Kanji. And in particular, the 'Kanji of the Year', whereby Japan votes on a kanji it thinks best sums up the past year's feeling.
Kanji is an alphabet 'borrowed' from China, that is used heavily by Japan. Kanji requires some 1,942 symbols to be memorized for a high school student to be considered literate, though there are perhaps 10,000+ kanji usable by the Japanese (China has over 40,000 kanji symbols - they are actually pictographs! - I believe).
Kanji, along with two other alphabets - hiragana and katakana (each with 72 symbols) - is used in everyday communication by the Japanese. Here's a great example I saw: Canada is a large country” uses kanji, hiragana and katakana = カナダは大きい国です.
The Kanji of the Year concept (今年の漢字 Kotoshi no Kanji) was begun in 1995 on December 12 (and subsequently is always revealed on that date). Chosen by popular vote, a kanji is selected that best represents the biggest events of the current year through December 12.
The actual kanji is chosen by the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society ( 財団法人日本漢字能力検定協会 Zaidan hōjin Nihon Kanji Nōryoku kentei kyōkai) and on December 12 - now known as Kanji Day - the lead monk at the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto paints it out using the broad, bold strokes of Japanese caligraphy (書道, shodō) and everybody oohs and ahhs at how one single word is able to adequately sum up the year for Japan.
Except for 'hungry', 'bored' or 'horny', I can't think of anything that could sum up my day, let alone year. Hmm, I suppose any of those could sum up my life.
Anyhow... back in 1995, the Great Hanshin-Awaji (the Kobe) Earthquake pretty much took out the beautiful city of Kobe. As a result, the Kanji of the Year 1995 was 震 shin, which means quake - not earthquake and not tremor. Quake.
With that word of disaster as the leading vote getter, the Kanji of the Year often became synonymous with negativity, and involved disasters or violence. See 1995 - 1998, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2010.
However... at least with Kanji of the Year 2011, I think the voters finally looked on the bright side of life and got it right. What the fug were they thinking in 2003?
Here's a list of all the Kanji of the Year - I freely admit taking the basic information from the Wikipedia entry:
1995 ― 震 shin = Quake
Along with the Kobe earthquake in Hyogo-ken , a quake of 7.2 Magnitude that killed over 4,000, there was also a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
1996 ― 食 shoku = Food, Eat
There were a few deadly outbreaks of E.coli food poisoning that afflicted the school lunch programs.
1997 ― 倒 tō = Collapse, Knock Down
Not just a recent phenomenon, but this year saw a lot of big corporate bankruptcies and bank failures. The knock down aspect could come from Japan's national men's soccer team knocking out perennially strong teams in Asia to make the 1998 FIFA World Cup tourney.
1998 ― 毒 doku = Poison
Sixty-seven people are sickened and four die and an additional 63 are ill after eating poisoned curry at a summer festival in Wakayama. Copycat crimes arise. Country has concerns about dioxin.
1999 ― 末 sue = End
Some people mean for the kanji to mean the Tokaimura nuclear accident on September 30... but it was hardly the end. Two workers died in Ibaraki-ken, with 667 exposed to radiation, with a stay-inside measure enacted for the public in a 10 kilometer radius of the plant. Since this incident did not end nuclear accidents or Japan's reliance on the atom, and only two people ended their life, let's assume the better meaning for this is: the end of the century.
2000 ― 金 kin = Gold
This one is cool on a lot of levels. The year is the year of the dragon, an important one in Asian cultures that follow this sort of astrology. It's a golden year. As well... with the Sydney Olympics, Japan did well. Media darlings Kin-san and Gin-san (translates to Miss Gold and Miss Silver), were twins who recorded songs well into their 100th years, eventually died... with Kin (Gold), the hotter of the twins, dying at the age of 107, and her ugly sister Gin (Silver) dying in 2001 at the age of 108. I'm just kidding about the beauty and ugly thing.
2001 ― 戦 sen = War
War? God god, ya'll! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin! Japan looked around its borders and saw the horror of the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S., its subsequent war against Afghanistan, which to me was odd only because many of the terrorists involved in 9/111 were actually Saudi Arabian citizens and not Afghans. For the record, the terrorists on the planes were, by nation: 20 from Saudi Arabia; 1 from Egypt; 1 from United Arab Emirates; and 1 from Lebanon. But I'm sure there is more to it than that... apparently the U.S. determined that the terrorist group claiming the attack, al-Qaeda, was operating out of Afghanistan... oh yeah... there was also a global recession. Really? What the fug are we in now in 2012?
2002 ― 帰 ki = Return
Japan and North Korea begin talks, and perhaps as a result, five Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea, live to return to Japan. That's a good story.
2003 ― 虎 tora = Tiger
The Hanshin Tigers win the Central League baseball pennant for the first time in 18 years. Really? They won the equivalent of the National League pennant?! They lost in the bloody Nippon Series (the equivalent to the World Series) 4 games to 3 to the Pacific League champs Daiei Hawks. Hanshin Tigers fans should be ashamed of themselves for stuffing the ballot boxes with this one. A better kanji of the year should be: 恥 = shame.
2004 ― 災 sai = Disaster
There's the Chūetsu Earthquake - a 6.8 Magnitude shaker in Niigata-ken that killed 39 people, the typhoon Tokage lands (69 deaths and the homes of 18,000 people were evacuated), the accident at the Mihama nuclear power plant in Fukui-ken that killed four workers and there was the Mitsubishi Motors scandal involving the cover-up of known defects. What? Earthquake, typhoon, and a nuclear disaster? Auto industry concerns? Geez... just wait and see what 2011 has planned for you Japan!
2005 ― 愛 ai = Love
All you need is love, as world Expo 2005 is held (The Beatles sang All You Need Is Love at Canada's World Expo in 1967!) in Aichi-ken. Princess Nori marries Yoshiki Kuroda. Table tennis athlete Ai Fukuhara (福原 愛, Fukuhara Ai) plays in China. I saw this on Wikipedia. How the hell does a table tennis player playing in China mean love? Unless Japanese people simply weren't much welcome in China since it tried the whole tyranny thing back in the 1930s?
2006 ― 命 inochi = Life
Prince Hisahito of Akishino is born - did we count the months since the wedding? He's within nine months? Good. Okay... why now, and why not any other bloody year, Japan is suddenly concerned with life... whether its from a spate of hit-and-run accidents, drunk-driving, suicide from bullying - Japan takes a serious look at the importance of life. Geez. I'm pretty sure people do that every day. They are called monks.... hey! Did the monks rig the voting?
2007 ― 偽 nise = Deception
At first I though this had something to do with the monks rigging the voting of the 2006 Kanji of the Year, but it turns out it is a spit in the soup bowl of food processors, who were caught deceiving the public by taking food products that had gone beyond their best-before date, and were relabeled and sold to unsuspecting consumers. As well, there were political fund problems and pension records being iffy. Really? Just this one year? If you believe that, your kanji of the life should be だまされやすい = Gullible... which you will note is not a kanji word, but you believe it is because monks told you so.
2008 ― 変 hen = Change
Changing of the Japanese prime minister, Barack Obama winning the American presidential elections using the word (change), economical and ecological changes around the world. Also with economies still kind of hurting, the phrase: "Spare some change" was often heard. I'm kidding about the last sentence. See 2008 and 'Gullible'.
2009 ― 新 shin = New
The Democratic Party of Japan swept to power in August 2009 lower house elections to form a new government for the first time as the nation’s voters turned their backs on half a century of LDP single-party government. Swine flu, known as Shin-gata influenza (新型インフルエンザ), breaks out around the world. Ichiro Suzuki sets a new MLB record with nine consecutive seasons with 200 hits. Okay.. swine flu is new... but Democrats winning? Fine... but these guys in Japanese politics have an average age of 107. That's not new! And Suzuki Ichiro (surname first)? Nine years in a row of excellence is hardly new! He's done it nine times in a row! I know... I'm just being a goof here... but this kanji is hardly earth-shattering with defining a year in the life of Japan.
2010 ― 暑 sho = Hot
What... like Junko sho is hot? She sho is, bro! Oh... it has more to do with the way the generally high temperatures affected people's health and lives - I can only assume this is for Japan. On March 22, 2012 in Toronto... it was 25.6 C. The record was something like 17C, with the actual average to be about 7C. Fug Junko. Andrew is hot! And I guess this is cool, or hot, but Japan felt that the Chilean mine collapse where miners were trapped 700 meters underground for months in a hot, humid mine, was a good way to describe the year. I'll go with that. For me, 2010 was like living in a dark, depressing coal mine and coming down with black lung after six months of hellish work knowing that Junko was with another man.
2011 ― 絆 kizuna = Bonds
I really like this one. After the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, near-nuclear meltdowns - the people of Japan re-realize the importance of family bonds and friend bonds, not to mention stocks and bonds, but probably don;t care too much about American baseballer and Barry Bonds and his steroid case. The bonds of kizuna are also highly representative of the Japan woman's soccer team who triumphed over the evil American woman's team (okay... they were NOT evil... most are quite hot-looking! Evil hot-looking!) in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup... there was lots of girl bonding... as a team.
By the way... the 2004 Kanji of the Year "Sai" came in second in 2010, with 1995's Kanji of the Year "Shin" coming in third in 2010.
I would think originality would play a heavy role in deciding the Kanji of the Year... but I've heard the monks can be bought.