Bakugai ("explosive buying"): Japanese word of the year nominee

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The tension is building.  On Tuesday, December 1, the Japanese Word of the Year for 2015 ( will be chosen from among a list of 50 nominees.  It's a good group, with each of the nominees having intrinsic character and worthy credentials.  In this post, however, the focus is on just one of the more interesting candidates:  bakugai 爆買い ("explosive buying").

Bakugai is used quite frequently in the Japanese media.  This, together with its extraordinary topicality, accounts for bakugai's being nominated as one of the Words/Phrases of the Year for 2015.  Articles on the competition, both in Japanese and in English, carry photographs of shoppers lined up with massive amounts of goods that they have purchased.  Usually those pictured are Chinese, who buy up everything from numerous fancy rice cookers to the most elaborate Japanese toilets (condoms, too, if CNBC is to be believed…).  For more mundane products, yet ones where quality is sorely lacking or they are scarcely obtainable in China, such as milk powder, walnuts, honey, cosmetics, shoes, bags, health care items, and so forth, mainland Chinese used to hop down to Hong Kong, but more recently are increasingly buying them online (to the extent that foreign manufacturers can break through the maze of Chinese government regulations and restrictions)

The Wall Street Journal picked up on the bakugai phenomenon, translating bakugai 爆買い as "spending craze":

"Buzzword of the Year Nominees Announced in Japan" (11/11/15)

Bakugai (Spending Craze)

Despite the slowdown of the Chinese economy this year, the country’s tourists continued to spend their money overseas, particularly in Japan. Chinese travelers arrived by the busload at duty-free stores in Tokyo’s shopping districts, purchasing items including rice cookers and the world-famous high-tech toilet seats.

In an interview with Nikkei Asian Review, David Atkinson says:

Q: Media often apply the word bakugai, which literally means explosive buying, to Chinese tourists in Japan. Their spending sprees now play a certain role in Japan's domestic consumption. Do you see this as a good sign for Japanese tourism?

Chinese tourists come to Japan mainly for shopping, not for sightseeing. Some of them buy things [to flip once they get home]. No one would buy 20 to 30 rice cookers just for themselves.

People call it explosive, but their average spending in Japan is about 230,000 yen ($1,897). Chinese tourists tend to spend three times that in the U.S.

Regardless of the actual amount of money spent by each Chinese tourist, the amount when toted up in its entirety is enough to have a significant impact on the Japanese economy and society.

I'm putting my money on bakugai for Japanese word of the year in 2015.  At this point, it is clearly the frontrunner.

[Thanks to Nathan Hopson, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, and Miki Morita]


  1. JS said,

    November 14, 2015 @ 11:16 pm

    Maybe needless to say bao4mai3 爆买 is now also a Chinese word…

  2. K Chang said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 4:02 am

    Explosive buying was also a thing ten-twenty years ago. I used to do a lot of tourism regarding Asian groups, and some of the big spending groups (probably government officials) are known to spend thousands just buying up the nutritional supplements and intentionally request bus trips to outlet villages, fashion districts, and even Costco. Still happens today, but far less frequently.

  3. David Morris said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 5:19 am

    Given recent events worldwide, the phrase 'explosive' buying has an unfortunate double meaning.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 5:27 am

    Just curious: Which language did bakugai originate in?

  5. Jon W said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 7:24 am

    Notably, of the 50 nominated words of the year, 24 are all or partly katakana, and two of the rest are all romaji.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 10:12 am

    @K Chang

    What term did they use for it 10-20 years ago?

    Which Asian groups are you talking about? Going from where to where?

    Are you sure that it is happening less now? This "explosive buying" is a phenomenon that has been much talked about in the media during the past year. Of course, tourists were buying up lots of coveted products in the 90s and the first decade of the new century. But the new found wealth of the Chinese and their increased ability to travel abroad during the past five years or so makes the current spate of "explosive buying" (called by that name — bakugai 爆買い / bàomǎi 爆买) much more noticeable and newsworthy now than what I recall from the past.


    Good question.

    I'm pretty sure that the term was first used in Japan and then adopted by the Chinese. Evidence:

    1. bakugai 爆買い 1,770,000 ghits; bàomǎi 爆买 540,000 ghits

    2. when used in Chinese, bàomǎi 爆买 often occurs in quotation marks and even with overt references to its being a Japanese term

    3. some Chinese texts even translate bakugai 爆買い in various ways, e.g., fēngkuáng gòumǎi 疯狂购买 ("crazy / wild / insane purchasing")

    See the citations here.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 11:08 am

    @Jon W

    Thank you very much for noticing that striking fact about the high proportion of katakana and romaji words. Surely this is telling us something of great importance about language development in contemporary Japan.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

    From the Shanghai Daily:

    "Chinese ‘explosion of buying’ benefits Japan"

    By Leng Cheng | March 16, 2015

    "Japanese media coined the phrase baku-gai, which roughly translates as 'an explosion of buying,' to describe the hordes of Chinese visitors shopping in the Ginza during the weeklong Chinese New Year holiday"

    And see the accompanying photograph.

  9. flow said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    @VHM "Surely this is telling us something of great importance about language development in contemporary Japan."—the publishing house that organizes the Word of the Year contest, the Jiyu Kokumin Sha 自由国民社, is quite widely known for its flagship publication, the "Yearbook of the Contemporary Society" 現代用語の基礎知識. The English title used to be "The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words" until a year ago or so; it's an impressive telephone-directory-like 1500 pages tome that lists thousands of key words with brief explanations arranged by subject—basically when you've read this book, you should be able to read a Japanese newspaper.

    One particular focus of the Yearbook is "difficult words", namely Latin-letter abbreviations and English loan words. It does not have sections like "difficult Yamato words (words not derived from Chinese or other known languages)", "difficult Kanji", "difficult Japanese place names"—no doubt such topics should be helpful for native speakers, too.

    The reason I'm writing this is that I'd guess the editors of the Yearbook and the Word of the Year contest have a sound professional bias towards "Katakana words"—they're in no way oblivious to the rest of the written vocabulary as their selection of 麦外—sorry, my IME doesn't know that word yet—爆買い shows. At any rate, frequency in the media might not be the whole story when you want to measure the 'importance', 'popularity', 'relevance' or 'penetration' of a given lexeme, so this sure is interesting. The German equivalent to this certainly does offer some flashback moments when you browse through the candidates of years gone by.

  10. Matt said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

    If the term had been invented in China, the Japanese version would almost certainly be "bakubai" or "bakumai" (or less likely, a phonetic loan from Mandarin) instead of "baku-gai", which is after all a combination of the Sino-Japanese morpheme "baku" ("explosive") with a nominalized form of the native verb "kau" ("buy").

    The word is actually an interesting combination of two semi-productive ("productive for colloquialisms") morphemes. "baku" + native Japanese morpheme can be seen in existing coinages like "bakuyasu" 爆安 ("explosively cheap"). These go back to at least the early Showa period or so (I am thinking of "bakusho" [explosive laughter] here, which I think is a Japanese coinage, but here both halves are Sino-Japanese morphemes).

    Meanwhile, "-gai" is even older, appearing e.g. in "daimyogai" 大名買い ("buying like a daimyo" – i.e. not bothering to haggle) which I am fairly sure is a genuine Edo-period word.

  11. R. Sode said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 9:25 pm

    A quick fishing trip into the wonderful world of Google found the morpheme 爆(baku) used to mean extreme, intense, etc.: 爆睡(する) (bakusui-suru) 'for someone to sleep so fast that nothing can wake him/her up'; 爆食べ (baku-tabe) 'excessive or binge eating'; 爆飲み (baku-nomi) 'binge drinking'; 爆見 (baku-mi) 'to visit in droves'. The last one was in someone's blog about large groups of Chinese tourists visiting local museums. Together with 爆買い、I wonder if this is going the way of racist expressions. These are all marked as 「俗語」(zokugo) 'slang'. The eating and drinking uses are interesting in that there is a more formal expression covering both: 暴飲暴食 (bouin-boushoku) 'to drink and eat excessively in an unhealthy way'.

  12. K. Chang said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 11:51 pm

    @Prof Mair

    Don't recall any specific term used, but Chinese has long used the term 暴發戶 (lit: explosively prosperous folks, *nouveau riche*, the suddenly wealthy, with connotation of "money without culture and sophistication") to describe such, wonder if that's related to this *bakugai*, and was that also a Japanese loanterm?

  13. maidhc said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 3:45 am

    The Australians say the Chinese are buying up all the infant formula:

  14. K. Chang said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 12:03 am


    The milk scandal from a couple years back left a lot of bad taste in parents' mouths. If they can buy foreign, they will.

  15. Eidolon said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    @暴發戶 The Japanese version of this looks to be 成金 so I reckon it is a Chinese coinage. The way in which Chinese and Japanese borrow terms from each other is not a straight forward loan situation as morphemes are frequently being passed back and forth – ie a Sino-Japanese morpheme might have originally been loaned from China only to be "back loaned" ie brought back to popularity by the Japanese before subsequently being used in Chinese again to coin new Chinese words, in which case it'd be a Chinese coinage, not a Japanese loan. Today the Japanese tend to be less keen on borrowing any coinages from Chinese as per their higher level of national development but I wouldn't be so sure of etymologies just based on the use of morphemes.

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