Japan and its Kanji of the Year

December 19, 2019 18:08
The national flag is held aloft during a ceremony in Tokyo on May 4 after Emperor Naruhito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne earlier. The kanji character “令” (i.e. order or command) has been named Kanji of 2019 by a Kyoto-based entity. Photo: Bloomberg

It has been a tradition in Japan over the past 25 years to choose "Kanji of the Year" as a means to sum up the events that have taken place in the country in that particular year.

Since 1995, the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation has been charged with picking a kanji character annually in a poll that sees the nomination period usually run from early November until early December. 

The result is routinely announced in mid-December at the Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient Buddhist temple located east of Kyoto.

In recent years, the kanji choice has become a topic of much debate in Japan.

In 2018, the kanji “災” (i.e. disaster) was picked to highlight the frequent natural disasters that took place across Japan in that year.

In 2017, the character “北” (i.e. north) was chosen as Kanji of the Year, and “金” (gold) in 2016, “安” (safety or peace) in 2015, “稅” (tax) in 2014, “輪” (ring) in 2013, and again “金” (gold) in 2012.

This year, a total of 216,325 votes were cast, up more than 10,000 votes from last year, and the character “令” (i.e. order or command) has defeated all other “nominees” by a comfortable margin and was officially named the kanji character of 2019.

The word “令” actually comes from “令和” (Reiwa), the imperial era name, or known as gengo, adopted by the new Emperor Naruhito, who succeeded his father, Emperor Akihito.

While “Rei” means “order” or “command”, “wa” refers to “harmony” or “peace”. The term “Reiwa” was extracted from the fifth book of an ancient anthology of Japanese poems, the Manyoshu (“萬葉集”), that dates back to the 8th century A.D.

Undoubtedly, for the Japanese people, entering the Reiwa era is definitely a highlight of 2019.

Yet there are substantial doubts among the Japanese public as to whether the kanji character “令” can truly reflect what the country has been through over the past 12 months.

Despite the skepticism, Nikkei has recently reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pretty happy with the choice.

It is because Abe believes the character “令” much suits the new Reiwa era, and indicates that Japan had managed to get over the unrelenting natural disasters (i.e. 災) that were gripping the country in 2018 and moved on this year.

Nevertheless, a lot of Japanese people actually nominated the character “櫻” (“sakura”, meaning the cherry blossom) as they sought to mock Abe, who came under fire earlier this year for continuing to routinely invite prominent public figures to an increasingly extravagant hanami (i.e. “flower-seeing”) event at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo every April using taxpayers’ money.

Worse still, according to the accusations made by the opposition, quite a number of the guests who routinely attend the annual cherry blossom-viewing event are actually local election campaigners for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (Jimintō) in Abe’s hometown and constituency, the Yamaguchi prefecture.

Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga has jokingly told reporters that he didn’t want to look at or hear the character “sakura”, suggesting that the term has already become a taboo word for the Abe administration.

As far as Hong Kong is concerned, if I were to pick a Chinese character of the year for our city, I would probably choose the character “醒”, which means “awakening”.

The reason: many locals who had earlier shown apathy toward politics have changed their mindset, thanks to the anti-extradition bill movement that took off in June.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 17

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Commentator on Japanese politics