Kanji of the year 2015

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Our Language Log post on "Kanji of the year 2014", zei 税 ("tax"), was rather extensive, so it should suffice to give an indication of how the selection is made and the nature of the ritual surrounding the public unveiling of the choice.  I won't attempt to duplicate such a full treatment for the kanji that was chosen this year, but will focus on a significant difference between last year's KOTY and this year's.  For additional information concerning this year's selection, I recommend reading this report:

"2015 Kanji of the Year: 'An' Juxtaposes Security and Unease" (12/15/15)

The interesting distinction between this year's and last year's KOTY is the relatively straightforward semantic quality of last year's choice (it basically just means "tax; toll") versus the complicated polysemy of this year's choice, an / yasu[i] :  "cheap, inexpensive; quiet; relax, rest; repose; contented, peaceful; tranquil; calm; restful; welfare; well-being; safe(ty); stability, equilibrium; relief; peace of mind; easy-going", and so on and so forth.  by itself does not mean all of these things, since in most cases it needs to take on various endings or enter into combinations with other characters to have these different senses.  See here and here.

Aside from all of the above meanings and others related to them, an / yasu[i] also figures in the surname of Prime Minister Abe (安倍) Shinzō, where it has the pronunciation a, not an or yasu[i].

As I have pointed out in previous posts about Chinese and Japanese "character of the year" selections, usually what we are dealing with is a morpheme or group of morphemes mapped on to a single character, rather than a word.  Words can also be polysemous, but not so prodigiously as characters.


  1. flow said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 7:46 am

    It would seem to me that all of the following senses differ only in the choice of Kanji used or are etymologically related:

    易(やさ)しい (easy; plain);

    優(やさ)しい (friendly, nice; easy (person); delicate, graceful; generous, benevolent);

    安(やす)い (cheap, bargain);

    易(やす)い (easy, simple);

    休(やす)む (to rest, take a break; to stop doing; to be absent, missing; to take leave).

    And maybe even these:

    済(す)む (to end; to put an end to; to be finished; to make do without sth; to get or be paid);

    住(す)む, 棲(す)む (to live, stay (in a place));

    澄(す)む, 清(す)む (to clear up).

    Looking at Kanji compounds with 安 like 安定 (あんてい), 安全 (あんぜん), 安心 (あんしん), 安易 (あんい) that are all related to 'safety' and 'stability', I cannot help but feel that 安価 (あんか) 'low price' is an outlier; it should, like 安売り (やすうり) 'discount' be read in kunyomi ('the Japanese way'), e.g. as やすね. Turns out there is one such compound: 安値 (やすね).

    I can imagine that 'bargain' started out as やすね, which then got encoded as 安価 and 安値, upon which people started to re-analyze the former as あんか. Can someone corroborate that?

    Bit that still doesn't answer the question: How did 安 come to mean 'cheap' in Japan, and is it really a Japanese innovation?

  2. shubert said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 9:16 am

    安 come to mean 'cheap' –(便) 宜yi

  3. 번하드 said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

    This made me want to know if there is such a thing in Korea, too.
    I failed to find it, but like so often, what I found instead was interesting, too.

    There seem to be (separate) hanzi of the year for at least mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore.

    As for Korea, they have something (imho) even more interesting: 사자성어 of the year.
    사자성어 (四字成語) are idiomatic expressions made up from (typically four) hanja.
    The vote is organized by 교수신문 (professors' newspaper).
    I include three links with the results of the last few years because time ranges covered and explanatory texts differ.


    P.S.: If I'm not mistaken, (at least when looking at the word in Korean), this year's Kanji of the year also happens to be the second character in 위안부 (慰安婦) ("comfort woman")

  4. 번하드 said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    Ouch. The links came out OK on preview but were then crippled in the post:(




  5. Matt said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 8:43 pm

    Flow: Yes, the different spellings for "yasui" and "yasashii" are just orthographical distinctions for words/senses going back to the same root. Beyond that, it's extremely likely that "yasui" is related to "yasumu", and I would say fairly likely that "yasashii" is also part of this family. (We can't go back quite far enough to be sure, though.)

    As for "sumu", although I agree that all of these probably come from the same source (like the various "yasui"s etc.), it seems unlikely that this source is linked to anything in the "yas-" family. The vague similarity in meaning isn't enough to balance out the inexplicable two-phoneme difference at the start of the word – a really big difference when we're talking about roots that are three or four morphemes long.

    I can imagine that 'bargain' started out as やすね, which then got encoded as 安価 and 安値, upon which people started to re-analyze the former as あんか. Can someone corroborate that?

    I can't corroborate or disprove it, but I don't think it's a necessary hypothesis. The first citations in NKD for both are in the late 19th century, which was well into the period when a Japanese person might make up the word "anka" based on the morphemes "an" 安 and "ka" 値, not realizing that "cheap" was a meaning that had become associated with 安 after its importation to Japan (if indeed that is the case – shubert's post suggests that maybe it is not, I have no idea myself).

    번하드: You are right about 慰安婦! I haven't seen any news articles explicitly make the link to the Kanji of the Year, but it certainly is another word that has been in the news in Japan this year.

  6. flow said,

    December 17, 2015 @ 7:26 am

    @Matt—my thought was that maybe yasumu is composed of yas- and sum- ('to rest with ease', so to speak), not that yasumu somehow lost the ya- or that sumu somehow gained it.

  7. Matt said,

    December 17, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

    Ah, I see! That does make more sense. Since there are lots of similar adjective/m-stem verb pairs (sugoi – sugomu, hiroi – hiromu, shiroi – shiramu, possibly also stuff like ina – inabu, akai – akaramu), I personally think it's easier to assume that yasumu is the result of some m-verbing process that was once more productive.

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