We're waiting eagerly for the English Word of the Year for 2011 (to be announced on January 6, 2012) and have already had the Chinese "Morpheme(s) of the year". Now arrives the Japanese Kanji of the Year: kizuna 絆 ("bond").
The first two paragraphs of the BBC article reporting the selection of kizuna 絆 ("bond") as the kanji (Chinese character) of the year contain two major mistakes and at least one minor error:
The Japanese word "kizuna", meaning bonds or connections between people, has been chosen as Japan's kanji of 2011.
The kanji, or Chinese pictorial script, for "kizuna" emerged top of a public poll for the character that best summed up the year.
First of all, the initial sentence / paragraph describes kizuna both as a word and a kanji. Since this is a matter of the Japanese character of the year, it should not simultaneously (in the same sentence) be referred to both as a word and as a kanji. In the present case, it is the character aspect of 絆 which is at issue; among its readings is kizuna, one of whose meanings is indeed "bond", but it also conveys the less felicitous meanings of "encumbrance; hindrance". When we consider a fuller range of meanings for kizuna 絆, we find that, more often than not, the implications tend to be on the negative, restrictive side: "bonds; fetters; a yoke; encumbrance; ties". I will return to this highly multivalent aspect of kizuna ("bond[s]") below.
Secondly, and more seriously, kanji (the Japanese pronunciation for 汉字 [simplified] / 漢字 [traditional]; Korean hanja; Mandarin hànzì — all three meaning "Chinese character") may not be defined as a "Chinese pictorial script" (they were probably thinking of "pictograph", but wanted to say it in a more elaborate way, only making it sound even more ridiculous). In what way, pray tell, is 絆 a picture of a "bond, encumbrance, hindrance"? Nor are kanji / hanja / hanzi "ideographs / ideograms" or "hieroglyphs", those other favorite lay and journalistic denominations for what are more precisely described as morphosyllabograms (however, since that's quite a mouthful, in normal discourse it's probably easiest and safest just to refer to them as "[Chinese] characters", inasmuch as I am also uncomfortable with calling them logographs / logograms, a designation that is popular with many specialists, but the kanji / hanja / hanzi most assuredly do not always represent a word).
The minor error is that a single graph, letter, or character does not constitute a script, which is implied by the beginning of the statement in the second paragraph.
Unlike the monosyllabic Chinese Morpheme(s) of the Year, kòng 控, which has widely variant meanings and usages, the trisyllabic reading of 絆, kizuna, is actually a native Japanese word and may freely be used as such. However, 絆 also has Sino-Japanese monosyllabic readings, han and ban, in which case, like kòng 控, it must be used in combination with other morphemes:
hanten はんてん / 絆/半纏 ("hanten, a short coat of Japanese style; a workman's happi / livery coat")
bansōkō ばんそうこう / 絆創膏 ("a sticking / adhesive plaster")
kyahan きゃはん / 腳絆 ("leggings; gaiters; puttees")
kihan きはん / 羈絆 ("restraint; fetters; a yoke")
I should note that, aside from the indigenous trisyllabic word kizuna, another polysllabic native word has also been attached to the kanji 絆, namely hodasu 絆す, which has the verbal meaning of "tie; bind". A derived noun of this verb is hodashi ほだし / 絆し ("ties; bonds"), an indigenous synonym of kizuna.
Why is kizuna 絆 ("bond") supposedly an appropriate choice for Japanese kanji of the year? The Japanese people were severely tested by the devastating 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck the northeast coast on March 11, 2011. This, in turn, triggered a 30 foot tsunami that washed away entire towns, and this was followed by the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. All of these linked disasters led to tremendous loss of life and enormous property damage. What was remarkable was the way the entire nation came together and worked hand in hand to restore a sense of normalcy to the afflicted areas. This has been attributed to kizuna 絆, the bonds that tie the people together in a sense of tight community.
The Kanji of the Year in recent times have often directly reflected the negative aspects of various calamities and catastrophes. For example, the Kanji of the Year for 1995 (the first year for which a Kanji of the Year was chosen) was shin 震 ("earthquake"), after the Hanshin-Awaji or Kobe earthquake, and in 2004 it was sai 災 ("disaster"), after the typhoons, earthquakes, torrential rains, and torrid heat of that year. Incidentally, sai 災 ("disaster") came in second this year and shin 震 ("earthquake") came in third.
Whereas Japanese kizuna 絆 is a noun, the most prominent meanings of Mandarin bàn 绊 are verbal: "trip, stumble, hinder, impede, encumber, entangle"; the original signification of Sinitic bàn 绊 was "to restrain a domesticated animal by tying a rope around its leg(s)", i.e., "hobble; fetter", from which was derived the more general meaning of "restrain; bind; control", curiously recalling the primary meaning of this year's Chinese morpheme(s) of the year — kòng 控 ("control"). Mandarin bàn 绊, however, may also function nounally in expressions such as jībàn 羁绊 ("fetters"). Pronounced pàn, 绊 may be considered as equivalent to pàn 襻 ("loop for fastening a button or something shaped like a button loop and used for similar purposes; fasten with a rope; tie").
The ambivalence of kizuna 絆 is explained in philological terms by Jim Unger:
The gloss kizuna < kiduna < ki-tuna in the nice, chummy sense of 'bond' is derived. I guess in Chinese the word represented by the character originally was a noun meaning 'hobble'. (The same character is used to write hodasi 'fetter'.) One can see how the nice connotation developed from the original denotation, but I guess this is a good case illustrating the foolishness of believing that every character has an unalienable, eternal "core meaning."
Wondering whether the Sinitic bàn 绊 morpheme shows up in Korean and Vietnamese vocabulary as it does so prolifically and productively in Japanese, I asked Bill Hannas how it manifests itself in these languages, to which he replied:
A large dictionary of Sino-Korean does list PAN (반) with that character and approximate meaning but the term doesn't appear in a (regular) hangul dictionary of the language, which means it was not indigenized.
The correct Vietnamese spelling is BẠN with a dot under the vowel…. The term does not appear as a word (with that meaning or anything close to it) in modern Vietnamese. It shows up in a modern Vietnamese-Chinese bilingual dictionary but only as one of the characters that have that sound, not as a lexical entry per se.
To which Bob Ramsey adds:
Of course the Sinitic morpheme associated with the character 絆 is part of the Korean lexicon, but only in compounds. (It's read pan or ban, depending on the romanization system you use—Koreans don't distinguish voiced from voiceless; and this particular obstruent is voiceless and slightly aspirated in initial position, but voiced intervocalically.) But of course kizuna is a native Japanese word, and the character is only used here to indicate a kun reading. (You may know this, but in the Three Kingdoms period people on the Korean peninsula also used this unwieldy device, called hun by them, to write native words. But then, Chinese character readings were completely standardized by the powerful monarch King Kyongdok in the Unified Silla period, and kun (or hun) readings largely disappeared from use thereafter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems pretty clear that the early Japanese learned this and most other ways of writing from people from the Korean peninsula, Paekcheans probably, but Sillans might also have played a role in the transmission of scribal methods.)
But to get back to the topic, if I understand what you're asking, I'm not at all sure Koreans have a really close equivalent to kizuna. A favorite Korean word that's somewhat similar, though, is inyon (因緣); that's of course a Buddhist concept that came to Korea via Chinese, but Koreans have taken this idea of karma or fate to heart and think of it as a tie that transcends other worldly things, including death. That may not be the same thing exactly as kizuna, but it definitely is an idea about ties that is deeply embedded in Korean culture. There may be some other, better equivalent here, but I can't think of anything else right now that's so close to Koreans' ideas of what binds people together.
After having completed this post, ringing in my mind are these lines from an old hymn used by Thornton Wilder in "Our Town". The hymn, lines of which are sung three times in the play, has many verses, of which I quote only the first here:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
I quote these lines with the proviso that the bonds ones feels to one's fellow man and woman need not necessarily be of the Christian sort.
[A tip of the hat to Carmen Lee and thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Nathan Hopson, Miki Morita, and Fred Dickinson]