Welcome to a new year and, technically, a new decade. It’s about time for some new language. In December, The Japan Times looked at the 新語・流行語大賞 (Shingo, Ryūkōgo Taishō, New Words and Buzzwords Awards) for 2020, but these are new in the sense of “trending.” Most of the words themselves have been around for a while.

I’m thinking of something more innovative and refreshing. What if we tried to create new kanji?

China continues to create kanji, notably for the 元素周期表 (genso shūkihyō, periodic table of elements) and specifically the 第7周期元素 (dai-nana shūki genso, period 7 elements) on the seventh row of the table. This is where new elements with increasing atomic numbers are added. As the elements are synthesized, new kanji are created in order to express the element in a single character.

For example, the element nihonium with the atomic number 113, created by Japanese scientists, was given a new kanji in 2017. Unfortunately these kanji are not used in Japan, which instead opts for the katakana ニホニウム (nihoniumu).

Japan does have a history of creating its own kanji, which are called 国字 (kokuji, literally “country characters”) and also referred to as 和製漢字 (wasei kanji, kanji created in Japan). These include kanji such as 峠 (tōge, mountain pass) and 凧 (tako, kite), but they date back hundreds of years.

Even the most recent 国字 date to the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when Japan was importing massive amounts of information from abroad and the language to express new concepts was in flux. Kanji from this time period, such as 粍 (mirimētoru, millimeter) and 瓲 (ton, metric ton) have now been cast aside in favor of katakana versions.

Enter the 創作漢字コンテスト (Sōsaku Kanji Kontesuto, Created Kanji Contest). The Sankei Shimbun and the Shirakawa Shizuka Institute of East Asian Characters and Culture at Ritsumeikan University host this annual contest asking participants, “100年後まで残る漢字を作ってみませんか” (hyaku-nen go made nokoru kanji o tsukutte-mimasen ka, won’t you try to create a kanji that will last 100 years from now?).

Now this is what I had in mind. Each year participants create kanji and provide their own meaning and pronunciation. As you might expect, this involves a lot of wordplay, and many of the kanji reflect what’s going on in the world.

While participants are creating completely new kanji, this isn’t a free-form abstract art contest. To paraphrase the Coen Brothers comedy “The Big Lebowski,” this is not war, this is kanji; there are rules. Most of the winners rework existing kanji in a clever way, replacing 部首 (bushu, radicals) with pieces from other kanji or rearranging a character slightly.

Winner's circle: The kanji presented here were chosen as winners of the Created Kanji Contest hosted by Sankei Shimbun and the Shirakawa Shizuka Institute of East Asian Characters and Culture at Ritsumeikan University. | GETTY IMAGES
Winner’s circle: The kanji presented here were chosen as winners of the Created Kanji Contest hosted by Sankei Shimbun and the Shirakawa Shizuka Institute of East Asian Characters and Culture at Ritsumeikan University. | GETTY IMAGES

For example, a runner-up in 2015 took 物 (mono, thing) and replaced the うしへん (ushihen, cow radical) on the left (which looks like this: 牜) with the radical 生 (ikiru/umareru, to live/to give birth), giving the new word the pronunciation いきもの (ikimono). As you can see, the invented character smoothly combines the two kanji from the word 生き物 (ikimono, living thing) into one.

Another participant that same year took an even simpler approach, just tilting the 目 (me, eye) in 見る (miru, to look) so that it was angled downward. The pronunciation and meaning? あるきスマホ・うつむきあるく (aruki sumaho/utsumuki aruku, using a smartphone while walking/looking down while walking).

As you might imagine, the recently announced winners for 2020 brilliantly capture this year’s struggle with 新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronauirusu, novel coronavirus).

The winner took 座る (suwaru, to sit) and cleverly rearranged the 人 (hito, person) so that one is on the lower level of the 土 (tsuchi, earth/soil), giving it the pronunciation はなれてすわる・ソーシャルディスタンス (hanarete suwaru/sōsharu disutansu, sit apart from each other/social distance). Another participant took this same strategy but with the meaning はなれてはなす・ソーシャルディスタンス (hanarete hanasu/sōsharu disutansu, talk away from each other/social distance). They executed this simply by extending the horizontal left stroke of 千 (sen, thousand) in 話 (hanashi, talk), separating the right side of the character from 訁 on the left.

We have another nine or 10 months to prepare our kanji for 2021, but we might as well get a head start. Japan and the rest of the world are now dealing with a 新型コロナ変異種 (shingata korona hen’ishu, new coronavirus strain). Things are not great.

So let’s start with the character 鬱 (utsu, depression/gloomy). There’s plenty to work with here! We could replace the 木 (ki, trees) on the top with more 缶 (kan, cans), to symbolize the canned beer we’ll be drinking at home this year. We’ll give this character the pronunciation やけ酒 (yakezake, to drink in desperation/drown your sorrows in alcohol).

Or we could take 零 (rei), the character for “zero” and add the ム (mu) katakana and 虫 (mushi, insect) from the right side of the word 強い (tsuyoi, strong) to the left side of 零, forming a new word which will mean ストロングゼロ (sutorongu zero, Strong Zero), the sugar-free canned highball juice drink which we’ll need to numb ourselves to the horrors of 2021 without resulting in コロナ太り (koronabutori, weight gain during coronavirus).

These two kanji are both a little extra, so I should probably include a more normal wordplay option. What if we took the 刀 (katana, sword) radical from the right side of 刺す (sasu, to pierce/stab) and added it to 馬 (uma, horse), with the obvious result being the regional delicacy 馬刺し (basashi, raw horse sashimi)? Once you get into this game, you can mix and match the kanji and radicals almost endlessly.

The Created Kanji Contest is the perfect incentive to dissect words as you learn them. Breaking down how kanji work — which pieces provide meaning or pronunciation, how they came to mean what they mean — will help you remember them more easily. I’ve also come to appreciate how flexible language is over time, which gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, I, too, can invent a kanji that will someday come into regular usage.

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.