Did you know that every year the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society chooses a “Kanji of the Year”? They choose a character that best represents the events of that past year through a national ballot where of course, the kanji with the most votes wins. Then, it’s announced on Kanji Day (December 12) at Kiyomizu Temple (a very beautiful place I recommend that you go if you’re visiting Japan for the first time).
Winning Kanji Of Years Past
Although perhaps it would be interesting to try and come up with the next kanji of the year before it happens, I think it’s more interesting to take a look at years past. It’s a look at Japan’s history through kanji, sure, but it’s also a way to see what was on everyone’s mind that year. If you had to pick one word to describe the whole years past, what would you end up choosing? By looking at that, you’ll be able to see what was important and what wasn’t.
Some years were definitely pretty obvious. Some years were kind of surprising. Here are all the years in order, starting at 1995 (when this ceremony first began) all the way to 2011. We can only speculate what 2012′s kanji will be (let’s do that, too!).
1995 – 震 (Quake)
Talk about a year to start this thing. In 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake rocked Japan, taking the lives of over 6,000 people and clocking in at a 7.2 magnitude. At the time it was the second worst earthquake in Japan during the 20th century, causing $100 billion in damage.
On top of this, 震 was chosen because of the uneasiness felt during this year due to the Subway Sarin Incident where members of Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin gas into the subway trains during rush hour. Certainly a shaky year, to be sure.
1996 – 食 (Food, Eat)
Despite how nice this kanji must seem (Japanese food is so good, right?), the kanji for “food” or “eat” was chosen in 1996 due to the outbreaks of food poisoning from E. coli 0157. 6,000 infections occured and three people died. Many children were hospitalized from E. coli infected school lunches. The cause of the oubreak was said to be from white radish sprouts shipped from one particular farm.
1997 – 倒 (Collapse, Defeat)
倒 has two meanings, and we’ll see both of them come to play with this year’s kanji.
First, this is was the end of the Japanese economy. Corporations went bankrupt. Banks went under. Everything collapsed.
Second, the Japanese soccer team beats others in its region to get into the 1998 FIFA world cup. This is the other 倒 meaning (defeat), so at least not both of the big stories were bad this year!
1998 – 毒 (Poison)
Sixty-seven people get sick from eating poisoned curry. Out of those people, four die. It turns out that Masumi Hayashi put poison into a pot of curry at the 1998 Summer Festival in Sonobe, Wakayama. She used 1000 grams of arsenic, apparently enough to kill up to 100 people (luckily that didn’t happen). She’s currently petitioning for a retrial and the court’s decision is pending.
1999 – 末 (End)
It’s the end of the century! Happy 2000 everyone! Y2K for everyone!
2000 – 金 (Gold)
I love… gooooolllld. And 2000 was the year for it! No, this wasn’t the year that Japan got into Cash For Gold schemes – out of all the years up to this point, this is definitely by far the most clever.
Ryoko Tamura (Judo) and Naoko Takahashi (marathon) won gold medals in the Sydney Olympics.
Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong-Il have a North-South Korean presidential summit. Not only was this a big step forward at the time, but both of their names start with Kim. What’s the kanji for Kim? It’s 金, gold!
Last, the centenarian twin sisters Kin and Gin pass away. Their names sound like “Gold and Silver.” I guess Gin-san gets the short end of that stick.
Overall a pretty nice year, I’d say. Don’t worry, we’ll revert back to the negative in 2001.
2001 – 戦 (War)
The 9/11 attacks occur and America goes to war in Afghanistan, then later Iraq. A lot of people get involved and the war effects a lot of the world. I had tickets to the Mariners game being held at the Tokyo Dome in 2001. Because of all this they canceled and I never got to see them play in Japan. First world problems, you know?
2002 – 帰 (Return)
North Korea had been kidnapping Japanese citizens. This year, five of them returned home. The whole situation was quite a big deal for Japan. It still comes up again and again even today.
2003 – 虎 (Tiger)
The Hanshin Tigers win the Central League pennant after an 18 year drought. This is like when the Red Sox finally won the world series, except the Hanshin Tigers didn’t actually win the Japan Series, they just were the best in their league. Apparently it was a big enough deal for this year’s kanji to be just for them, though, so who am I to judge? Maybe they’ll do better now that the curse of Colonel Sanders has been lifted.
2004 – 災 (Disaster)
When you choose the kanji for “disaster” to sum up your year, things can’t be doing too well.
There’s the Mihama nuclear power plant accident where hot water and steam leaked from a broken pipe, killing four workers and injuring 7 others. Before Fukushima this was considered Japan’s worst nuclear power accident.
There was also the Chuetsu Earthquake, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that killed 39 people and caused 3,000 injuries. For the first time in history the Shinkansen train derailed, though luckily there were no injuries here.
Lastly, Mitsubishi Motors tried to cover up some known defects in their cars. When they were found out, they had to recall 163,707 cars with problems that included failing brakes, fuel leaks and malfunctioning clutches.
Not a great year for things going right.
2005 – 愛 (Love)
Ah, love! Much better! The 2005 World’s fair was being held in Aichi Prefecture (愛知県 … includes the kanji “love” in it).
As if that weren’t enough, Princess Nori marries Yoshiki Kuroda (Nori and Kuroda, sitting in a tree…♫).
Then, to take the cake, Ai Fukuhara (once again, has love in the name) plays table tennis in China… I suppose she was one of the highest ranking table-tennis player in the world at the time, but table tennis? Really? I guess it just helps to round out a year filled with love.
2006 – 命 (Life)
This year is both good and bad. You can create life… but it can also be taken away. We’ll see examples of both before 2006 is over.
On September 6, 2006, Prince Hisahito is born. He’s the third child of Prince and Princess Akishino, and their only son. This was kind of a big deal because he was the first male child born in the Imperial House since his father.
But, as I mentioned, it’s not all about new life. This was the year where the Japanese started thinking more about suicide. A member of the Imperial Guard killed himself. Children killing themselves due to bullying begins to reach the media. Lastly, hit and run accidents from people driving while intoxicated is on the rise. Life comes and goes, and this year represented both the coming and the going.
2007 – 偽 (Deception)
The movie Inception came out 2010. The year of deception was three years earlier.
Scandals arise over political funds and faulty pension records. The Shijingshan Amusement Park in China gets some scrutiny for using both American and Japanese cartoon characters, including Shrek, Hello Kitty, Doraemon, and Bugs Bunny. It pretty much looks like Disneyland when you look at it. Last, and probably the most deceptive, food products are given new labels with new expiration dates so that they’re no longer expired and can be resold. Yuck.
2008 – 変 (Change)
Obama (Change we can believe in)! New Japanese prime minister! Economical and ecological change (this is when things started getting “green”). So much is changing in 2008.
2009 – 新 (New)
There’s a new government in Japan. After half a century of the LDP in control, the Democratic Party of Japan grabs the reigns.
I’d say this is enough, but apparently the Swine Flu (perhaps a new type of flu that everyone’s worried about?) and Ichiro’s MLB record of nine consecutive seasons with 200 hits get thrown into the “new” category as well.
2010 – 暑 (Hot)
It’s a very warm year this year. Many Japanese said their home cooling bills shot up (all that AC!).
Also, the Chilean Miners that were trapped underground for a long time. I imagine it was pretty warm down in their pit home as well.
2011 – 絆 (Bonds)
After the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami, Japanese people rediscovers the bonds it has with friends and families. Although the disaster was terrible, it also brought people closer together.
Also, in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the female Japanese team, Nadeshiko Japan, wins it all. This is said to be due to the teamwork and bonds between team members.
2012 – ??
But what about this year? We’re only part way through, but there are definitely a few patterns that can be found from the previous years.
- Sports come up a lot (soccer and baseball the most).
- Disasters come up a lot.
- Japan’s dislike for Korea and China seem to sneak their way in, sometimes (and even when they aren’t in the #1 spot, they often make it in the top ten kanji for the year).
- Really anything that’s negative seems to win out over things that are good and happy, it seems.
With that in mind, surely we’re working our way towards some kind of disaster where baseball and soccer players clash on the same field killing each other with scissor kicks and curve-balls. Then, right when you think it’s over North Korea will come in, abduct the remaining players, and then probably take them to a disputed island somewhere between Japan and China. That’s my prediction for 2012, and there’s still plenty of time to go. I can’t even imagine what kanji could represent that.
I suppose we’ll just have to see which kanji gets chosen. It won’t be for another 6 months or so, though, so you’ll have to hold on to your horses in the meantime. For now, enjoy the kanji of years past – it really gives you insight into what people were thinking about. I wish it went back farther, though I’m sure there will be plenty more to get excited about in the future.
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