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Column #31 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, January 13, 2003
"Kanji of the Year: A single character provides insight into what the whole country is thinking"

Which news event in 2002 made the deepest impression on the people of Japan? One clue is the recently announced winner of the "Sign of the Times" kanji poll, sponsored annually by the Japan Kanji Proficiency Testing Foundation (www.kanken.or.jp), which this year drew 60,000 participants.

A year ago, with televised images of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks still fresh in their minds, kanji enthusiasts overwhelmingly chose 戦 (SEN, war) as the year's most representative kanji. 金 (kin, gold), in 2000, reflected pride in Japanese Olympic gold as well as intense interest in the summit between the leaders-- both named 金 (Kim)--of a divided Korea. In 1999, with the end of the millennium closing in, the choice had been 末 (MATSU, end). The shock of the Wakayama curry poisoning murders-- committed by an insurance saleswoman sentenced to death last month-- led to the 1998 selection of 毒 (doku, poison).

This year's Kanji Champion-- 帰 (kaeru)-- was, again, no surprise. The homecoming (帰国, kikoku) in October of the five Japanese mysteriously abducted to North Korea in the late '70s was the domestic media event of the year.

帰 means "return to the original position"-- with "position" generally being "home." As such, this character carries many emotional connotations dear to the Japanese: hometown (ideally rural), home country (the sweet sound-- upon deplaning an international flight-- of "Okaerinasai!--Welcome home!"), and the family home (where your ancestors lived and died, and where Mama awaits your return). Song lyrics with 帰る--or better yet, 帰れない(can't go home)-- are sure to loosen up tear ducts across the archipelago.

Others who selected 帰 mentioned that salaries, stock prices, and the costs of consumer goods have all returned to their pre-economic bubble levels. Some predicted that the lean period Japan is currently experiencing would prompt a return to a less materialistic lifestyle, one more focused on the dignity of human beings: "We need to return to the starting point," many wrote.

Savoring the humility with which company man Koichi Tanaka accepted his Nobel Prize for chemistry, some said they chose 帰 out of nostalgia for the days when the Japanese were known as a modest, humble people.

The runners-up this year also reflected the public's obsession with the abductees' return, as well as concern about Japan's endless strained relations with close neighbor North Korea on other issues, including the sinking by the Japanese Coast Guard of a suspicious North Korean ship in December, 2001. The No. 2 vote-getter was 北 (kita, north), and the No. 3 slot was allotted to 拉-- the first character in the compound 拉致 (rachi, abduct). (Some advocates of 拉-- a non-general use character-- admitted they only learned to write it this year).

The only serious competition to North Korea-related symbols were those linked to two memorable events in Japan: the long-awaited birth of a child to the Crown Prince and Princess (the first character in baby Princess Aiko's name, 愛 [ai, love], came in at No. 4), and soccer World Cup. Soccer enthusiasts memorialized the mania of early summer by casting their votes for 蹴 (keru, kick), which came in at No. 5. (And soccer motivated some choices of 帰, too--by participants whose husbands and fathers had returned home from work much earlier than usual to watch World Cup matches on television).

When they took pen, or mouse, in hand to vote for this year's Kanji of the Year, many kanji enthusiasts expressed through their choice--and accompanying comments--a nostalgic wish to return to the "good old days." While this may reflect a general unease about both the present and the future, it also seems to embody the more positive belief of many citizens that there is at least something worth trying to return to.

To read about last year's Sign of the Times Kanji contest, go to Column #16.

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Note:
You can learn to write quickly from memory by breaking it down into its three components, attaching a name to each, and creating a story which will call to mind the character's core meaning, "homecoming."

is spear. This component appears in only two of the 1,945 general-use characters: 帰 (homecoming) and 班 (squad). Be careful to distinguish this component from, which means "sword" and is written a bit differently.

is broom. You can see its bristles.

is sash. It is composed of a belt at the top and the component (cloth) at the bottom.

Putting broom and sash (in this case an apron sash) together makes wife. You can also see this combination of components in the right-hand side of 婦 (wife).

A war-weary husband, represented by his spear, comes home at long last to his waiting wife.

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