Kanji is also prone to fashion. During the Meiji Era, the mods were chu (loyalty), kun (lord), ai (love) and koku (nation). Politics were condensed into four characters: fukokukyohei (rich nation, strong army). Kind of taps right into the psyche of the period, doesn’t it. And the Taisho Era which marked Japan’s brief fling with democracy spawned the use of characters like min (people) and ken (rights).
During WWII a lot of weird kanji combinations were invented for public use, like ichiokugyokusai (100 million as one ball, shattering). This was what the Japanese populace was told to do in the event of defeat. Y2K nothing, what a disaster.
Now times being what they are, the kanji en vogue have had a drastic change in personnel. How I know this is because the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation takes an annual national poll of the characters that reflect the world we live in.
The character for 1999 was quite aptly, sue (end). Surely it felt that way several times during that ominous year. But, like Pandora’s Box, the character has one saving grace. If you tag the word hirogari (spreading out) to sue, you get suehirogari, which means good things spreading out from the end. For the new year, the association decided to spring for 20 kanji. The letters poured in and here are the results.
Kan — to see, not just physically, but with the eyes of the mind. Wa, the thing we gotta have, for success in anything from baseball to marriage. Wa means peace and good relationships as well as soft, cozy, comfortable. There was another wa — the character for “wheel” and “circle” (magic, friendly and otherwise). Kyo — to resound and orchestrate. The sentiment here is that the planet is one big orchestra, working together to create the collective notes of a kokyokyoku (symphony).
Sei is purity, freshness, cleanliness. This is a kanji that needs no explanation: just take a look at the range of “purifying” products on the market and you’ll see this is a character near and dear to the Japanese heart. Ditto for ryoku/midori (green). There was also shin/mori (forest), an eco-conscious choice that would never have been on anyone’s mind 50 years ago.
Speaking of which, kan was also high on the list. This is the character that means evolving or coming around. In the Buddhist sense of the word, it connotes karma: life, goodness and evil going around in a loop. Now, kan is mainly associated with kankyo (environment). A lot of people wrote to say that the garbage problem describes the character quite well — one throws it away, it goes around in several loops and winds right back on one’s dinner table.
Continuing with the eco angle, there was jun (to moisturize) and sui/mizu (water), both attractive characters that do indeed evoke visions of running brooks and clear springs. Equally pleasing to the eye is heki, meaning blue-green. Heki is a deeper and more nuanced color than plain ao (blue) and once upon a time was used to describe the eyes of Westerners.
The remaining nine characters are all spiritual in nature, if not downright religious. Nowadays corporation employee manuals freely use these kanji, along with a generation of punk illustrators who like to accompany their drawings with little messages comprised of these uplifting characters.
Not surprisingly, kokoro (heart) was way up at the top of the list, what with the general level of heartlessness despite the Ministry of Education’s stress on kokoro no kyoiku (emotional education). An electronics manufacturer went so far as to declare that what they were producing was kokoro, instead of products — a statement which, if you think about it, is eerily sci-fi.
There is, of course, ai (love), and shin (faith, trust), two characters that have long been among the most popular choices for baby names. Sei/sho (to live, to be born) and koi/hikari (light) are favored characters of religious organizations, along with mei/inochi (life). String together a bunch of sentences using these three kanji and you, too, can pen your own religious guidebook. Mei, by the way, also means “order” as in “giving orders” and “problem” as in sophisticated mathematical queries.
The last three are romantic. Yume (dream) — beautiful to look at especially when written out with a brush. This was also the title of a Kurosawa film. Iyashi (to heal) is one of the biggest marketing words of the last five years. Aromatherapy is iyashi. Certain cafes exude iyashi. And the popular faces on TV sport soft, cuddly looks and are called iyashi-kei (healers). And finally, there is kagayaku (to glow, to shine), a character comprised from two other kanji: “light” and “army,” which also means to spread around.