The chief abbot of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto stepped up to a large, white calligraphy board and boldly brushed a single character in black ink. It was Dec. 12--"Kanji Day," as designated by the Japan Kanji Proficiency Testing Foundation-- and the priest was charged with announcing the 世相漢字 ("Sign of the Times Kanji") for 2001.
Every autumn the Foundation asks us kanjiphiles to select the one character we feel best reflects the year then drawing to a close. In 2001, more than 36,000 people participated.
The winning kanji in 2000 was 金 (KIN, gold), which mirrored our hopes for the new millennium. The Japanese were proud of the Olympic gold medals their athletes had earned. They fondly honored "Kin-san," (Ms. Gold) who had died that year at the age of 107. (March 2001 saw the passing of her twin sister, "Gin-san (Ms. Silver).") The two leaders of a divided Korea, both named 金 (Kim), held an historic summit in 2000, offering hope for a relaxing of tensions on a peninsula located so close to Japan.
In 1999, 末 (sue, end) had been the no-surprise winner. Many voters had chosen 末 because a millennium of history was concluding. Other participants-- mentioning events such as the accident at the Tokai nuclear-power plant and revelations of police corruption--said they chose 末 because they feared the world itself might be coming to an end.
Poll results for 2001 were greatly influenced both by the events of Sept. 11 and by Japan's persistent economic woes. Of the top 20 vote-earners, 12 depict concepts associated with violence, pain, sadness, and loss. Among them: 乱 (RAN, chaos, No. 3), 壊 (kowa-reru, break, No. 6), 爆 (BAKU, explode, No. 7), and 暗 (kura-i, gloomy, No. 20).
"The world has gone crazy," laments one young man. In voting for 狂 (KYOU, crazy, No. 2), he cites an alarming increase in child abuse and domestic violence as symptomatic of this lunacy. 狂 is also found in the compound 狂牛病 (kyougyuubyou, mad cow disease), which contributed to its vote-pulling power; the discovery of several infected cows all but emptied Japan's once-popular yakiniku (barbequed-beef) restaurants.
恐 (oso-reru, fear) took fourth place. One woman chose it because the murder of eight children at an Osaka elementary school "put fear into our children, shattering the illusion that schools are safe places." Another writes: "We Japanese fear the reforms of Prime Minister Koizumi, Americans fear terrorism, and the people of Afghanistan fear American bombs."
No. 9 was 崩 (kuzu-reru, crumble): "As I watched the crumbling of the World Trade Center, I saw it as a symbol of the collapse of the social conditions and economy here in Japan."
One young man associated his choice, 新 (atara-shii, new, No. 8), with formerly unimaginable crimes--including bio-terrorism--committed in 2001. Other people who selected 新 found positive events on which to focus: Koizumi's "new wind" reforms, the new world record set by marathoner Naoko Takahashi, and the nation's newborn princess were all stated as reasons for choosing 新.
And the top vote-getter? 戦 (War)! 戦 is pronounced "tataka-u," or "SEN." It was the choice of 2,285 people. They mentioned warring factions within Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party, the war between Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka and the bureaucrats surrounding her, the U.S war against terrorism, and the war within the Diet over whether the Self-Defense Forces should be sent to provide logistical support--that's right--in war. Japanese workers and housewives on the economic battlefield, one voter wrote, "are at war with a tomorrow we cannot see, an unseen enemy-- and each of us is also at war with ourselves."
One woman, who selected 命 (inochi, life/destiny, No. 5), took a lesson from the chaos: "As I reflected upon the lives lost in the terrorist attacks, in the sinking of the Ehime Maru (training trawler by a U.S. Navy submarine), and those persons despondent over downsizing within Japanese companies who took their own lives, I was made, in 2001, to feel the importance of life."
As you continue to learn new kanji throughout this year, please keep the annual Sign of the Times Kanji poll in mind, and cast your vote next November. Here's hoping that the kanji we select in 2002 will reflect a happier, healthier, more prosperous year.