Decoding the Kanji of the Year: What it Is, What it Represents

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Photo by Otowa-san Kiyomizu-dera (音羽山清水寺)

When it comes to choosing their kanji of the year, in 2017, the Japanese chose to look north. The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation chose to award 北 (kita or north) as its kanji of the year for 2017.

The announcement was made at a ceremony on Dec. 12 at Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Temple. The temple’s head priest, Seihan Mori, drew the character using a huge calligraphy brush onto a large sheet of oversized paper to mark the occasion in an elaborate ceremony that was broadcast live on TV.

Though not an official holiday, Kanji Day (Dec. 12) is very much a permanent fixture on the Japanese calendar.

Now entering its 22nd year, the Kanji of the Year Award recognizes a different kanji each year, one that the public feels best expresses the current mindset of the nation and its people.

For example, the inaugural award in 1995 was given to the kanji 震 (shin, or quake) used in the word 地震 (jishin, or earthquake) in memory of all those lives lost in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of January that year. The kanji can also be used to express feelings of anxiety, unease or instability, which was further underlined by the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway later that same year.

However, the recognition isn’t always given on such a grim premise.

In 2000, the chosen kanji was 金 (kin, or gold/money) in honor of Japan’s numerous successes at the Sydney Olympics (金 also won again in 2012 and 2016 for similar reasons) and the introduction of the ¥2,000 note.

Likewise, in 2003, the chosen kanji was 虎 (tora, or tiger) to celebrate (my local!) baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, winning the championship for the first time in 18 years, as well as recognize the contribution the Japan Self Defense Forces made in the Iraq War that year, which local media described as “stepping on a tiger’s tail.”

The kanji can also be reflective of wider trends in Japan — and even globally. For example, in 2008, when Japan seemed to be swapping prime ministers every 10 minutes, Barack Obama swept to power in the U.S. and global financial markets faced their toughest times in decades, the kanji of choice was, rather appropriately, 変 (hen, or change).

The winner of the award each year is, for the most part, a kanji that encapsulates a number of different issues — good and bad — affecting Japan today.

One of the most poignant and emotive winners in the award’s history was 2011’s 絆, (kizuna, or bonds). In the wake of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the people of Japan came together like never before, to comfort, to console and, in time, to rebuild. This spirit of togetherness and a shared bond was also beautifully embodied by the magnificent Japan women’s soccer team, nicknamed The Nadeshiko, whose stunning World Cup win, a mere matter of weeks after the tragedy of Tohoku brought a renewed hope, belief and joy to a nation in pain.

The winner of the award each year is […] a kanji that encapsulates a number of different issues — good and bad — affecting Japan today.

Continuing the tradition, this year’s winner: 北 (kita, or north) also strikes a number of chords with Japan in 2017.

First, there are the ongoing relief and rebuilding efforts in the northern parts of Kyushu where landslides and flooding have caused considerable damage. There’s also the lighter story of the shortage of potato chips in convenience stores across the country, thanks to an especially poor potato harvest in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido along with the baseball success of Nippon Ham Fighters (also based in Hokkaido) and the team’s star, Shohei Ohtani.

Finally, and most ominously, the choice also reflects the growing anxiety in Japan as North Korea continues to threaten regional peace with its seemingly unswerving determination to maintain a nuclear arsenal. Numerous North Korean missile tests have caused both fear and uncertainty, particularly in the north of Japan, where these missiles have, at times, flown directly overhead.

While 北 was the clear winner (with 7,104 votes), a rundown of the other popular choices among the 153,594 submissions that were received this year online and by postcard gives a fascinating overview of the issues prevalent in the minds of the Japanese public in 2017.

Aware of the growing political turbulence around the world with current U.S. President Donald Trump, Brexit and number of other issues, as well as Japan’s own uncertain constitutional future, it seems quite appropriate that 政 (sei, or politics) takes the number two spot.

Sadly, pessimism seems to be a recurring theme here with 不 (fu, or negative) taking third place.

The presence of 核 (kaku, or nuclear), 乱 (ran, or chaos) and 暴 (bo, or violence) in the top 10 show that all may not be well with Japan’s current outlook. It has undoubtedly been a challenging year, so it’s a good sign that in 北 we have a winner that is able to encapsulate both the good and bad elements of Japan in 2017.

For me personally, 北 is also an interesting choice, as it has some nostalgic sentimental value to me, being one of the first kanji I ever learned. Anyone who has ever studied Japanese will know that the four directions (north, east, south and west) are among the earliest kanji to be covered, along with numbers and basic articles, in preparing for the JLPT N5 test, the entry level test to gaining proficiency in Japanese.

I used to learn kanji in the early days by reading them from train station signs. In Tokyo, at least, train station signs are a great way to learn how to read and pronounce kanji. They are one of the few examples of romanized, kanji and both kana readings all together in one place.

As it transpired, one of the locations I worked at on my first teaching gig back in 2006, was an eikaiwa, or English conversation school, in 北習志野 (Kita Narashino). So, north was one of the very first kanji I recognized outside of the textbook, upon arriving in Japan.

Looking back over 22 years of Kanji of the Year, it really makes for fascinating reading. Historical books, documentaries and newspaper archives can give us all the facts about what happened at a moment in time. However, kanji give us something more. Beyond mere words, the kanji of the year is an insight into the thinking of the nation, almost a potted history of the thoughts and feelings of Japan over the past two decades.

So, what was your favorite kanji this year? What would you have nominated? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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