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All is not golden with the 2021 selection for kanji of the year

Seihan Mori, chief Buddhist priest of Kiyomizu Temple, writes the kanji for ‘kin,’ meaning gold, on Dec. 13. | KYODO

On Dec. 13, people around Japan waited with bated breath (well, maybe) for the announcement of 今年の漢字 (kotoshi no kanji, kanji of the year) at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. Last year’s pick, “密” (mitsu, close/crowded) was, of course, a key component of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s signature phrase: 「密です!」 (“Mitsu desu!”), which extolled the public to avoid the “Three C’s” of closed spaces, crowds and close-contact settings. What would 2021’s choice be?

Maybe it would be “同” (dō/ona, same), as in, 今年は去年と同じように感じる (Kotoshi wa kyonen to onaji yō ni kanjiru, This year feels the same as last year). Or perhaps it would be “株” (kabu, variant), seen frequently in mentions of the デルタ株 (deruta kabu, delta variant) and オミクロン株 (omikuron kabu, omicron variant).

But no, neither of those even made the top 10. The 今年の漢字 for 2021 is … (drumroll, please) … “金” (kin, gold/money)!


You’d be forgiven for experiencing some 既視感 (kishikan, deja vu) with this selection. It’s the fourth time the kanji has won, previously taking the honor in 2000, 2012 and 2016 — all years that featured the Summer Olympics (in Sydney, London and Rio, respectively).

On Twitter, the 日本漢字能力検定協会 (Nihon Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Kyōkai, Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation) gave a few reasons for why the public was inspired to vote for 金 yet again.

First, it said that 「コロナ禍で開催された東京オリンピック・パラリンピックで日本人選手が多数の『金』メダルを獲得」 (Koronaka de kaisai-sareta Tōkyō Orinpikku, Pararinpikku de Nihonjin senshu ga tasū no “kin” medaru o kakutoku, At the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics held under the COVID-19 disaster, Japanese athletes won a large number of gold medals). It’s true — Japan won a record 27 gold medals, particularly in sports making their Olympic debut such as surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing.

The second reason stated was that「大谷翔平選手をはじめ、各界で数多くの『金』字塔が打ち立てられた」 (Ōtani Shohei senshu o hajime, kakkai de kazuōku no “kin” jitō ga uchitaterareta, Beginning with athlete Shohei Ohtani, a lot of monumental achievements were established in various fields). Here, the foundation emphasizes the use of “金” in 金字塔 (kinjitō, landmark achievement), referencing Ohtani’s being unanimously named the American League MVP. Maybe you’ve heard a few other Ohtani-related buzzwords this year?

Finally, the selection of 金 is related to「コロナに絡む給付『金』、新紙幣や新500円硬貨などお『金』にまつわる話」 (Korona ni karamu kyūfu “kin,” shin shihei ya shin go-hyaku en kōka nado o-“kane” ni matsuwaru hanashi, The “money” wrapped up with coronavirus aid packages, and topics related to new paper bills, new ¥500 coins and such). It’s a pretty 文字通りの意味 (moji dōri no imi, literal meaning) of the kanji.

Still, “gold” again? Japanese Twitter, too, was fairly nonplussed about this year’s pick. One user stated pretty bluntly that 「オリンピックの度に金を選ぶのはセンスないと思います。とはいえ、有象無象達は選んでしまうので、殿堂入りにするのも1つの手だと思ました。来年も冬季五輪がありますし、ご検討ください」 (Orinpikku no tabi ni kin o erabu no wa sensu nai to omoimasu. To wa ie, uzōmuzō-tachi wa erande-shimau node, dendō-iri ni suru no mo hitotsu no te da to omoimashita. Rainen mo tōkigorin ga arimasushi, go-kentō kudasai, I don’t think it makes sense to pick “kin” every time there’s an Olympics. Be that as it may, it’s what the rabble is bound to choose, so I think one idea is to put it into a hall of fame. Next year, there is also a Winter Olympics, so please consider this). Japanese learners, take note: the four-kanji idiom 有象無象 (uzōmuzō) is used here to refer to the general public in a rather derogatory way, like the “rabble” or the “plebes.”

Another user wrote 「予想以上にオリンピックの影響があったんですね。私は感、迷、選を考えてましたが入ってませんでした」 (Yosō ijō ni Orinpikku no eikyō ga atta-n-desu ne. Watashi wa “kan,” “mei,” “sen” o kangaetemashita ga haittemasen deshita, The Olympics had more influence than expected. I thought of “kan” [feeling], “mei” [doubt], “sen” [choice] but none of those made it). Most other responses were variants of a singular and single-word conclusion: つまらない (tsumaranai, boring).

As for what 金 beat out, the top 10 included (from second place down): 輪 (rin, ring); 楽 (raku, comfort); 変 (hen, strange); 新 (shin, new); 翔 (shō, soar); 希 (ki, hope); 耐 (tai, enduring); 家 (ie, house); and 病 (byō, ill/sick). No big surprises there, either, but they’re at least less repetitive than 金.

Even Prime Minister Fumio Kishida weighed in on the topic. According to Nippon TV, he voted for “拓” (taku, open/break up), as in 開拓 (kaitaku, cultivation/development).

「新しい時代を拓く、新しい資本主義を切り拓いていく、拓く、開拓の『拓』これを今年の漢字にしたい」 (Atarashii jidai o hiraku, atarashii shihonshugi o kirihiraite-iku, hiraku, kaitaku no “taku” kore o kotoshi no kanji ni shitai, To open a new era, to move toward carving out a new [kind of] capitalism, I want to pick “taku” from words like “to open” and “reclamation/cultivation”).

As for my top pick, I would’ve gone with 耐, as in 忍耐 (nintai, endurance/perseverance/patience). What a great way to sum up 2021! Ah well, there’s always next year. Unless Japan has another record gold medal haul in Beijing this February.

The kanjis of the year so far

When the kanji of the year tradition kicks off in the 1990s, most of the kanji represent disasters: the Kobe quake, food poisoning cases and a market collapse. By the end of the century, Olympic gold makes things brighter:

  • 1995: 震 (shin, quake/shake)
  • 1996: 食 (shoku, food/eat)
  • 1997: 倒 (, collapse)
  • 1998: 毒 (doku, poison)
  • 1999: 末 (matsu, end)
  • 2000: 金 (kin, gold/money)

The kanji of the 2000s reflect war in the Middle East, a Hanshin Tigers win, a royal wedding, forgeries in China, a nod to the effects of global warming and U.S. President Barack Obama’s mantra of change:

  • 2001: 戦 (sen, battle)
  • 2002: 帰 (ki, return)
  • 2003: 虎 (tora, tiger)
  • 2004: 災 (sai, disaster)
  • 2005: 愛 (ai, love)
  • 2006: 命 (mei, life)
  • 2007: 偽 (gi, deception)
  • 2008: 変 (hen, change)
  • 2009: 新 (shin, new)
  • 2010: 暑 (shō, hot)

The most recent decade saw more Olympic gold and natural disasters affect the kanji choices, though for the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 people instead focused on friendship. Heading into the new Reiwa Era, however, we were told to avoid the closeness we began the 2010s with:

  • 2011: 絆 (kizuna, bond)
  • 2012: 金 (kin, gold/money)
  • 2013: 輪 (rin, ring)
  • 2014: 税 (zei, tax)
  • 2015: 安 (an, safety)
  • 2016: 金 (kin, gold/money)
  • 2017: 北 (hoku, north)
  • 2018: 災 (sai, disaster)
  • 2019: 令 (rei, order)
  • 2020: 密 (mitsu, close/crowded)

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