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Well, 秘密が漏れました (himitsu ga moremashita, the cat is out of the bag), 今年の漢字は… (kotoshi no kanji wa…, the kanji of the year is…) perhaps Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike can announce it, governor?「密です!」 (“Mitsu desu!,” “It’s mitsu!”)

Thank you, governor! Beating out other coronavirus-related contenders [see below], the kanji “密” (mitsu, dense/close) was seen mostly in the 3密 (sanmitsu) campaign used by Koike to prevent the spread of COVID-19: Avoid 密閉空間 (mippei kūkan, closed spaces), 密集場所 (mishū basho, crowded places) and 密接場面 (missetsu bamen, close-contact settings).

These three words all utilize 密’s meaning of being in close proximity without much space between objects or people. However, this character can also be used to express secrecy and keeping information away from others, which is why it is present in the words 秘密 (himitsu, secret), 機密 (kimitsu, confidentiality) and 密輸 (mitsuyu, smuggling).

Looking at 密’s makeup, you can see three distinct parts: ウ冠 (ukanmuri, the “roof” radical), 必 (hitsu, certainty) and 山 (yama, mountain). Which begs the question, why do these three parts come together to form a kanji that can mean both “secrecy” and “bunched together”?

To figure that out we’ll need to take a closer look at the character’s major parts and explore their origins before ultimately reaching two possible theories as to how the modern 密 came into existence.

Following 書き順 (kakijun, stroke order), let’s look at ウ冠 first. This is the simplest of the components. Its name refers to the fact that it looks similar to the katakana ウ and is written on the top of the kanji much like where a 冠 (kan/kanmuri, crown) is placed. However, it refers to a roof, which is why you see it in 家 (ie, home) and 室 (shitsu, room).

Next up is 必. One interpretation of this character put forth by kanji scholar Shizuka Shirakawa (1910-2006), posits that it represents the area at which the handle of a spear or axe is tied together with the blade. Alternatively, it has been interpreted to represent a pole or stick with two supports affixed to it.

Combining the two pieces we have so far, we have a character that looks like 密 without the 山. It fell out of use around 1946 and, because of that, isn’t included in the font set that we use to print the newspaper. So, moving forward we will refer to it as “みつ.”

Depending on the theory you follow, the origin story of みつ (eventually 密) splits into two paths. First, following Shirakawa’s theory, みつ represents a secret ritual that brought peace to deceased ancestors. In it, a 鉾 (hoko, halberd) is placed in the center of a mausoleum as a ceremonial object. And, under this theory, the final piece of 山 is actually a distorted 火 (ka/hi, fire), representing a flame used for purification purposes. The character itself is thought to be a 象形文字 (shōkeimoji, hieroglyph).

Alternately, みつ is also thought to represent the sealing of doors in a structure, and from that it came to mean “secret” or “bunched in together,” thus making it a 会意文字 (kaiimoji, compound ideograph). Under this theory, 密 originally referred to a secluded mountain, closed off from people. However, when みつ fell out of use, 密 replaced it.

Whichever theory is correct, 密 has now firmly embedded itself in the minds of the populace in relation to the pandemic of 2020. And that’s no secret.


Kanji runners-up reflect a year of health woes

While “密” was selected for kanji of the year for 2020, plenty of other characters got nods in the public vote. Check out the rest of the official top 10:

  • 2. 禍 (ka, wazawai, disaster): Apart from the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan was hit by heavy rain in Kumamoto Prefecture and the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. 禍 is also used in the proverb, 禍を転じて福と為す (wazawai o tenjite fuku to nasu, change your disasters into good fortune), meaning that a lot of people in Japan hope 2021 will bring more fortune than this year.
  • 3. 病 (byō, hei, yamai, yamu, disease): This kanji could be seen everywhere this year. Starting first and foremost with the coronavirus, it also pops up in 病院 (byōin, hospital) capacity and the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe retired unexpectedly due to a chronic illness.
  • 4. 新 (shin, atara, ara, nii, newness): It’s no wonder that this kanji was selected, a lot happened that was new and novel in 2020: the 新型 (shingata, novel) coronavirus and an 新たな日常 (aratana nichijō, new normal), as well as working from home and a new prime minister. New records were set as well, such as Sota Fujii becoming the youngest double-crowned shogi player.
  • 5. 変 (hen, ka, change/odd): This has been an odd year in which the pandemic has changed everyday life. There has been a change of top management in both Japan and the United States as well, which will bring a new chapter in global politics.
  • 6. 家 (ka, ke, ie, ya, family/house): The majority of people spent this year at home with family due to requests from the government to refrain from going out. There were new movements related to 家, such as drinking-at-home parties, online meetings and classes.
  • 7. 滅 (metsu, horo, destroy): Although the meaning of 滅 is destroy, the only thing anime movie “鬼滅の刃” (“Kimetsu no Yaiba,” “Demon Slayer”) did was destroy the competition at the box office. It is on its way to becoming the country’s top-grossing film of all time.
  • 8. 菌 (kin, bacteria): This year, the general public paid a lot more attention to cleanliness in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which meant a lot of 除菌 (jokin, disinfection) took place.
  • 9. 鬼 (ki, oni, demon): Apart from “鬼滅の刃” becoming a massive hit, epidemics have been described as 鬼 (oni, demon) since ancient times.
  • 10. 疫 (eki, yaku, epidemic): When the epidemic became a pandemic, people became much more interested in 免疫力 (men’ekiryoku, immune strength).

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