Tax(es): kanji of the year 2023

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The breathless moment when "zei 税" is written by Mori Seihan, the head priest of the magnificent Kiyomizudera in eastern Kyoto (1:32):

Another good video of the brushing of 税 may be found here, and there are many others here.

The narration includes:
Riyū ni tsuite, bōei-ryoku kyōka ni muketa zaigen o makanau tame shotoku zei nado zōzei e no giron ga ichinen o tsūjite kappatsu ni okonawa reta hoka, jūminzei nado no teigaku genzei ya inboisu seido, shin NISA ya furusato nōzei no genkaku-ka nado, zei ni matsuwaru samazamana wadai ga tsudzuitakara
In short, reasons this character was chosen include: 
* yearlong debate on raising taxes to fund increased defense spending
* fixed tax reductions
* a new invoicing system
* the new NISA (Nippon Individual Savings Account)
* crackdowns on the so-called "hometown tax"

Talk of taxes spurs choice for Japan’s kanji of the year

By Yukana Inoue, The Japan Times (12/12/23)


Zei received 5,976 votes out of the 147,878 cast. Coming in at a close second, with a difference of only 405 votes, was “sho” (暑), referring to the record-breaking heat the nation experienced this summer.

In 2022, “sen” (戦), meaning war, battle or match, took first place, representing a year of conflict and violence with events such as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The 2021 winner was “kin” (金), meaning gold or money, referring to the gold medals Japan won in the the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which were held that year.

Other words that made the top 10:

  • 戦 (sen/ikusa, battle/match): A reference to the war between Israel and Hamas and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
  • 虎 (ko/tora, tiger): A nod to the Hanshin Tigers’ Japan Series win, a first in 38 years.
  • 勝 (shou/katsu, win): Another entry marking the various wins the nation experienced this year, including the Tigers’ victory, Samurai Japan’s championship in the World Baseball Classic, Sota Fujii’s 8 shogi titles and Shohei Ohtani being named MVP and home run champion.
  • 球 (kyu/tama, ball): As the character is used to write the kanji for various sports like baseball, basketball and rugby, this choice is another nod to various accomplishments in sports this year.
  • 高 (kou/takai, high or rising): A reference to rising prices and temperatures experienced in the nation this year.
  • 変 (hen/kawaru, change): This choice speaks to some major shifts that occurred this year, such as the changes in society following the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic, new names for the talent agency formerly known as Johnny’s and rising prices due to inflation.
  • 増 (zou/fueru, increase): This entry covers various things that saw increases this year, including taxes, the number of foreign tourists following the reopening of the borders and a spike in sightings of bears in urban areas.
  • 楽 (raku/tanoshii, easy, fun or joy): This choice refers to how much easier life became after the pandemic eased and mask mandates were lifted, as well as the return of crowds and cheering at sporting events and music festivals.

An excellent account of the competition may also be found in this (12/12/23) article:

Kanji of the Year for 2023: Another Taxing Time for Japan

The popularly selected kanji of the year for 2023 was 税 (zei or mitsugi, “taxation”). We dive into the winner and the other top picks, looking at how they represent Japanese people’s takes on the past 12 months.

NHK article in Japanese

Includes a list of the top twenty contenders, which gives a good idea of what is on the minds of the Japanese people, another video (0:52) of the writing of the character, a list of the kanji of the year going back to 1995 ("earthquake"), with a brief discussion of the pertinence of each one.

It is interesting to compare the calligraphic intensity of the unveiling of the Kanji of the Year with the buzziness surrounding the announcement of the Word of the Year, which we also just witnessed (here).  The former partakes of solemn sacrality, the latter of exciting extraordinariness.


Selected reading

[Thanks to Nathan Hopson, Don Keyser, Frank Chance; Linda Chance; h.t. Kiewwoo Goh]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 6:40 am

    There are, I am sure, many westerners who can appreciate the calligraphic skills of Mori Seihan, but for some unknown reason I cannot. I completely lack the necessary sensibilities, and infinitely prefer (for example) the same character as depicted at Would it be possible for Victor (who clearly can appreciate the nōshoka’s skills, given his use of "breathless") or some other westerner with the necessary sensibilities to explain to this worthless complete and utter heathen why the nōshoka’s version is so admired ? It may be worth noting that I am not insensitive to calligraphy per se, and find many (but not all) of the examples in Knuth’s 3:16 — Bible Texts Illuminated extremely impressive, but sadly Master Mori Seihan’s skills leave me completely unmoved (which is, of course, my loss rather than his).

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 7:14 am

    mind-energy continuum

    it's a Zen phenomenon

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 8:00 am

    @Philip Taylor

    I find the questions you pose highly thought provoking and appreciate them greatly, so thank you for presenting your stimulating ideas to us.

    Recently we've been having intense discussions about the square shape of kanji / hanzi / hanja. Since I first encountered this paradigm more than half a century ago, I have always found it to be constraining. To me, the boxy writing of 税 that you present with that URL you cite is mechanistic and repressive. What I see chief priest Mori Seihan performing is a mind-body act of creative mentation to break out of the box — splotches and all.

    Observe the concentration he exerts as he approaches his task. It's the spirit of Chuang Tzu and Bodhidharma: Wandering on the Way.

    For references, see the "Selected readings" above at the end of the o.p.

  4. Aale said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 11:28 am

    Are they going to keep this piece of calligraphy for a certain period of time and then burn it or discard it?
    Why is the high priest from Kiyomizu-dera is invited to write this kanji and not other high priests from other Buddhist institutions?
    It would be interesting to see if such a similar event is held in the US and who will grap the brush – a cardinal from the Catholic church or from the Orthodox church? Or a chief man from a native American tribe?

  5. teph said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 11:42 am

    I noticed the Wikipedia article has a hyphen, or dash, in the name, Kiyomizu-dera. Is that just for readability, or is there another reason?

    I have another question, and I don't mean to be snide or anything, but there are a lot of streaks of paint dripping down; does that add to the aesthetic appeal? I don't mind one way or another. I know very little about this.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 2:16 pm


    I address your questions about the dripping and splashing of the ink in the last paragraph of the o.p. and in my two comments.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 2:46 pm

    I noticed the Wikipedia article has a hyphen, or dash, in the name, Kiyomizu-dera. Is that just for readability, or is there another reason ?". I would venture to suggest that it is to separate the (final) "temple" element from the name of the temple. I don’t read Japanese, so I may be completely mistaken.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 3:00 pm

    Incidentally, what is the correct honorific for a head priest ? I know to append "-san" to a Japanese family name for "ordinary" people, "-sensei" for those who teach, , "-sama" for those for whom extreme respect is demanded, but have no idea how to address a head priest with the appropriate respect.

  9. Josh R. said,

    December 14, 2023 @ 7:12 pm

    Philip Taylor,

    Regarding the calligraphy, in such public demonstrations there's an element of performance art to it. It's not just the shape of the kanji, but the experience of seeing the calligrapher write the kanji, and the finished piece is a record of that performance. By the same token, in such a situation the calligrapher, in brushing the kanji, is not try to create a clear and pretty version, but is instead endeavoring to impart dynamism and emotional content into the strokes. Personally, I find there is a distinct beauty to the sweep of his strokes that a print version just doesn't have.

    Re: Kiyomizu-dera – dera = tera = temple, as you've surmised. Properly, in English it should be "Kiyomizu Temple", and likewise, a place like "Myoshinji" should be "Myoshin Temple." It seems, though, that for Japanese speakers, the temple element feels so a part of the whole name, that they are loath to remove it in other languages. Thus, the official English webpage of Kiyomizu-dera renders it redundantly as "Kiyomizu-dera Temple". Likewise, the English webpage of Myoshinji renders it as "Myoshinji Temple." Nevertheless, the "-dera" and "ji" maintain semantic valiance, and thus end up hyphenated.

    The honorific for a priest is 和尚 oshou. -san will do in a pinch, though. By the way, these days, -sama is typically only used in correspondence.

  10. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    December 14, 2023 @ 7:43 pm

    Technically, the mind should be “without limits,” and “no blockage” (Wuji 無極), so naturally the calligrapher demonstrates fluidity.

    To add some philosophy, the best “Zen-like” answer (unblocking) I found concerning painting-writing representation questioning is below:

    Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive. But if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words. They seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed they go on saying just the same thing forever…

  11. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 7:07 am

    By the nature of the setting and the occasion, there is indeed performance, but not flamboyance.

  12. Sai said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 5:10 am

    @Philip Taylor

    There is a special term for adressing a Japanese Buddhist monk in writing with reference to a mythological creature: 猊下

    Maybe Prof. Mair would like to elaborate it a little bit more.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 6:54 am


    猊下 is pronounced "geika" in Japanese and "níxià" in Mandarin,

    In the network of Wikipedia entries, 猊下 is linked with "Eminence" (style) in many religions, both Western and Eastern.

    Here's the Chinese Wikipedia entry on 猊下, which also covers Japanese aspects of the term.

    Here's the informative Japanese Wiktionary entry on 猊下, where it is pronounced "geika", the English explanation is given as "(Buddhism, rare, attributive) down a lion throne, looking up", several Sinoglyphic coordinate terms are listed, the following equivalents are listed for Buddhism and Christianity: Your Holiness; His Holiness; Your Grace; His Grace; Your Eminence; His Eminence — with Sinoglyphic synonyms and coordinate terms. Cf. also geika 猊座 ("lion throne").

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