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Sontaku (忖度) is a concept in Japanese that could be translated as "surmising the feelings of others" or "acting upon the implicit desires of another person." This term implies an ability to assess how others are feeling, and to respond accordingly. The character "忖" signifies something like "guess" and "度" implies something akin to "extent."[1][2] Although this word has ancient origins, it was not until 2017 that it became widely used in relation to Japanese political issues, and sontaku was selected by the Japanese publisher Jiyu Kokuminsha as the New Word of The Year in 2017.[3][4]

According to Hayashi Kaori, (2018, par. 7):[5]

...The word 'sontaku' is actually a perfect expression of the way Japan's severely hierarchical political and administrative apparatus operates, with underlings diligently seeking to implement what they believe to be their superiors' will....

Katada Takumi (2017, p. 104) takes this a step further, describing sontaku as an essential part of Japanese work culture.[6]


Kaminaga Akatsuki suggests that the first reference to sontaku was in the China's earliest book of poetry, the Shijing. It also appeared in the Heian period Sugawara Family Collection (菅家後集). This word was occasionally used during the Edo and Meiji eras. However in those times, it only implied guessing the thoughts of others without necessarily taking any actions in response.[7]

In 1997, the Mainichi Shimbun did publish an article in which sontaku was used to describe how some supporters of the political kingpin Ichirō Ozawa stated their intentions to carry out his goals. This marks the first time that term was used in a political context.[8] In a December 15, 2006, the Japanese language scholar Hiroaki Iima also used this term in a newspaper editorial to denote an attempt to guess the intentions of a superior, adding a nuanced sense of social hierarchy to this term. [9] Yoshitaka Kashiwagi points out that sontaku is widely used in political circles because it provides a convenient degree of plausible deniability when actions of questionable legality are undertaken on behalf of powerful politicians.[10] Moreover, according to a January 9, 2019 Gendai Bijinesu article, sontaku was often used in euthanasia cases involving brain death or organ transplants, in which family members had the difficult task of attempting to interpret a terminal patient's intentions. [11]

In popular culture[edit]

Regarding the controversial sale of state-owned land cheaply to Moritomo Gakuen that came to light in February 2017, during a press conference to a group of foreign correspondents, the president of that school said something in Japanese that might be translated as, "I'm not talking. I think I'm doing sontaku." When asked for a more detailed explanation, he later stated, "I think I'm doing the opposite of sontaku at this time." As a result of this verbal flub, the term sontaku has become widely associated with that press conference, and the number of online searches for that term briefly skyrocketed.

Indeed, in Japan the word sontaku has become widely associated with the Moritomo Gakuen scandal. Keen to capitalize on the growing interest in this term and also to turn a profit, the Heso Productions food corporation of Osaka has even started marketing "sontaku manju" sweets with the buzzword engraved on each bun. According to the @DIME site, roughly 200,000 boxes of such confectionary were initially sold, and as of 2020 over 400,000 boxes of these sweet bean pastries have been purchased. Moreover, realizing the power of popular phrases to push products, in 2017 FamilyMart released a "sontaku gozen" lunch box that enjoyed brisk sales.[12]

On December 1, 2017 sontaku was selected as the annual winner of Jiyu Kokuminsha's annual New and Popular Word Award. The person actually accepting that award was Minoru Inamoto, the CEO of Heso Productions. Moreover, on December 3, this term was selected for the Sanseido "New Word of the Year 2017" Grand Prize. In addition, it was also listed as the winner of Yahoo! Japan's 2017 Buzzword of the Year Award.[13]

English translations[edit]

It is difficult to translate the word sontaku precisely into English. During a February 2017 press conference, Yasunori Kagoike, who was the president of Moritomo Gakuen, acknowledged that the term sontaku had no satisfactory English equivalent. Expressions such as "surmise" and "read between the lines" have been suggested, but these do not quite capture the same nuance as the Japanese term. DeepL's Linguee database has proposed "surmise (about somebody's feelings)" as one possible translation. Linda Sieg has proposed that "following unspoken orders" is another choice that may be apt. [14][15]


  1. ^ "Sontaku" 忖度 [Sontaku]. Kōjien (7th Edition) (in Japanese). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten. 2018. ISBN 978-4-00-080131-7.
  2. ^ "Sontaku" 忖度 [Sontaku]. Daijirin (3rd Edition) (in Japanese). Tokyo: Sanseido. 2017. ISBN 978-4-385-13905-0.
  3. ^ "Gendai yōgo no kisochishiki - sen yūkyan shingo ryūkōgo taishō" 「現代用語の基礎知識」選ユーキャン 新語 · 流行語大賞 [Basic knowledge of modern terms: A selection the U-CAN Awards for New and Popular Words] (in Japanese). Archived from the original on March 21, 2021.
  4. ^ "Backstories: 2017 Buzzwords Chosen". Archived from the original on March 6, 2021.
  5. ^ "Japan's Media: Facing Public Indifference More than Distrust". April 24, 2018. para. 7. Retrieved 18 November 2021.
  6. ^ Katada, Takumi (2017). Sontaku shakai Nippon 忖度社会ニッポン [Sontaku Society: Japan] (in Japanese). Tokyo: Kadokawa. ISBN 978-4-04-082194-8.
  7. ^ "'Sontaku' to iu kotoba, imi kawari ikkini shintō" 「忖度」という言葉、意味変わり一気に浸透 [The word "sontaku" has changed its meaning and spread rapidly.] (in Japanese). Asahi Shimbun Digital. Archived from the original on May 4, 2017.
  8. ^ "Abe shushō 'sontaku jōku' yoyū no araware?" 安倍首相「忖度ジョーク」余裕の表れ? [Prime Minister Abe's "Sontaku Joke": A Sign of Comfort?] (in Japanese). Tokyo: Mainichi Shimbun. April 20, 2017. Archived from the original on April 4, 2019. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
  9. ^ Carlson, Matthew M. (2020). "Sontaku and political scandals in Japan". Public Administration and Policy. 23 (1): 33–45. doi:10.1108/PAP-11-2019-0033.
  10. ^ "Machines, Semantics & E-Discovery: Sontaku (忖度) and Tokusai (トクサイ)". LLM Law Review. January 28, 2018. Archived from the original on March 7, 2021.
  11. ^ "'Yoi shi' de shinitai... sanpi ryōron no 'anraku shi' ima nani ga mondai ka?" 「 良い死」で死にたい...賛否両論の「安楽死」いま何が問題か [I want to die a "good death" ... the pros and cons of "euthanasia" What's the controversy now?] (in Japanese). Gendai Bijinesu. Archived from the original on November 14, 2020.
  12. ^ Kato, Sota (August 10, 2017). "The Kake Gakuen Scandal in Context: The Perils of Concentrating Political Power". The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research. Tokyo, Japan. Archived from the original on November 20, 2021. Retrieved January 15, 2022.
  13. ^ "Yafū Japan kensaku ōtsugunai 2017 hayarikotoba bumon-shō" Yahoo!Japan 検索大償 2017 流行語部門賞 [Yahoo! Japan Search Grand Prize 2017, Popular Words Category Award] (in Japanese). Gendai Bijinesu. December 7, 2017. Archived from the original on November 14, 2020.
  14. ^ Linda Sieg (March 15, 2018). "Japan's 'sontaku' clouds where the buck stops in school scandal". Mainichi Shimbun. Archived from the original on January 31, 2021. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
  15. ^ Sontaku (in Japanese) (Translate: Google, Bing, Yandex)