Japan’s Summer of Disasters Decides ‘Chinese Character of the Year’

By Dr Nicolas Tranter, Lecturer in Japanese Studies

As the UK struggles through interminable Brexit woes, Donald Trump’s America threatens global concord on fighting climate change, and authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, spare a thought for Japan. It has not been the best of years there, marked by various natural disasters. So, the Kanji (or Chinese character) of the Year was unveiled – or rather written large with a large calligraphic brush at the iconic Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto – as , which can be translated as “misfortune” or “disaster”.

Kanji of the Year 

In Britain the Collins Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary announce annually a ‘word of the year’, which is a neologism, or more usually a word – or a use of a word – that has only gained prominence in that particular year. The word might even be a phrase, or, famously in 2015, an emoji, 😂. This year, Collins chose ‘single-use’ [plastics] and the OED ‘toxic’ [masculinity, etc.] The two dictionaries always choose different words, and the decisions are not made by public vote. Similar events occur elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

The Kanji of the Year has been selected in Japan every year since 1995, and has spawned similar events elsewhere in East Asia. It differs from English words of the year in several respects. Firstly, it is decided by a public vote organised by the Kanken organisation that is responsible for Chinese character proficiency testing in Japan. Secondly, it is never a new word or even a new use of a word, but is simply an existing Chinese character that happens to sum up the mood of the year. Last year’s was 北 ‘north’, largely because of the North Korea nuclear crisis.

And thirdly, it is not even a word as such, but rather a way of writing different words. This is because the Japanese writing system makes use of over two thousand characters borrowed from China. Japanese has borrowed a lot of Chinese words over the centuries, as well as created new compound words from Chinese elements in the same way that Western European languages have used Latin or Greek elements, and it uses the original Chinese characters to write these Chinese words and elements. In addition, the same characters have long been adapted to write native Japanese words of similar meaning. This means that characters frequently have at least one Chinese reading and one native Japanese reading, and it is quite common for characters to have more than one of either.

Disaster

災 is pronounced zāi in Modern Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese borrowed the word from earlier Chinese as sai. By the Tang dynasty, when Japanese started borrowing Chinese words on a large scale, Chinese had been moving from its monosyllabic early stage to the frequent use of two-syllable compounds. As a result, most Chinese-derived readings in Japanese are not used as independent words, and 災 sai is no different: it is normally only used in compounds, especially 災難 sainan and 災害 saigai, both meaning ‘disaster’. 災 is also used to write the native Japanese word of similar meaning, wazawai, which has a broader range of meaning from ‘misfortune’ or even ‘evil’ to ‘disaster’.

災 is a repeat winner. It was chosen in December 2004 to mark a year of a major earthquake, a nuclear accident, and a devastating typhoon. It might have won in 2011 too, the year of the linked disasters of the Tohoku tsunami, earthquake, and Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, if these had happened in the later part of the year; but they happened in March, so by the end of the year a more positive character (絆 ‘(social) bond’) representing people coming together after the disasters was chosen.

Japan’s location both on the juncture of tectonic plates and exposed to the Pacific Ocean has meant that it has always been subject to natural disasters. Earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, and tsunamis – the latter a Japanese word that has been adopted in English and other languages. With manmade disasters such as war and the effects of nuclear fission as well, modern Japan has an awareness of disaster that perhaps no other developed nation has.

This year there was a cluster of natural events that struck in close succession in June and July. Firstly there was an earthquake that struck north of Osaka and Kyoto. Officially, it only caused four fatalities, and it was not the strongest earthquake of the year, and but it did affect the country’s second city of Osaka. It certainly would not have decided the Kanji of the Year, if not for the close succession of the next disasters. The first of these was a typhoon at the end of June that led to torrential rains over a couple of weeks, which in turn caused flooding and landslides in many parts of Japan, especially in Kyushu, and broke many rainfall records. About three hundred people died as a result. Within weeks, Japan was hit by an exceptional heat wave, and the temperature in Kyoto, for instance, remained at least 38°C for a full week. Finally, a stronger earthquake hit the northern island of Hokkaido in September. Despite other national and international events of note, this close succession of disasters meant that it was almost inevitable that 災 would be the Kanji of the Year.

Next Year

The Kanji of the Year is based on the events of that year, so guessing the next year’s choice at this stage is normally futile. However, momentous events are already planned for next year. The current emperor will stand down, and his son will accede to the throne in May. Dates in Japan are commonly still reckoned in terms of the years of an emperor’s reign rather than by the western year, so the change of the name of the imperial era will be of huge symbolic importance. As a result, next year’s Kanji of the Year is highly likely to be one that means ‘new’, ‘renewal’ or ‘begin’ to represent the start of a new imperial era, or else will be one of the two characters that will be chosen as the new era name. Although the choice of name will likely not be revealed until three weeks before.

Still, no one knows how next year will pan out. Some other character might still make it to Kanji of the Year by next December.