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Culture

‘Tax’ is 2023’s Kanji of The Year

It's that time of year again! Japan's Kanji of the Year has arrived, and we're here to explain why 2023 was the year of tax. 

By 4 min read

As the year winds down, many in the media look back at the last 12 months and pen annual retrospectives, pointing out triumphs, failures and everything in between. In Japan, this reflective spirit takes shape in the form of the “Kanji of the Year,” an annual event where a single character is chosen to encapsulate the essence of the entire year.

In 2023, after receiving over 147,878 entries, the character representing “tax,” written as 税 (zei), secured the top spot with an impressive 5,976 votes. While this is an interesting aspect of Japanese culture, it’s also a chance to study Japanese and learn some new kanji.

What is Kanji of The Year?

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The Kanji of the Year is organized by the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society, founded in Kyoto in 1992, which promotes the study and research of the Japanese language. Since 1995, the group has been holding annual nationwide votes to choose a kanji that exemplifies the year to draw attention to the power of a single character. After the results are tallied, the winner is revealed on Kanji Day (December 12) at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple.

After the results are tallied, the head priest of Kiyomizu Temple reveals the kanji with a calligraphy performance, complete with a giant brush on a large piece of washi paper.

The Kanji of the Year often reflects the past year’s noteworthy events, successes and worries. Notable examples include Olympic years like 2000, 2012, 2016 and 2021, where the sports-focused nation resonated with “金,” meaning “gold.” The aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the War in Afghanistan in 2001, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led to 戦 (sen), or “war,” claiming the top spot, capturing the prevailing sentiments of those years.

The Year of Taxes

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At least they’ve moved on to paper.

“Zei” was chosen to represent the public’s feelings about 2023. The last time “税 was Kanji of The Year was in 2014, when the Japanese government implemented increases to the consumption tax, causing a collective tightening of the purse strings.

Tax concerns were prominent in 2023 due to various government actions and discussions, such as a boost in defense spending. This move faces criticism for its echoes of Japan’s militaristic history. Another noteworthy issue emerged in October with the introduction of a new invoicing system, sparking strong opposition from small business owners and freelancers in the creative industry. Critics argue that this system effectively imposes a tax increase of over ten percent on those struggling financially.

While the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, is not expected to implement an income tax hike in the fiscal 2024 year (delaying it to 2025 or 2026), the year’s debates significantly contributed to “税” earning the “Kanji of the Year” title. Amid political scandals and declining approval ratings for the prime minister, Kishida is considering income tax cuts to address ongoing price hikes and wage stagnation.

The Runner-Ups

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But can you draw it cool like this?

While the winning selection understandably gets the most attention in the annual Kanji of the Year, the rest of the top ten reveal voters’ broader feelings about the year. Tax, for example, has won the title twice but secured a spot in the top ten in 2019 (10th) and made the top 20 in 1997 (18th) and 2013 (16th).

Rank Kanji Meaning Votes
1 税 (zei) tax 5,976 (4.04%)
2 署 (sho) heat 5,571 (3.77%)
3 戦 (sen) war 5,011 (3.39%)
4 虎 (ko) tiger 4,674 (3.16%)
5 勝 (shou) win 4,653 (3.15%)
6 球 (kyou) ball, sphere, globe 3,485 (2.36%)
7 高 (kou) high 3,468 (2.35%)
8 変 (hen) change 2,955 (2.00%)
9 増 (zou) increase 2,711 (1.83%)
10 楽 (gaku) fun 2,472 (1.67%)

Several entries in the top ten reflected concerns about 2023. Voters who chose the second character, “署” (heat), and the seventh character, “高” (high), expressed worries about the environment, particularly as many parts of the world, including Japan, faced record-breaking temperatures. The third-place character, “戦” (war), a familiar contender in the Kanji of the Year competition, drew attention this year due to ongoing conflicts between Russia/Ukraine and Israel/Hamas and escalating tensions surrounding China and Taiwan.

On a more positive note, the fifth-place character, “勝” (win), highlights notable achievements in Japanese sports. The Hanshin Tigers won the Japan Series, breaking a 38-year drought and dispelling the Curse of the Colonel. Keio High School emerged victorious in the renowned baseball tournament at Koshien, and Fuji Souta secured an impressive eighth tournament crown in shogi, an unparalleled accomplishment in the game’s history. Reflecting on the enjoyable aspects of the year, supporters of “楽” (fun) pointed to the end of the pandemic and a gradual return to annual events and regular gatherings.

Mixed feelings were well-represented, with “変” (change) symbolizing the reclassification of COVID-19 to the same level as influenza, as well as changes in temperatures, prices, and the name of the scandal-ridden idol agency, Johnny & Associates, Inc. Additionally, “球” (ball, sphere) highlighted successes in ball sports in Japan, juxtaposed with concerns about the future of the planet.

Amidst all the news events that have dominated our media consumption, tax, in the end, was the one topic, and kanji rose above the rest.

What kanji or word do you think best encapsulates 2023 in Japan? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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