Language

What would a 'kanji of the decade' say about the state of Japan?

by Paul Dargan

Contributing Writer

Ink, canvas and five elegant brush strokes. On Dec. 12, Japan tuned in to watch Chief Abbot Seihan Mori’s practiced hand compose a single kanji, the artistic flourishes an essential component of his ぶっつけ本番 (buttsuke-honban, unrehearsed performance).

That kanji — 令 (rei, order; splendid) — has secured itself a year’s worth of celebrity status as 2019’s kanji of the year. It stands as the latest installment on a growing list of kanji that have been anointed annually since 1995, when the whole idea was first established by the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation.

Mori, who resides at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, has been entrusted with the kanji’s 揮毫 (kigō, commissioned calligraphy) every year. The pensive performance takes place on Kanji Day, the date of which was determined by a play on readings of the kanji 一二一二 (ichi ni, ichi ni, literally “one two, one two”) read liberally as ii ji, ichi ji, or “good kanji, one kanji.”

So, kanji of the year — why all the pomp and circumstance? If it’s anything like Pantone Color Institute’s annual color of the year (2020’s will be Classic Blue, if you’re curious), the social weight of a single Japanese character would appear to travel only so far.

Oh, but this is precisely where pictographic languages shine the brightest. Whereas an English speaker may recite an entire passage with perfect pronunciation only to realize they didn’t retain any of its contents — a blight for many a sleep-deprived student — a Japanese speaker will see a kanji such as 雪 (snow) and envision its meaning far before the context of the sentence clues them in to pronounce it as either yuki, setsu or even sosogu.

Blessed with multiple meanings, multiple readings and sometimes even multiple written forms (we can talk about those later), kanji evoke a multifaceted range of emotions and recollections that give unique significance to what would otherwise just be curiously oriented lines on paper. Wondering which kanji have elicited enough of a reaction to be worthy of a year-long mention? Well, let’s take a look back.

The story so far

2010:(sho, summer heat)

At the start of the decade, Japan weathered its hottest summer in recorded history. The long-running streak of 猛暑日 (mōsho-bi, days reaching temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius) sent more than 50,000 people to the hospital to be treated for severe heat stroke.

2011:(kizuna, bond)

The Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, catastrophic floods in Thailand and Great East Japan Earthquake reminded the world that nature’s wrath knows no restraint. Yet the outpouring of international aid and support propped these crippled regions back on their feet, revealing the 絆 that tie humans around the world together.

2012: 金 (kin, gold)

Japan outperformed itself at the London Olympics, taking home seven 金メダル (kin medaru, gold medals) among its 38 total. Meanwhile, the Nobel Prize in physiology — the “gold prize” of academia — was jointly awarded to John B. Gurdon and Osaka-born scientist Shinya Yamanaka for their work in cell reprogramming.

2013: (rin, ring)

Five rings won the spotlight this year. On Sept. 7, the International Olympic Committee announced that Tokyo would host the 2020 五輪 (gorin, Olympics). It proved a welcome honor for a country still shaken by the tsunami just two years prior.

2014:(zei, tax)

On April 1, Japan’s 消費税 (shōhizei, consumption tax) was raised for the first time in 17 years. The tax hike sent a wide ripple through the country’s economy, affecting the prices of daily commodities, public transportation, utility bills and other baseline necessities.

2015:(an, peace)

For better or worse, 安倍晋三首相 (Abe Shinzō Shushō, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) passed the 平和安全法制 (heiwa anzen hōsei), a controversial piece of legislation allowing the country’s military to engage in overseas conflict. On the flip side, 2015 also marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — an important milestone in the nation’s quest for 平安 (heian, peace).

2016:(kin, gold)

Japan re-upped its own record medal count at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics with 41 medals, 12 of them sporting that luscious aureate hue. The signature 金髪 (kinpatsu, golden hair) of the latest White House resident seems to have swayed a few votes as well.

2017:(kita, north)

Tensions flared once again between 北朝鮮 (Kita Chōsen, North Korea) and its self-proclaimed enemies as Chairman Kim Jong-un held his hand over the proverbial red button to leverage aid. The climate-borne shortage of 北海道 (Hokkaido) brand potato chips didn’t make things any less stressful.

2018:(sai, disaster)

Japan struggled with the increasing prevalence of 自然災害 (shizen saigai, natural disasters). Hokkaido, Osaka and Shimane prefectures survived substantial earthquakes while the rest of the country experienced record rainfall, unrelenting typhoons and intense heat waves.

2019:(rei, order; splendid)

Though Japan rings in the Gregorian New Year all the same, it also celebrated entering into a new imperial era after the willful abdication of Emperor Akihito. The 令和時代 (Reiwa Jidai, Reiwa Era) was ushered in on May 1 with Emperor Naruhito sitting resolutely atop the chrysanthemum throne.

Kanji of the decade

By and large, kanji that have ranked during the last decade have been emotionally heavy. The yearly top five in particular have featured 乱 (ran, disorder; confusion), 爆 (baku, explosion; eruption), 震 (shin, tremble; earthquake), 嘘 (uso, lie; falsehood), 不 (fu, prefix for non- or un-) and other suggestively negative characters, many of which have appeared on multiple occasions.

While happy kanji like 楽 (raku, fun; ease) and 新 (shin, new; frontier) have made it into the top five before, such starkly positive characters are few and far between. Among the winners, 2011’s 絆 is perhaps the most curious of all, as it beat out the negative runner-up, 災, by more than 30,000 votes during what was arguably the worst year of Japan’s Heisei Era (1989-2019).

As you might expect, the kanji of the year are largely attributed to the most immediate climatological events and annual happenings; but what if the consideration period was extended beyond a single year? Why not have kanji of the decade as well?

For instance, 化 (ka, change) would summarize quite succinctly the two major phenomena that have impacted Japanese society in the past 10 years — namely, 地球温暖化 (chikyū ondan-ka, global warming) and 少子高齢化 (shōshi kōrei-ka, the declining birthrate and aging population).

Or maybe 復 (fuku, recovery) would paint a better picture. As Japan continues picking up the pieces left behind in Fukushima Prefecture after the 2011 quake, all the while fighting to keep up with typhoon recovery efforts every summer, 復活 (fukkatsu, recovery) has long been considered a vital theme for emboldening the populace.

Yet if there’s one kanji this writer believes speaks for the decade, it is 繫 (tsuna, as in tsungaru, which means to connect). Yes, the teen years of this century saw the inevitable rise of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as the preeminent platforms for forming and maintaining social connections; but this choice isn’t solely because of the ubiquitous presence of smartphones linking us to all manner of knowledge in the known universe — or fresh pics of whatever Aunt Michiko cooked for dinner. I’ve also selected an old version of the kanji as I feel like choosing 繫 can help connect us to our past.

Just as soon as technology answered the question of how we get connected, Japan raised the question of how we stay connected. In this transition from the ’10s to the ’20s, how will we maintain the connections that social media has helped us forge? How will the Olympics — having been on the minds of the populace for seven years — further link Japan with the rest of the world? How will Japan continue to reconnect Fukushima and other disaster-struck regions with the rest of the country? And how will the government address the increase in 引きこもり (hikikomori, social shut-ins), who are said to have risen in number by more than 400,000 since 2010?

Choosing a kanji of the decade no doubt raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps there lies the joy of finding one worth discussing all the rhetoricals. At any rate, with just a few weeks left until the new year, more minds are likely turned toward the future than back upon the past, and that means the 2020 kanji of the year is officially open for consideration.

Knowing the Olympics are coming, 輪 and 金 each have a strong chance of coming back to take the crown, but perhaps we’ll see a fresh face debut after the comings and goings of the next 12 months. Maybe 繫 will get a year in the spotlight after all. Only time will tell. Mori’s brush is waiting.

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