The most popular kanji in headlines, blurbs and slogans last year had to do with disasters. Hen (変, to change, or metamorphose) was the most used character, according to the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, beating out close second and third choices kin (金 gold) and raku (落, to drop, or plummet) — indicating, perhaps, a cautious optimism that occasionally surfaces in the Japanese temperament (i.e., wealth plummeted, but we can hope for change).

Hen reflects the popular media slogan of three years ago: kawarankucha (変わらなくちゃ, change is a must), which appeared in everything from politics to design. It expressed the general disdain for familiarity and routine — suggesting that change, any change, could only be for the better; it also meant strange and incomprehensible, or radical and turbulent. In times of peace and prosperity, hen is a kanji to be avoided; in times of extreme stress, it triggers a desire for something wild and different.?

Yet, even as the nation reached for henka (変化, to change, metamorphose), the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” seemed to kick in. This was certainly true for government. “Kubi wa kawaredo jōsei kawarazu (首は変われど情勢変わらず, Heads may change, but the situation remains the same)” was a phrase sighted in the news too often to excite much comment. A fat ray of hope shone from across the Pacific: The presidential election in the United States was proof change was possible, and the jōsei, as it were, still held the power to surprise.

2008 was also the year of shoku (食, food), but not in a gourmand kind of way. The alarming realization dawned that Japan had the lowest shokuryōjikyūritsu (食料自給率, food sufficiency rate) of any industrialized nation — less than 40 percent! — and dire news of jikomai (事故米, contaminated rice) creeping into the distribution network marked a time when the Japanese felt genuinely worried. According to a government survey, close to 50 percent of people in urban areas professed to “seikatsu ni fuan wo oboeru (生活に不安を覚える, feeling anxiety about their daily lives).”

The focus on food shifted from whether it was oishii (美味しい, delicious) or gōka (豪華, extravagant) to anzen (安全, safe) and anshin (安心, no worries). People became increasingly conservative about food; kokusan (国産, domestic) is the new gold label. Ten years ago it was yunyū (輸入, imported) and foodies paid exorbitant prices for tiny packages of dried porcini mushrooms from Italy, cute sacks of flour from France or vanilla beans from Madagascar. Those days are gone as the Japanese pay extra for munōyaku (pesticide-free) rice and vegetables grown locally, jibiiru (地ビール, microbrew beer), chihōtokusanbutsu (地方特産物, local farm products) and other homegrown goodies. The feeling now is, Why go for Italian mushrooms when we have shiitake (椎茸, shiitake mushrooms) in our own backyard?

Sixth in the top-10 list of kanji was (高, high, expensive, or tall) and this, of course, had mostly to do with the cost of living. Everywhere you went, it seemed that the first phrase that came out was takai! (高い, expensive). The basic essentials of living, such as pan (パン, bread), men (麺, noodles), and kome (米, rice) were the hardest hit, along with shōyu (醤油, soy sauce) and nihonshu (日本酒, Japanese sake); izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese style pubs) lovers felt the bitter chill of fukyō no kaze (不況の風, the winds of recession) each time they opened the menu to see yet another dish gone over the dreaded “senyen no kyōkaisen (千円の境界線, the \1,000 borderline).”

Dwindling finances motivated changes in people’s behavior. One of the most fashionable phrases of 2008 was mottainai (もったいない, waste not, want not). A few years ago most Japanese didn’t blink twice about ordering huge amounts of otsumami (おつまみ, finger food) and discarding the leftovers, which went straight into overflowing trash bins. Now it’s the norm for partygoers to take home whatever is left over, in bags and boxes specially supplied by restaurants and izakaya. This sort of practice was once branded binbōkusai (貧乏くさい, smelling of poverty). Now it is ecoppoi (エコっぽい, ecologically sound) and even oshare (オシャレ, chic). Which brings to mind another shopworn but remarkably befitting phrase: “jidai kawareba hito kawaru (時代変われば人変わる, times change, and so will people).”

Oh well. Hopefully, next year will bring better tidings and kanji, such as (豪, large-scale, bold, seeking adventure) and rei (麗, clear-eyed, beautiful in spirit and body, full of grace) will appear among the most influential characters.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.