Kanji of the year 2014

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As chosen by ballots to the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Public Interest Foundation (Nihon Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Kyōkai 日本漢字能力検定協会, more commonly known as Kanken 漢検), the annual "Kanji of the Year" (kotoshi no kanji 今年の漢字) for 2014 is zei 税 ("tax"), with 8,679 (5.18% of the total) votes.

In addition to the hike in the consumption tax from 5% ~ 8% and the proposed further hike of this most regressive of taxes to 10% that was the subject of a recent parliamentary election, there were a number of scandals involving politicians misusing public funds, i.e. taxes.

"'Tax' declared the official kanji of 2014" (12/12/14)

This article includes a video of a Buddhist priest writing the character zei 税 ("tax") with great pomp and circumstance.  The monk is Seihan Mori, the chief priest of Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto.  It seems that it's always the Kiyomizudera abbot who does the calligraphy, but in any case it's always a monk from (and at) that temple.

The use of a monk and the Kiyomizudera Temple to announce the Kanji of the Year is undoubtedly intended to emphasize the traditional Japaneseness of kanji, though the selection of the Kanji of the Year only began in 1995.  In any event, monks spend a lot of time handwriting kanji with a brush, especially in calligraphy, so they're good candidates for writing beautiful script.

The top 10 nominations this year were:

zei 税 ("tax")
netsu 熱 ("heat")
uso 嘘 ("falsehood; lie")
wazawai 災 ("disaster")
yuki 雪 ("snow")
泣 as in naku 泣く ("to cry")
fun 噴 (erupt)
zō 増 ("increase")
gi 偽 ("fake")
yō 妖 ("supernatural")

There's a story behind each of these characters (Ebola fever outbreak, STAP cell scandal, etc.), but perhaps the most interesting is the last one, where the context must be the popularity of a manga-anime complex called Yōkai Watch 妖怪ウォッチ about a boy with a timepiece that allows him to see troublemaking yōkai ("spirits; supernatural creatures").

The full list of Kanji of the Year from 1995 to 2014 is on Wikipedia.

There are now a number of English articles available about the Kanji of the Year for 2014 (see here and here).

And this year's selection has already been included in international coverage of WOTY from various countries:

"Shirtfront to vape: words of the year around the world" (12/12/14)

稅 (zei – tax)

In Japan, the Kanji of the Year is chosen through a national ballot, sponsored by the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society. This year's choice reflects the fact that in April the Japanese government raised the country's consumption tax for the first time in 17 years, from 5 percent to 8 percent. The rise – designed to bolster funding for the country’s social security needs – had a notable impact on people's wallets, and led to significant swings in the economy as a whole

Japan also has an English WOTY:

"‘Perseverance’ repeats as word of the year in Aeon poll" (12/12/14)

WOTY contests, especially if they are conducted in an open manner and with broad participation, can tell us a lot about a nation's self-image.

[Thanks to Nathan Hopson and Ben Zimmer]


  1. John Chew said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

    FWIW, I just had to fix the abovementioned Wikipedia list of KOTY, because a Chinese editor had given this year's kanji as 稅 and not 税.

  2. Jim Breen said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 6:39 am

    漢検 is more usually the abbreviation of the test itself (漢字検定 or 漢字能力検定) than the organization.

  3. Cecilia Segawa Seigle said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    Thank you for this interesting information, Victor.
    The annual choice of 漢検seems to vary its nature from year to year.
    This year's choice 税seems much more political and widely economy-related, chosen because people are angry with the government.
    Sometimes the choices are more cultural or literary – people's interest more into tradition and in the 漢字 itself, like 絆 (kizuna) of several years ago.

    For example, in 2006 [命 inochi life] was chosen because Prince Hisahito of Akishino is born, while feelings of uncertainty about life arose from hit and run accidents due to driving under the influence, suicide due to bullying, etc. etc., but when you look at the kanji 命, there are much deeper, historical and cultural significances. So is 2013’s 輪、wheel, as well as 1999’s 末(sue, end). 2011’s 絆 (kizuna) is a particularly literary and poetic word that has a deep cultural-traditional meaning.

    [VHM: kizuna means "bond"]

    2010’s 暑(heat) was chosen because of the record heat wave, or 2012’s 金(gold) because of the London Olympics or Nobel Prize, solar eclipse 金環食 in 932 years that are mentioned in the list of annual kanji. These seem to be much more factual, literal, unpoetic choices. The lack of set criteria in the 漢検’s selections on annual kanji is rather quizzical, to say the least.

  4. Petrus said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    "8,679 (5.18% of the total)". Where are the statistics from? (Too lazy to find them myself!)

  5. Richard W said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

    In regard to "shirtfront", see this article on the Australian WOTY.

    The (very amusing) embedded video features Leigh Sales, the journalist who questioned the pronunciation of Dio Wang's surname. (See this Language Log post.)

  6. Chas Belov said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 2:42 am

    The Telegraph article on shirtfront, etc., had the following sentence which looked odd to me:

    In the event, Abbott did not shirtfront Putin.

    I would have said:

    In any event, Abbott did not shirtfront Putin.

    Evidently a difference between UK and American usage.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 9:11 am


    "Kanji meaning tax chosen as best characterizing 2014"


    8,679 out of 167,613 votes cast.

    "Character for Tax Chosen as Kanji of 2014"


    5.2% of 168,000 votes cast.

  8. Frank L Chance said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 11:46 am

    With regard to the priest writing the character, as quoted above,
    "This article includes a video of a Buddhist priest writing the character zei 税 ("tax") with great pomp and circumstance. The monk is Seihan Mori, the chief priest of Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto."

    I'm wondering why you decided to write his name in Western, rather than Japanese order. This seems inconsistent with the practice for Chinese and Korean names (and with my practice for Japanese names as well).

  9. Ethan said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

    @Chas Belov: "In the event" sounds normal to my American ears. Not quite the same as "in any event"; a closer equivalent would be "as it turned out".

  10. Richard W said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    "in the event" is used aptly in the Telegraph article. If you Google "define: in the event" you get this definition:

    as it turns (or turned) out.
    "he was sent on this important and, in the event, quite fruitless mission"

    synonyms: as it turned out, as it happened, in the end; as the outcome, as a result, as a consequence, as an effect

    "in any event" is used when one gets sidetracked but then returns to the main issue.

    e.g. Jim broke the window — or maybe it was John? In any event, the window’s broken now.

    There was no side issue discussed in the lead-up to the Telegraph's statement "In the event, Abbott did not shirtfront Putin."

    So it's actually "in any event" that would sound odd.

  11. Richard W said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    @Frank L Chance
    Re: I'm wondering why you decided to write his name in Western, rather than Japanese order. This seems inconsistent with the practice for Chinese and Korean names (and with my practice for Japanese names as well).

    So do you say "Ono Yoko" rather than "Yoko Ono"?

    The convention is to reverse the order of Japanese names in English. The English Wikipedia article on the prime minister of Japan, for example, is titled Shinzō Abe, not Abe Shinzō.

    Wikipedia has some background on the order of Japanese names in English.

  12. Frank L Chance said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

    Actually, yes, I call her Ono Yoko in academic contexts, but refer to her as Yoko Ono when discussing her life with John Lennon or her newspaper ads for peace. But this monk at Kiyomizudera has little or no career outside of Japan-even the video voiceover clearly identifies him as Mori Seihan, not the other way around.

    Do you refer to them as Zetong Mao or Jong-un Kim?

  13. Richard W said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    Do you refer to them as Zetong Mao or Jong-un Kim?

    No. The convention described in the link I provided applies to Japanese names. The convention for Chinese names (and, apparently, Korean names) is not to reverse the names in English.

    The link I provided mentions some exceptions to the usual convention: In English many historical figures are still referred to with the family name first. This is especially the case in scholarly works about Japan.

    As a Japanese-to-English translator, my company requires me to reverse the order of Japanese names when I translate them into English.

  14. Frank L Chance said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

    My feeling is that we should refer to people the way they refer to themselves. For Abe or Ono, who both use English (or have handlers who use English) for significant portions of their careers, their preference for Western order has been made clear. But reversing the name of a Japanese monk, and only for Japanese (not Chinese or Koreans) seems discriminatory to me. Of course, if your company is Japanese, then that is their choice, but those of us outside Japan need to take care that names are handled with respect.
    And yes, I have had that conversation where I referred repeatedly to Abe Shinzo and the Nihonjin I was speaking with referred repeatedly to Shinzo Abe.

  15. Richard W said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

    That's fair enough, although it may be that the different convention for Japanese names arose (unlike China and Korea) from the Meiji-era preferences of the Japanese people themselves.

    But if you see name reversal, in the absence of an expressed preference of the individual concerned, as discriminatory, then what do you make of this?

    In Chinese-speaking communities, Japanese names are pronounced according to the Chinese pronunciation of the characters. For example, in Mandarin, 山田 太郎 (Yamada Tarō) becomes "Shāntián Tàiláng", while 鳩山 由紀夫 (Hatoyama Yukio) becomes "Jiūshān Yóujìfū". As a result, a Japanese person without adequate knowledge of Chinese would not understand his or her name when it is spoken in Chinese.
    [from same Wikipedia article I referred to before]

  16. Frank L Chance said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

    Well, it is only fair, since in Japan Chinese (and sometimes Korean) names are pronounced in Japanese. I heard quite a few NHK news reports before realizing that Mō Takutō was Mao Zedong! But transliterating the name into the local pronunciation does not imply any disrespect. And don't get me started on the way British announcers pronounce romanized Asian names! The Tang dynasty is not the same as the powdered orange drink, and we do not sing the Song (unless we are Beatles, who sing "only a Northern Song").

  17. Richard W said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

    Re: transliterating the name into the local pronunciation does not imply any disrespect

    To be pedantic, Japanese names like 山田 are generally not transliterated in Chinese. Even though they could, in theory, be transliterated into Pinyin, they are kept in the same script (kanji / hànzì), and even though a name like 山田 could be represented in Pinyin as, say, Yámǎdá, approximating the Japanese pronunciation, 山田 is typically pronounced Shāntián, apparently.

  18. Wentao said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

    @Richard W
    The discussion above reminds me of a question I've been curious about: how do Koreans pronounce Japanese names? I assume in the past they would, like the Chinese, treat them as if they were written in hanja. But now do they use hangul to transcribe the Japanese pronunciation instead?

  19. Laura Miller said,

    January 1, 2015 @ 1:16 pm

    The Kanji of the Year contest was created by the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society (Zaidan Hōjin Nihon Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Kyōkai). The event was partially set up in order to boost sales of their reference works and exams. Abbott Mori has become something of a celebrity as a result of the Kanji of the Year event, and people pay to see him speak at cultural centers around the country. He is the author of several books, and his calligraphy works, as well as replicas of his calligraphy, are sold in art stores and online shops for a nice profit. He appears in manga and on television.

  20. Laura Miller said,

    January 1, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    This Kanji of the Year is wildly commodified, and in the case of the 2011 winner, the kanji often read as kizuna (it has other readings) was heavily promoted by the Japanese government and other cultural groups. At this point, the beautiful poetic connotations Cecilia noted are swamped by its crass uses in a spectrum of contexts. We also need to keep in mind that Kanken's desire was not to celebrate words, but rather kanji that might have several readings.

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