Every November, in its Kanji of the Year poll, the Japanese Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation invites the public to vote for the character that best symbolizes the year drawing to a close. It then announces the winner in mid December.
Since 1995, when the poll was inaugurated, the Kanji of the Year has been a legacy of the news event in the preceding year that made the deepest impression on the people of Japan. It was thus no surprise that the top vote-getter in the latest poll was inspired by the tragic events surrounding the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11.
In the days leading up to the announcement of poll results, my Japanese husband and I competed to predict the winner. My money was on 波 (nami, wave, the second character in 津波, tsunami), but my husband disagreed: “No, I think 波 is too evocative of the horrific scenes of March 11. Voters will show consideration for survivors’ feelings and choose a character with a positive spin, one that honors the way volunteers and survivors pulled together in relief efforts. My prediction is 助 (tasu-keru, help).”
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A record-breaking number of people participated this year — approximately 500,000, double the number in 2010 — and as it turned out, my spouse was on the right track: The overwhelming winner of the 2011 poll was 絆 (kizuna, bonds, here meaning “human bonds”). 波 (nami, wave) was a distant fourth, with 災 (wazawa-i, disaster) ranking second and 震 (shin, shake, as in 地震 jishin, earthquake) coming in third. 助 (tasu-keru, help) was No. 5, with semantically similar 協 (kyō, cooperate, No. 7) and 支 (sasa-eru, support, No. 8) following closely behind.
Every kanji in the Top 20 this year had a connection to March 11 and its aftermath, (e.g., No. 11 水, mizu, water; No. 13 節, setsu, be frugal, as in 節電, setsuden, conservation of electricity; No. 16 心, kokoro, heart; and No. 18 原, gen, as in 原発, genpatsu, atomic energy).
One resident of tsunami-devastated Ibaraki Prefecture, in comments posted on the foundation’s website, explained his participation: “I absolutely wanted 絆 to be chosen. At no time in my life has the term “human bonds” touched my heart as deeply as it did this year. I rediscovered the importance of people working together in the face of heartbreaking events.”
Human bonds in the form of relief initiatives from beyond the borders of Japan were noted by a female survivor from Fukushima: “This year many people here died or lost everything they had in the disaster … We were enabled to carry on by the support of the human bonds extended to us both from within Japan and from around the world.”
Other advocates of 絆 said the experience of losing family members and friends in the disaster, and being unable to establish contact with loved ones, in some cases for days, gave them renewed appreciation for the human bonds already in place in their lives. The disaster led to a surge in the sales of engagement rings, as many singles apparently reassessed the importance of establishing family bonds, this at a time when the marriage rate in Japan is low.
絆 originally referred to the fetters used in ancient China to temporarily immobilize the legs of horses and other animals — which explains why its left-hand component is 糸, meaning “strings” — but it is now more commonly used to refer to the invisible bonds that bring humans together (e.g., 血縁の絆 ketsuen no kizuna, the ties of blood, and 愛の絆 ai no kizuna, the cords of love). But it’s not always sweetness and light with 絆: Sometimes bonds can become too tight for comfort, in which case one may feel compelled to sever them (絆を断つ kizuna wo tatsu, break the bonds).
I have to say that 波 (nami, wave) still gets my vote for Kanji of the Year. Born and raised far from the ocean myself, the shocking live coverage on TV of waves sweeping away everything in their path — cars, trees, buildings, entire communities — is a nightmarish vision that will never be erased from my mind.
Here’s to a far less tragic 2012, and may human bonds (絆) continue to give some degree of strength and comfort to the survivors of the horror of March 11.
A quiz on The Kanji of the Year 2000-2010 is available at www.kanjiclinic.com/kc101final.htm