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Kanji Clinic #113, The Japan Times, January 9, 2012
"The Kanji of the Year for 2011: The ties that bind"

Every November, in its Kanji of the Year poll, the Japanese Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation invites the public to vote for the character that best symbolizes the year drawing to a close, and then announces the winner in mid-December. Since 1995, when the poll was inaugurated, the annual kanji champion has been a legacy of the news event in the preceding year that made the deepest impression on the people of Japan. It was thus no surprise that the top vote-getter in the latest poll was inspired by the tragic events surrounding the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11.

In the days leading up to the announcement of poll results, my Japanese husband and I competed to predict the winner. My money was on g (nami, wave, the second character in Ôg, tsunami), but my husband disagreed: gNo, I think g is too evocative of the horrific scenes of March 11. Voters will show consideration for survivorsf feelings and choose a character with a positive spin, one that honors the way volunteers and survivors pulled together in relief efforts. My prediction is (tasu-keru, help).h

A record-breaking number of people participated this year--approximately 500,000, double the number who participated last year--and as it turned out, my spouse was on the right track: The overwhelming winner of the 2011 poll was J (kizuna, bonds, here meaning ghuman bondsh). g (nami, wave) was a distant fourth, with Ё@(wazawa-i, disaster) ranking second and k (SHIN, shake, as in nk jishin, earthquake) coming in third. (tasu-keru, help) was No. 5, with semantically similar (KYOU, cooperate, No. 7) and x (sasa-eru, support, No. 8) following closely behind.

Every kanji garnering a spot in the Top 20 this year had a connection to March 11 and its aftermath, (e.g., No. 11 mizu, water; No. 13 SETSU, be frugal, as in ߓd@setsuden, conservation of electricity; No. 16 S kokoro, heart; and No. 18 GEN, as in genpatsu, atomic energy).

J is, incidentally, the first non-general use kanji in the poll's history to emerge as the Kanji Champion.

One resident of tsunami-devastated Ibaraki Prefecture, in comments posted on the foundationfs website, explained his participation: gThis is the first time I have ever voted in the Kanji of the Year poll, and I did so because I absolutely wanted J to be chosen. At no time in my life has the term ghuman bondsh touched my heart as deeply as it did this year. I rediscovered the importance of people working together in the face of heartbreaking events.h

Human bonds in the form of relief initiatives from beyond the borders of Japan were noted by a female survivor from Fukushima: gThis year many people here died or lost everything they had in the disaster, and some survivors seemed on the verge of losing the will to live. We were enabled to carry on by the support of the human bonds extended to us both from within Japan and from around the world.h

Other advocates of J said the experience of losing family members, friends, and neighbors in the disaster, and being unable to establish contact with loved ones, in some cases for days, gave them renewed appreciation for the human bonds already in place in their lives. The disaster led to a surge in the sales of engagement rings, as many singles apparently reassessed the importance of establishing family bonds, this at a time when the marriage rate in Japan is low.

J originally referred to the fetters used in ancient China to temporarily immobilize the legs of horses and other animals--which explains why its left-hand component is , meaning gstringsh--but is now more commonly used to refer to the invisible bonds that bring humans together (e.g., J ketsuen no kizuna, the ties of blood, and J ai no kizuna, the cords of love). Of course, iitfs not always sweetness and light with J: Sometimes bonds can become too tight for comfort, in which case one may feel compelled to sever them (Jf kizuna o tatsu, break the bonds).

I have to say that g (nami, wave) still gets my vote for Kanji of the Year. Born and raised far from the ocean myself, the shocking live coverage on Japanese television of relentless waves sweeping away everything in their paths--cars, trees, buildings, entire communities--is a nightmarish vision that will never be erased from my mind.

Herefs to a far less tragic 2012, and may human bonds (J) continue to give some degree of strength and comfort to the survivors of the horror of March 11.

Insert each of the Top 10 Kanji of the Year for 2011 into its compound word below.

a. ( ) kyouryoku, cooperate/power, gcooperationh
b. ( ) tsunami, harbor/wave, gtsunamih
c. ( ) shien, support/give a hand, gaidh
d. n( ) jishin, earth/shake, gearthquakeh
e. ( )np bansoukou, bond/wound/ointment, gadhesive plasterh
f. ( ) jitsuryoku, actual/power, gcompetenceh
g. ( ) kaifuku, turn back/restore, grecoveryg
h. ( )Q saigai, disaster/damage, gnatural calamityh
i. ~( ) kyuujo, emergency/help, greliefh
j. l( ) jinmei, person/life, ghuman lifeh

Answers: 1.e 2.h 3.d 4.b 5.i 6.g 7.a 8.c 9.j 10.f

Try a quiz on The Kanji of the Year 2000-2009.

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