A single character says a thousand words.

As the year draws to a close, it’s time for people everywhere to reflect back on the past 12 months and what it brought us, and in Japan this act of reflection is embodied in the Kanji of the Year.

Run by the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, who collects votes from around the nation to decide the winning kanji, the annual event is held at one of the most famous temples in all of Japan, Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.

In the lead-up to the kanji’s grand reveal at 2:00 p.m. on 12 December, there was plenty of speculation amongst pundits as to what the chosen character for the year might be, but in the end, it turned out to be this character.

▼ “Zei

Zei” — which can also be read as “sei” or “mitsugi” — means “tax” or “taxes“, and it was chosen by 5,976 people out of a total of 147,878 public votes as the kanji character to best sum up the year.

According to the foundation, there were several overarching reasons why voters chose this kanji, citing increasing and decreasing taxes that directly affected people’s lives around the country this year.

Taxes certainly were one of the hot topics for 2023, as politicians attempted to alleviate public anxiety about the rising cost of living. Rising taxes were of concern to everyone, with Prime Minister Kishida stepping in to announce fixed cuts to income tax and resident tax (due to come into effect in June 2024), essentially reducing the financial burden of individuals by 40,000 yen (US$275.14), and prompting further discussion about possible ways to boost support for low-income households.

On the other hand, discussions were held regarding the possibility of increasing taxes in three categories: corporate taxes, income taxes, and tobacco taxes. The start of a controversial new invoice system, whereby freelancers and small business owners will soon be required to charge a 10-percent goods and services tax was also a topic of concern for many, as was the furusato nozei (hometown tax) system, which directed tax payments out of some Tokyo wards at a record high this year.

▼ The 30-second mark in this video shows the highly anticipated moment when Seihan Mori, the 83-year-old head priest of the temple, used bold brushstrokes to reveal the Kanji of the Year to the world.

This is the second time for “zei” to be crowned Kanji of the Year, with the first time being in 2014, when consumption taxes increased from five to eight percent.

While it’s clear that taxes were once again on people’s minds this year, 2023 also saw the country swelter in record-breaking summer heat, prompting the kanji “暑” (“sho”or “heat”) to come in at second place for Kanji of the Year.

The other place-getters in the top 20 list revealed today are as follows:

3.  (“War”) – 5,011 votes
4. (“Tiger”) – 4,674 votes
5. (“Win”) – 4,653 votes
6. (“Sphere” [a kanji used in both “earth” and “environment”]) – 3,485 votes
7. (“High”) – 3,468 votes
8. (“Strange”) – 2,955 votes
9. (“Increase”) – 2,711 votes
10 楽 (“Ease”) – 2,472 votes
11. (“Sho” [this kanji appears in the name of famous baseball player Shohei Ohtani]) – 2,286 votes
12. (“Dispute” [this kanji appears in “senso” (“戦争”), the word for “war”]) – 2,267 votes
13. (“Heat”) – 1,723 votes
14. (“Clarity”) – 1,685 votes
15. (“New”) – 1,495 votes
16. (“Gold” or “Money”) – 1, 487 votes
17. (“Peace”) – 1,476 votes
18. (“Excellent”) – 1,474 votes
19. (“Samurai”) – 1,411 votes
20. (“Happiness”) – 1,317 votes

The top 20 responses revealed concerns about war and the environment, including the unusually high heat, weighed heavy on the minds of people in Japan in 2023. The ongoing unrest in Ukraine and Gaza led to the kanji for “war” — the 2022 Kanji of the Year — to place in the top three again this year.

While the most popular responses read a bit like a shopping list of anxieties, the Kanji of the Year really does reveal the zeitgeist of society, suggesting this has been a tough year for many.

If you’d like to ponder the ups and downs of taxes by gazing at the priest’s calligraphy in person, the Kanji of the Year will be on display at Kiyomizudera’s main hall from 12-21 December, before moving on to Kyoto’s Kanji Museum from 22 December.

Here’s hoping for a return to a more prosperous kanji in the coming year, perhaps something like “gold”, which we were happy to see the priest reveal back in 2021.

Source: Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation
Featured image: Twitter/@Kotoshinokanji
Insert images  Pakutaso (edited by SoraNews24)

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