When Yuya Osako headed in the go-ahead goal in the 73rd minute of Japan’s World Cup opener against Colombia this past June, few would have imagined that hanpa naitte, the phrase associated with the wiry striker, would catch on like wildfire and become the expression du jour nationwide for months on end. Indeed, the chances of this nearly decade-old catchphrase blossoming practically overnight into a national phenomenon that would transcend the sport would have seemed as unlikely as the Samurai Blue pulling off an upset of the heavily favored Cafeteros. Yet, both happened, on the very same night, by virtue of a single flick of the head. Here is a look at how and why this phrase took off the way it did.
The meaning of hanpa nai
Before I get into the origin of the full phrase “Osako hanpa naitte”, let us first examine the meaning of the phrase hanpa nai.
First, this expression translates as “incredible” or “unreal”. Unlike these English words, however, you will not necessarily find an entry for hanpa nai in the dictionary, because it is a colloquialism used only in informal settings. The more grammatically complete version is actually 半端ではない (hanpa dewa nai) or 半端じゃない (hanpa janai); hanpa nai is an abbreviated form that sounds even more casual and slangy than these expressions, and is most often used by the younger generation during informal conversations. This is why eyebrows were raised when the announcer calling the Japan-Colombia game for the notoriously stiff NHK quipped late in the game, 「半端ないヘディングシュートがありました」 (“[Osako] had an incredible header.”). This ad-lib comment, no doubt inspired by the immediate and explosive increase in the mention of hanpa nai in the twitterverse and beyond after Osako’s goal, would be the rough equivalent of a BBC sports commentator remarking, “That match between Chelsea and Arsenal was totally lit.”, or “Agüero’s goal was one of the illest ever.” Therefore, despite its popularity, hanpa nai is not an expression you will readily find in a dictionary or on an NHK TV script.
It is this “hip” factor that differentiates hanpa nai from synonyms such as sugoi, or even yabai. There is a certain fresh, out-of-the-box quality associated with hanpa nai; had the original quote instead been Osako sugoitte for example, it would have sounded bland and its impact would have been diminished considerably.
The suffix -tte in hanpa naitte is an intensifier that serves to add further emphasis to this already high praise. Also, this term is used only in the negative; the affirmative form (hanpa aru) does not exist. The full phrase “Osako hanpa naitte” may be translated in a number of ways, but my rendition would be “Osako is just unreal”.
The origin of Osako Hanpa Naitte
The origin of “Osako hanpa naitte” dates back to January 5, 2009, and was summarized by the Guardian as follows: “The term was first used in reference to Osako by a tearfully awestruck opponent after a televised high school match ten years ago”. While this description is factually accurate, it would not be possible to fully appreciate the brilliance of this line or to understand its popularity without dissecting its origin more thoroughly on linguistic, cultural, and psychological levels. I will therefore attempt to peel back these layers below.
The high school match in question was one of the quarterfinals of the 2008-09 All Japan High School Soccer Tournament (a nationally watched single-elimination tournament held annually each winter) that pitted Kagoshima Jōsei HS, a powerhouse led by Osako, against Takigawa Daini HS, a soccer blueblood in its own right. Osako, then a precocious teenager, was in the midst of a historic scoring binge at the tournament, having netted six goals in three games entering the quarterfinal (he would eventually finish with 10 goals, a single-tournament record that still stands). His team too was on a roll, having outscored its opponents 16-6 in its first three games of the tournament, and on this day Takigawa Daini would become the latest victim of a Kagoshima Jōsei offensive onslaught as Osako and company ran roughshod over the Kobe side in a 6-2 rout, with the ascending star scoring yet another pair of goals.
Other than adding to Osako’s goal tally and his growing legend, the match itself was not of particularly great historical significance; few will remember the final score of this blowout, or the fate of Kagoshima Jōsei in the semifinal and beyond. What remains etched in the minds of fans and entered this match into Japanese soccer folklore was what transpired after the game inside the Takigawa locker room, where TV cameras caught the post-game player reactions live for the whole nation to see.
During this post-game locker room scene, a clip of which can still be viewed on YouTube (where it has garnered 6.7 million views and counting), Takigawa’s captain Takahiro Nakanishi exclaimed the following:
(For my translation of this quote and an in-depth analysis thereof, please see my past tweet and article [written in Japanese], respectively.)
With the camera trained on Nakanishi, his face contorted and his eyes welling up, the melodramatic visual (now forever immortalized in a flag, with the caption “Osako hanpa naitte”) left an indelible impression on fans, and the phrase “hanpa nai” would from that day on become synonymous with Osako, being attached to him during his subsequent professional and national team careers and being referenced in newspapers and TV broadcasts whenever he garnered attention. The meme was therefore common knowledge among soccer fans in Japan well before Osako redirected Keisuke Honda’s outswinging corner kick into the far corner of Colombia’s goal, some nine and a half years after the Jōsei-Takigawa quarterfinal and 7,148 km away from the locker room in Yokohama where the phrase was born.
What may be lost on uninitiated viewers of the video is the underlying intent of Nakanishi as he “laid bare” his feelings before his teammates with such intensity. Nakanishi was described in the Guardian piece as a “tearfully awestruck opponent”, and while this portrayal is true on the surface, it does not paint the full picture as there was a fair amount of histrionics involved in Nakanishi’s emotional rant.
To first put ourselves in the captain’s shoes, the mood around him is understandably somber as he and his teammates get changed and pack their bags after being eliminated from this prestigious tournament. His team did not only lose its chance to win the title, but was thoroughly dominated and routed by Osako’s team. The natural thing for a team captain to do in this situation may have been to console his dejected teammates and commend them on their efforts; give them a pat on the back, offer words of encouragement. But Nakanishi took a different approach. By shouting out praise for Osako and tearfully bemoaning how unstoppable he is, Nakanishi was trying to lighten the mood of the locker room through humor—as if to tell his teammates, “Hey guys, we lost today, but we got beaten by a total monster, that’s all. Man, wasn’t he something else!? I’m so in awe I’m crying my heart out on national television!!”
Such a display of leadership by comedic self-deprecation may feel foreign and be difficult to relate to for those not familiar with Japanese culture. If, for the sake of presenting a cultural equivalent, I were to transpose (or transcreate, in translation jargon) Nakanishi’s quote to the locker room of an inner-city high school team in the U.S., it might come out in rap form as something like this:
Yo, check it, your boy’s here bawlin’
As hard as Osako was ballin’
At trappin’ passes, that dude’s da best
Now what I need passed to me is some Kleenex
I’m not a rap lyricist by any stretch of the imagination, but if you can somehow picture an American high school team captain tearfully rapping (the “tearfully” part probably breaks the basic tenets of rapping, but please work with me here) these lines to his teammates after a heartbreaking loss, and thereby turning his teammates’ frowns upside down, that’s basically the kind of reaction Nakanishi was going for.
Down in the Takigawa locker room, Nakanishi’s amusing delivery immediately put his teammates at ease, allowing them to lift their heads and have a chuckle.
I do not consider Nakanishi’s act a completely made-for-TV charade featuring crocodile tears, as I’m sure the pain of defeat must have stung enough to elicit some level of genuine sorrow and disappointment in the captain (there is certainly no doubting his admiration for Osako), but Nakanishi did exaggerate his reaction for comic effect, and with his teammates in mind. (Nakanishi would, years after the fact, admit that he put on a show to lighten the team’s mood.) No matter the degree of embellishment, Nakanishi’s act was a commendable and effective way to lift his teammates’ spirits, and captured the hearts of soccer fans around the nation.
The video quickly spread among soccer fans in Japan after the match, and was received favorably by viewers, who appreciated Nakanishi’s approach of bowing out of the tournament with a positive attitude and praise for his opponents. Nakanishi was graceful in defeat, compassionate toward his teammates, and even put smiles on their (and many fans’) faces with his good-natured humor. He came across as genuine, thoughtful, and humorous, the kind of person you would want to have as your captain or friend.
The heartwarming clip also stood out in the context of the historically military-like culture of athletic programs at Japanese schools, as it was a refreshing departure from the grim stories surrounding student-athletes (the use of violence and abusive overtraining still persist at Japanese schools) that are all too common in Japan even today.
The language used by Nakanishi also endeared him to fans. Compared to English, the Japanese language has more distinct registers and dialects, which allows for a greater range of impressions the speaker can create on the listener. A given sentence may sound very different when expressed using formal, standard Japanese as opposed to using informal language in a regional dialect. Nakanishi’s diction leaned heavily toward the latter in that he used very casual expressions (“meccha”, “surumon”) and his native Kansai dialect (“dekihinyan”) throughout. His language could not have been more unbuttoned. Nakanishi’s casual form of speech, which was in stark contrast to the robotic, cookie-cutter manner in which most Japanese athletes speak on television, made him more relatable, and contributed to his authenticity and likeability.
Short yet powerful, melodramatic (in delivery) yet genuine (in intent), Nakanishi’s lines struck a brilliant balance that resonated with viewers.
As an amusing aside, in the full-length version of the post-game locker room segment, the head coach for Nakanishi’s team appears later in the video and is captured saying, 「俺、握手してもらったぞ」 (“I got to shake hands with Osako.”)—the perfect one-liner to follow Nakanishi’s words. Although the coach was more deadpan in his delivery and avuncular in demeanor, his witty quip was equally humorous (since it is obviously unusual for a coach to abase himself to an opposing player), and laudable in that it retained Nakanishi’s spirit of praising Osako and maintaining a positive attitude after a tough loss.
Nakanishi and his coach’s ability to provide comic relief with colorful, self-deprecating humor even during difficult times may also be characterized as distinctly Kansai-esque—it is difficult to imagine the same scene playing out in the locker room of a Kanagawa high school team for example. It is a type of humor that Kanto natives, including this Yokohama-born writer, can appreciate, but may not be able to imitate.
The rise to prominence in 2018
As catchphrases go, “Osako hanpa naitte” was something of a late bloomer; although it had been well known within soccer circles since 2009, it was not widely known in broader society until this past summer, when its popularity skyrocketed overnight following Osako’s goal. Why, then, did this phrase become so popular so quickly?
1. The hip factor
Hanpa naitte’s hipness and virality led to its trending on social media following Osako’s goal. The role of social media, in particular twitter, also cannot be overlooked in this story; it is unlikely the phrase would have caught on to the same extent 20 years ago.
2. Its scope of application
Besides being catchy, hanpa naitte is an incredibly versatile phrase; its application extends far beyond scoring dramatic headers in the World Cup.
Want to describe the unrelenting summer heat? Try: 「この暑さ半端ないって」
Want to express just how absolutely swamped you are? Go with: 「半端ない忙しさ」
Want to rave about your chocolate soufflé? Just say: 「この美味しさ半端ない！」
Because this phrase can be used in a wide range of situations, it was easy for Japanese speakers to incorporate it into everyday conversation, and this factor also fueled the popularity of the phrase.
By the same token, this phrase has also spawned many parodies. In fact, so highly spoofable is this phrase that there is a Twitter account dedicated to parodying Nakanishi’s quote—in its entirety—using various topical subjects, both within and outside the realm of soccer.
3. Its roots
After Osako’s header and the subsequent explosion in the use of the phrase hanpa naitte, TV shows repeatedly aired the aforementioned video of Nakanishi delivering the original line, which added an audiovisual element to this legendary quote and brought it to life.
Speaking of visuals, the flag depicting Nakanishi’s anguished face alongside the captain’s famous phrase was also shown on TV both during the live broadcast of the Japan-Colombia match and afterwards. This exposure certainly did not hurt, either.
4. The goal
Osako’s goal against Colombia was not just any game-winner; it was a clutch, late-game goal that secured an upset win for Japan, an underdog that had entered the tournament with low expectations. The team had endured consecutive losses in tune-up games leading up to the 2018 World Cup, and had not tasted victory in the finals since 2010 (Osako’s goal would also prove to be the Samurai Blue’s only winning goal in the 2018 tournament). In other words, Japan’s fans had not had much to celebrate until the shocker in Saransk. The significance of the goal, which came against all odds and invigorated the Japanese fanbase, also contributed to the phrase’s popularity.
The sudden rise of hanpa naitte to the mainstream may have been unexpected. But, given the fame achieved by this phrase in 2018, and the masterful manner in which it was originally delivered, the selection of hanpa naitte as one of the top 10 buzzwords of the year should not have come as a surprise (it really should have won the Buzzword of the Year, in my humble opinion). It was an honor well deserved, and congratulations are in order for both Osako and Nakanishi, without either of whom this phenomenon would not have occurred.
Osako currently plies his trade in Germany, where he plays for Werder Bremen. Having earned a regular spot in one of the most competitive leagues in the world, he has lived up to his lofty potential and has become a household name in Japan. Still in his prime at age 28, he continues to play for the Japanese national team.
Nakanishi, the godfather of this phrase, hung up his cleats after playing college soccer and never reached the same level of soccer stardom or Q rating as Osako. But, in coining a memorable phrase that eventually became a top 10 buzzword, he, like Osako in the Colombia game, used his head to produce a winner. And for that, he is every bit as worthy as Osako of being bestowed that most glorious of accolades: hanpa naitte.