Americans love to gripe about 2018 and how it’s been one of the most terrible, most infuriating years in recent memory as they head into the holiday season. But is the country ever so formally honest with itself? Not really, and especially not compared to Japan. Every year the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation hosts a national competition to seek out a single kanji character that accurately summarizes the state of Japanese society that year. Give me a Big Mood, nearly 200,000 Japanese citizens asked this year.
The tradition, known as picking out the “kanji of the year” (今年の漢字), started in 1995 as part of the Kyoto-based Foundation’s efforts to promote the continued use of kanji, or Chinese characters, in the country. For 2018, Japan chose the character for disaster (災), not because of the exponential growth of fascist movements around the world, but because the country has suffered devastating natural disasters this year, including an unprecedented heatwave, flash floods and torrential rains in western Japan, and a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in Hokkaido. BBC News reported that the Japanese economy had “contracted by an annualised 1.2 percent between July and September” on account of the catastrophic weather. The country was also hit by several multi-million dollar cryptocurrency heists.
It’s not the first time Japan has summed up the year with the word “disaster.” In 2004, the country was also beset by earthquakes and typhoons; heated debate over nuclear power and safety concerns arose after an accident onsite killed at least four people and injured ten more at a nuclear plant. And in one of the biggest business scandals in Japanese history, carmaker Mitsubishi publicly admitted to orchestrating a thirty-year cover-up of 26 defects in its cars and trucks to avoid recalls, and, according to BBC News, led to the arrest of its former president Katsuhiko Kawasoe as part of an investigation into the death of a truck driver.
Past kanji-of-the-year selections have all been brutally honest about the state of affairs in and around Japan. The first kanji chosen was “quake” (震) as a reference to the massive loss of life during the Kobe earthquake in 1995. In 1997, the first character in the kanji for “bankruptcy” (倒), meaning “to collapse,” was chosen to cover the collapse of major banking and financial institutions in Japan during the Asian financial crisis. “War” (戦) was an apt summary of 2001, for obvious reasons. And just last year “north” was chosen for heightened tensions between North Korea and Japan, “following repeated ballistic missile launches and a nuclear test,” according to The Guardian. But the tradition isn’t always an exercise in self-flagellation. Sometimes it illuminates the earnest hopes of a society engaged with the world: In 2008, the kanji chosen was “change” (変). (Sincerely: Thanks, Obama.)
There’s a certain melodrama to the kanji-of-the-year tradition. News outlets flocked to the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto for the kanji reveal this year as part of the temple’s end-of-year rituals, reported The Asahi Shimbun. There were live TV broadcasts of chief priest Seihan Mori writing the character on a large piece of washi paper, with a flourish of his calligraphy brush. The calligraphy itself will be held at the temple until the end of the year, where it will be transported over to the Kanji Museum & Library, joining the rest of its peers on the second floor.
Taken together, all the chosen kanji reveal more than the sum of the past two decades of Japanese history: It shows a willingness to come to terms with and take responsibility for the past events of the year. Japan doesn’t necessarily have a great track record with acknowledging its past atrocities, but hey, at least some of its citizens are thoughtful. Self-awareness is one of those pesky steps you must take to make good on change; it’s practically impossible to speak of reforming any system or person without a view towards the past. As we continue to lambast the Trump administration’s perverse policies against the downtrodden and the poor with rhetoric that elides the imperialist history of the United States this holiday season, spare a thought for what the American kanji might be. You might just find it helpful.