A history of the Kanji of the Year

Language Avatar photo Ari Gorney

G'Day Japan! / Language / A history of the Kanji of the Year

On December 12 2020, all eyes were on Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto where the “Kanji of the Year” was revealed to the public who voted on choosing what best represents that year. Seihan Mori, the head abbot of the temple, took his usual place in front of a blank board on the site’s famous balcony, raised a large brush, and began the strokes that revealed the top character for 2020.

As Mr Seihan Mori slowly revealed each stroke, it was clear that the frontrunner with 28,000 votes was decided and 密 (mitsu / hisoka) which means closeness; density; secrecy was selected. But before we see how it was decided, lets look back at history of the Kanji of the Year, and  notable Kanji selection from 2019.

Now entering its 25th 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. Kanji is a Japanese character with a particular meaning behind it. 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. However, the recognition is not always given on such a grim premise. In 2000, the chosen kanji was 金 (kin, or gold/money) in honour of Japan’s numerous successes in winning the gold medal 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 baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, winning the championship for the first time in 18 years which was an amazing achievement. 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). 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, we saw the people of Japan came together like never before, to comfort, to console and in time, to rebuild.

Lets take a deeper five into the Kanji selected for 2019, where 令 (rei or good/order) was selected. That year the Japanese era name was changed into Reiwa (令和, “beautiful harmony”). The term comes from a poem about plum blossoms in a collection of Japanese poems called “Manyoshu.” It is said to have been written about 1,300 years ago. This is very notable as the new era name is breaking tradition by being the first era name to have been inspired by a Japanese, rather than Chinese work of classical literature. The poems’ preamble states: “Being an auspicious (rei) month in early spring, the weather was pleasant and the wind was peaceful (wa) …” So, as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained, the name has connotations of spring and renewal – but also contains a wish for a Japan where everyone and their hopes for the future can bloom. He expressed his wishes that the new era would be “filled with hope.” Other notable Era names were Heian (平安, Heian) running from 794 to 1185. The period is named after the capital city of Heian-kyō, or modern Kyoto. It is the period in Japanese history when Buddhism, Daoism and other Chinese influences were at their height. Before the Meiji Era (1868–1912), a new era name didn’t necessarily come at the change of a new emperor. For example, the Reiki (霊亀) era (715–717) was named after a good omen—the sighting of a rare turtle (亀). Another era name, Wadō (和銅) era (708–715) came from the discovery of copper (銅). Only at the start of the Meiji Era it became the rule to change era names only when a new emperor acceded to the throne—a system that is called issei ichigen (一世一元, “one reign, one era name”).

Now going back full circle, in 2020, the Kanji of the Year was 密 (mitsu / hisoka). The kanji character 密 (“mitsu“), used repeatedly in calls to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The slogan, “avoid sanmitsu” (三密, 3-mitsu), also known as the “three Cs,” urges residents to stay away from “confined spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places with many people nearby and close-contact settings such as conversations at close range.” So it’s apt that this kanji, which people have seen more of this year than any other year, was chosen as Kanji of the Year, receiving 28,401 votes out of a total of 208,025 to be named the winner. The runner up was 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. With 2021 already starting, we are looking to what this year will have in store for the people of Japan, and the wider world, and hoping for a more positive Kanji of the Year.

Looking back through the history of “The Kanji of the Year”, it is not just a character that is chosen on a whim. It is a carefully chosen as a way to represent how the people of Japan felt that year. A way we can look back on in history to remember the events that took place so it can be either celebrated or never forgotten. And finally, a way that generations in the future can reflect on how life was like in the past and keep that legacy so that history is kept. The “Kanji of the Year” is a time honoured tradition that will stay for years to come. So what will the Kanji be for 2021?