One topic dominated conversations in Japan this year, and now it’s officially the most significant single kanji character of the past 12 months.

December always brings with it a few end-of-the-year retrospectives, and one of the most unique is Japan’s Kanji of the Year. Administered by the Kyoto-based Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, the Kanji of the Year is a single Japanese character chosen by open ballot, and is meant to embody a deep significance for the year as it comes to a close.

The final announcement is always made on December 12, with Seihan Mori, the head abbot of Kyoto’s historical Kiyomizudera Temple, writing the kanji with a giant calligraphy brush while standing on the temple’s iconic balcony.

▼ Mori writing 2019’s Kanji of the Year

For 2019, 216,325 votes were cast, and when tallied the kanji of the year is , pronounced rei.

In most instances, rei means “order” (in the sense of orderly control), but in somewhat obscure contexts it can also mean “beautiful.” A reminder of this alternate meaning came last spring, when Reiwa, written in kanji as 令和, was chosen as the name of Japan’s new imperial era, which began with Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the throne on May 1, and the Japanese government clarified that the intended meaning of Reiwa is “beautiful harmony” (though that translation has a unique problem of its own).

令/rei received 30,427, or roughly 14 percent, of the Kanji of the Year votes. While that’s nowhere near a majority, it’s still an impressive amount of support for any single character, considering that the Japanese language has more than 2,100 regular-use kanji. It was followed in the voting by second-place 新/shin, meaning “new,” and third-place 和/wa, which means “harmony” and is the second kanji in Reiwa.

Since 2019 marked the first change in imperial era since 1989, the selection of 令/rei isn’t much of a surprise. It does, however, reflect a happier mindset than the Kanji of the Year in 2018 (“disaster”), 2017 (“north,” in reference to North Korean missile launches) and 2014 (“tax,” the result of an unpopular sales tax increase that year). Hopefully 令和/rei will end up being not just a reminder of what happened in 2019, but also a sign that more beautiful things are coming in 2020.

Sources: Livedoor News/Oricon News via Jin, Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation
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