As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close, the Japanese Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation conducted its 15th annual Kanji of the Year poll, inviting the nation to decide which single kanji best symbolized 2009.

Until the call for votes went out, kanji aficionados had been biting their nails over whether this year’s poll would be held — uncertain due to the indictment last May of the nonprofit foundation’s former director and his son on charges of incurring huge losses in order to benefit their family businesses. But on Dec. 11, the chief priest of Kiyomizu Temple — apparently satisfied that a revamped foundation would no longer be involved in kanji criminal capers — announced the winner in the usual fashion, in bold strokes on a huge sheet of paper set up at the temple.

A record 161,000 participants voted this year. Some poll watchers had pegged 民 (MIN, citizen) as a shoo-in to win, based on the top domestic news event of 2009: the landslide Lower House victory in late August of the Democratic Party of Japan (民主党, Minshutou, citizen/master/political party) over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). But 民 ended up in the No. 7 position, edging out No. 8, 鳩 (hato, pigeon), the first kanji in the family name of the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama (鳩山, pigeon/mountain).

The jolt the nation felt when half a century of majority rule by the LDP was terminated was also memorialized in a number of other top-10 finishers: No. 6, 変 ( kaeru, change), No. 5, 改 (aratameru, reform), and No. 3, 政 (SEI, “government” — the first kanji in compound words 政党 [seitou, political party] and 政治 [seiji, politics]). The combination of 政 with 権 (KEN, power to rule), No. 10 交 (KOU, exchange) and No. 9 代 (TAI, substitute) forms the four-kanji compound 政権交代 (seiken koutai, regime change), announced last month as the winner of the 2009 Shingo-Ryuukougo Taishou (New Popular Word Grand Prize).

The No. 4 vote-getter in the Kanji of the Year poll, 病 (BYOU, sickness), reflected a national obsession with the spread of H1N1 influenza, beginning last spring with thousands of school closings as the first cases were confirmed — and continuing now with a snow-white sea of face masks blanketing the archipelago.

A shortage of H1N1 vaccine and a government ban on teens taking Tamiflu were flu-related events cited for the choice of No. 2, 薬 (kusuri, drugs). Other 2009 news events related to 薬 were the rash of entertainers arrested for possession of illegal drugs, the government decision to allow retail outlets to sell over-the-counter drugs (resulting in slashed prices), and the “too much cold medicine” excuse offered by now-deceased Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa to explain his slurred answers at a Group of Seven news conference in February.

And what was the Grand Kanji Champion of 2009? The top vote-getter, chosen by 9 percent of poll participants, was 新 (SHIN/atarashii, meaning “new”). The DPJ victory (新政権誕生, shinseiken tanjou, new regime’s birth) and H1N1 flu (新型インフルエンザ, shingata infuruenza, new-type influenza) gave steam to 新. But a variety of groundbreaking policies and programs introduced last year also contributed to its victory: the new lay-judge system, tax breaks for eco-friendly cars and major cuts in weekend highway tolls. Finally, a new American Major League Baseball record set in September by favorite-son export Ichiro Suzuki — nine consecutive 200-hit seasons — made a deep impression even among marginal baseball fans.

A 48-year-old male poll participant summed up the ambivalent mood of the nation as it bid goodbye to one decade and prepared to face the challenges of the next: “I chose 新 because 2009 was a year mixed with hope for — and fear of — new things.”


Match each of the following kanji with the year it was Kanji of the Year. A major news event for each year is provided as a hint.

1. 偽 (fake, nise)
2. 命 (life, inochi)
3. 変 (change, HEN)
4. 新 (new, atarashii)
5. 帰 (return, kaeru)
6. 愛 (love, AI)
7. 戦 (war, SEN)
8. 金 (gold, KIN)
9. 災 (disaster, SAI)
10. 虎 (tiger, tora)

a. 2000 (Japanese athletes took medals at the Sydney Olympics)
b. 2001 (Sept. 11 terrorist attacks)
c. 2002 (five Japanese abducted to North Korea returned to Japan)
d. 2003 (an Osaka baseball team became Central League champs)
e. 2004 (a record-breaking 10 typhoons hit the Japanese mainland)
f. 2005 (Emperor Akihito’s only daughter married a commoner)
g. 2006 (the first boy was born into the Imperial family in 40 years)
h. 2007 (scandals involving falsified food labels/ingredients erupted)
i. 2008 (the U.S. sub-prime loan crisis rocked the world economy)
j. 2009 (DPJ defeated the LDP in Lower House elections)

1. h
2. g
3. i
4. j
5. c
6. f
7. b
8. a
9. e
10. d

Explore kanji-learning materials utilizing component analysis at www.kanjiclinic.com

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