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Japanese wordplay relies on the nuances of the Japanese language and Japanese script for humorous effect. Double entendres have a rich history in Japanese entertainment (such as in kakekotoba) due to the language's large number of homographs (different meanings for a given spelling) and homophones (different meanings for a given pronunciation).
Kakekotoba (掛詞) or "pivot words" are an early form of Japanese wordplay used in waka poetry, wherein some words represent two homonyms. The presence of multiple meanings within these words allowed poets to impart more meaning into fewer words.
Goroawase (語呂合わせ, "phonetic matching") is an especially common form of Japanese wordplay, wherein homophonous words are associated with a given series of letters, numbers or symbols, in order to associate a new meaning with that series. The new words can be used to express a superstition about certain letters or numbers. More commonly, however, goroawase is used as a mnemonic technique, especially in the memorization of numbers such as dates in history, scientific constants and phone numbers.
Every digit has a set of possible phonetic values, due to the variety of valid Japanese kanji readings (kun'yomi and on'yomi) and English-origin pronunciations for numbers in Japanese. Often, readings are created by taking the standard reading and retaining only the first syllable (for example, roku becomes ro). Goroawase substitutions are well known as mnemonics, notably in the selection of memorable telephone numbers used by companies and the memorization of numbers such as years in the study of history.
Mnemonics are formed by selecting a suitable reading for a given number; the tables below list the most common readings, though other readings are also possible. Variants of readings may be produced through consonant voicing (via a dakuten or handakuten) or gemination (via a sokuon), vowel lengthening (via a chōonpu), or the insertion of the nasal mora n (ん).
|Number||Kun'yomi readings||On'yomi readings||Transliterations from English readings|
|0||maru, ma, wa||rei, re||ō, zero, ze|
|1||hitotsu, hito, hi||ichi, i||wan|
|2||futatsu, fu, futa, ha||ni, ji, aru||tsu, tsū, tū|
|3||mittsu, mi||san, sa, za||su, surī|
|4||yon, yo, yottsu||shi||fō, fā, ho|
|5||itsutsu, itsu, i||go, ko, ga, ka||faibu, faivu|
|6||muttsu, mu||roku, ro, ri, ra, ru, ryū||shikkusu|
|7||nana, nanatsu, na||shichi||sebun, sevun|
|8||yattsu, ya||hachi, ha, ba, pa||eito|
|9||kokonotsu, ko||kyū, ku, gu||nain|
|10||tō, to, ta||ju, ji||ten[a]|
- 16 can be read as "hi-ro", Hiro being a common Japanese given name. 16 is also a common age for anime and manga protagonists (i.e. heroes).
- 26 can be read as "fu-ro" (風呂), meaning "bath". Public baths in Japan have reduced entry fees on the 26th day of every month.
- 29 can be read as "ni-ku" (肉), meaning "meat". Restaurants and grocery stores have special offers on the 29th day of every month.
- 39 can be read as "san-kyū", referring to "thank you" in English.
- 44 can be read as "yo-yo" and is thus a common slang term in the international competitive yo-yo community, which has a strong Japanese presence.
- 109 can be read as "tō-kyū". The 109 department store in Shibuya, Tokyo is often read as "ichi-maru-kyū", but the number 109 was selected as the alternative reading "tō-kyū" is a reference to Tokyu Corporation, the group that owns the building.
- 428 can be read as "shi-bu-ya", referring to the Shibuya area of Tokyo.
- 526 can be read as "ko-ji-ro" in reference to Sasaki Kojiro, a samurai from the Edo period.
- 634 can be read as "mu-sa-shi". The Tokyo Skytree's height was intentionally set at 634 meters so it would sound like Musashi Province, an old name for the area in which the building stands.
- 801 can be read as "ya-o-i" or yaoi, a genre of homoerotic manga typically aimed at women.
- 893 can be read as "ya-ku-za" (やくざ) or "Yakuza". It is traditionally a bad omen for a student to receive this candidate number for an exam.
- 4649 can be read as "yo-ro-shi-ku" (よろしく), meaning "best regards".
1492, the year of European discovery of America, can be read as "i-yo-ku-ni" and appended with "ga mieta" to form the phrase "Alright! I can see land!" (いいよ！国が見えた！). Additionally, "i-yo-ku-ni" itself could simply be interpreted as "alright, country" (いいよ、国). The alternative reading "i-shi-ku-ni" is not typically associated with a particular meaning, but is used to memorize the year.
23564, the length of a sidereal day (23 hours, 56 minutes, 4 seconds), can be read as "ni-san-go-ro-shi", which sounds similar to "nii-san koroshi" (兄さん殺し) or in English, "killing one's older brother".
3.14159265, the first nine digits of pi, can be read as "san-i-shi-i-ko-ku-ni-mu-kou" (産医師異国に向こう), meaning "an obstetrician faces towards a foreign country."
42.19, the length of a marathon course in kilometres, can be read as "shi-ni-i-ku" (死に行く), meaning "to go to die."
Popular culture examples
Anime, manga, and television
- 152 can be read as "hi-ko-ni", meaning "unofficial" (非公認, hikōnin), and is part of the license plate number of the Machine Itashar in Unofficial Sentai Akibaranger.
- 18782 + 18782 = 37564 can be read as "i-ya-na-ya-tsu + i-ya-na-ya-tsu = mi-na-go-ro-shi" (嫌な奴＋嫌な奴＝皆殺し, bad person + bad person = massacre).
- In Initial D, Rin Hojo's Nissan Skyline GT-R R32 has the number 37654 on its license plate, befitting his nickname of "Shinigami".
- In Taiko no Tatsujin, a rhythm game, there is a song called 万戈イム一一ノ十 (成仏2000, Joubutsu 2000) where the lyrics “trois sept cinq six quattre” (3-7-5-6-4 in French) are sung repeatedly.
- 25 can be read as "ni-ko", referring to the character Nico Yazawa from Love Live! School Idol Project, who wears wristband with that number. Cotaro Yazawa, Nico's brother also wear shirt with that number.
- 25252 can be read as "ni-ko-ni-ko-ni", referring to Nico's catchphrase "Nico Nico Ni".
- 315, or "sa-i-go", is used as a transformation code in Kamen Rider 555: Paradise Lost due to being pronounced similarly to "Psyga".
- 39 can be read as "za-ku", referring to the Zaku mecha from the Gundam franchise.
- 428, read as "yo-tsu-ba", can refer to the character Yotsuba Nakano from The Quintessential Quintuplets, who wears T-shirts with that number.
- 4869 can be read as "shi-ya-ro-ku" (しやろく); when "ya" is written small, it becomes "sharoku" (しゃろく), which resembles "Sherlock" (シャーロック, Shārokku). This number is Conan Edogawa's phone PIN and the name of an experimental drug in Case Closed.
- 5, read as "go", can refer to the board game go. In both the manga Hikaru no Go and its anime series adaptation, the go-playing protagonist Hikaru Shindo often wears T-shirts with the number 5 on the front.
- 56 can be read as "go-mu", meaning "rubber" (ゴム, gomu), referring to One Piece protagonist Monkey D. Luffy's elastic abilities.
- 59 can be read as "go-ku" and is sometimes used in reference to Goku from Dragon Ball.
- 63 can be read as "mu-zan" or "miserable", which refers to Muzan Kibutsuji, the main antagonist of Demon Slayer. The official Demon Slayer Twitter account refers to June 3rd as "Muzan Day".
- 723 can be read as "na-tsu-mi" or Natsumi and is commonly used in Sgt. Frog to symbolically refer to the character Natsumi Hinata.
- 819 can be read as "ha-i-kyū" (排球), meaning volleyball. The community around the anime series Haikyu!! considers 19 August (8/19) to be "Haikyu!! Day".
- 86239 can be read as "hachi-roku-ni-san-kyū", and was used in Initial D as the number on the license plate of a Toyota 86. It translates to "thank you, eight-six".
- 89 years can be read as "ya-ku-sai". This is homophonous with the Japanese word for "calamity" (厄災 yakusai), being a fitting age for the JoJolion character Satoru Akefu, who has a calamity related ability.
- 913 can be read as "ka-i-sa", as in Kamen Rider Kaixa, hence it being the transformation activation code.
- An anagram of this is 193, read as "i-ku-sa" (as in Kamen Rider IXA), which serves as the code to activate Rising Mode.
- 10969 can be read as "wan-ō-ku-ro-ku", used by the rock band One Ok Rock.
- 382 can be read as "mi-ya-bi" (みやび), used by Miyavi.
- 39 can be read as "mi-ku", usually in reference to the Vocaloid character Hatsune Miku.
- 610 can be read as "ro-ten" or "rotten", and is often used on merchandise of the rock band ROTTENGRAFFTY.
- 616 can be read as "ro-i-ro", referring to lowiro, the developer and publisher of the rhythm game Arcaea.
- 712 can be read as "na-i-fu" (i.e. knife), and is used in the Shonen Knife album 712.
- 75, read as "na-ko", is used by Nako Yabuki in her Instagram and Twitter handles.
- 96 can be read as "ku-ro" meaning "black", as in 96猫 ("kuroneko"; "black cat"). 96猫 is a popular Japanese singer who covers songs on Niconico, and provides the singing voice of Tsukimi Eiko in Ya Boy Kongming!.
- 193, when read as "i-ku-sa" and interpreted to mean "Iku-san", can refer to Touhou Project character Iku Nagae, or IJN submarine I-19 in Kantai Collection.
- 2424 can be read as Puyo Puyo. This numerical correspondence has been used and referenced ever since the series' debut, and has also been used in various teasers for some of the games. The series celebrated its 24th anniversary in 2015.
- 283 can be read as "tsu-ba-sa" (翼), meaning "wing". This is used for the name of the 283 Production agency in THE iDOLM@STER: Shiny Colors.
- 315 can be read as "sa-i-kō" (最高), meaning "highest", "supreme", or "ultimate". This is used as the name for 315 Production in The Idolmaster SideM, where the idols under the label use "saikō" as a rallying chant.
- 34 is a frequent target of goroawase in the mystery franchise When They Cry, often being the name of the culprit or an accomplice, such as Miyo (三四) in Higurashi When They Cry, Sayo (紗代) in Umineko When They Cry, and Mitsuyo in Ciconia When They Cry.
- 346 can be read as "mi-shi-ro", meaning "beautiful castle". This is used for the name of 346 Production in THE iDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls.
- 51 can be read as "go-ichi". These two numbers are the latter part of "SUDA51", the alias of Goichi Suda.
- 573 can be read as "ko-na-mi" and is often used by Konami; for example, it is used in Konami telephone numbers and as a high score in Konami games, as well as in promotional materials and sometimes as a character name.[clarification needed]
- .59 can be read as "ten-go-ku" (天国), meaning "heaven" (an example being the song ".59" in Beatmania IIDX 2nd Style and Dance Dance Revolution 4thMix).
- 765 can be read as "na-mu-ko" or Namco. Derivatives of this number can be found in dozens of Namco-produced video games. It was also the central studio of The Idolmaster and its sequels.
- 86 can be read as "ha-ru" or HAL. HAL Laboratory often puts this number somewhere in the video games it creates as parts of secrets and easter eggs, most notably in the Kirby series.
- In Pokémon Sword and Shield, all Gym Leaders and some extra characters have a three-digit jersey number that relates to their name, role, or typing they specialize in. For example, Opal has the jersey number 910, which can be read as "kyu-to" or cute, relating to her specialization in Fairy-type Pokémon.
- 15 can be read as "ichi-go" and is commonly used to refer to strawberries ("ichigo"). It can also mean "strawberry face", a term used to describe equipping the front end of a Nissan Silvia (S15) onto another S-chassis car.
- 23 can be read as "ni-san". Car manufacturer Nissan frequently enters cars with the number 23 into motorsports events.
- 2434 can be read as "ni-ji-san-ji", which refers to the virtual YouTuber agency Nijisanji. Some Japanese members of the company use this number in their Twitter handles.
- 2525 can be read as "ni-ko-ni-ko" (ニコニコ) and refers to Niconico, a Japanese online video platform. Its "mylists", which function similarly to lists of bookmarks, are limited to 25 per user.
- 510, read as "go-tō", is used by professional wrestler Hirooki Goto in his Twitter handle.
- 563 can be read as "ko-ro-san" (ころさん); amounts of 563 yen are commonly donated to virtual YouTuber Inugami Korone of Hololive Production, who is sometimes referred to as "Koro-san".
- Hololive founder Motoaki "YAGOO" Tanigo's nickname is occasionally represented with the number 85 ("ya-go") or 850 ("ya-go-ō").
- 69 can be read as "ro-ki", as in Hi69 ("Hiroki"), one of the ring names of professional wrestler Hiroki Tanabe.
- The reading ten is more commonly achieved by reading the decimal point as ten (点), meaning "point".
- Backhaus, Mio; Backhaus, Peter (27 May 2013). "Oyaji gyagu, more than just cheesy puns". The Japan Times. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
- "Goroawase: Japanese Numbers Wordplay". Tofugu. 30 August 2011. Retrieved 13 August 2019.
The idea is that you can basically use any of these sounds associated with any of these letters to create mnemonics to help someone to remember a phone number.
- Ptaszynski, Michal. "PUNDA Numbears: Proposal of Goroawase Generating System for Japanese". Academia.
The reading ri is referred to as the number "six".
- 埼玉県. "生活衛生営業／お風呂の日（毎月26日）は銭湯へ" (in Japanese). Retrieved 29 September 2016.
- Kyodo News, "Tower's developers considered several figures before finally settling on 634", Japan Times, 23 May 2012, p. 2
- "What is the origin of yakuza?". www.sljfaq.org. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
- 弁護士のブログ. "弁護士のブログ - 「18782（嫌な奴）」＋「18782（嫌な奴）」＝「37564（皆殺し）」の波紋――過剰反応では？" (in Japanese). Retrieved 8 February 2023.
- "【嫌な奴+嫌な奴＝皆殺し】とはどういう意味ですか？ - 日本語に関する質問". HiNative (in Japanese). Retrieved 8 February 2023.
- "3/9 Marks Happy "Miku" & "Zaku" Day In Japan, Fan Artists Mark The Occasion". Crunchyroll. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- 315 Production
- "バンダイナムコエンターテインメント公式". Twitter (in Japanese). Retrieved 4 October 2021.
- "Strawberry Fields: A Well-Dressed S-Chassis Slider". Speedhunters. 21 April 2015. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
- "【Baseballお知らせ #1Baseball】10月3日(日)は冠協賛試合『hololive dayBaseball』始球式にはカバー株式会社代表取締役社長「谷郷元昭」が登板いたします". Twitter (in Japanese). Retrieved 4 October 2021.