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!