2008 No-Sword Kanji of the Year

The Tensor has explained it all again; it must be time for me to choose the No-sword Kanji of the Year (2007, 2005.)

The quasi-official kanji of the year is 変, "change". Tobias Harris's excellent review of the year in Japanese politics notwithstanding, Obama and his "CHANGE" drove this result.

But I believe that 変 is a mistranslation of this concept. What Obama promised, and what people in both the US and Japan want, is not 変, but...


What is the difference? Well, 変 just means "change"; it can be change for the better, but it can also be change for the worse, and the other common meaning "weird" derives from the latter concept.

But 改 implies revision, improvement, progress. Its Japanese reading is aratamu, later to split into aratameru and aratamaru — all deriving from arata, "new" (which also appears in rearranged form in atarashii).

You know who else urged his disciples not to be bound by the past and to aim at constant self-improvement? That's right: Confucius.

The master said: "To have faults and not 改 them, this I call a fault."

People are tired of 変. They want 改.

(But not quite 革.)

Popularity factor: 6


What? You think that the positive meaning (what Obama called for) is what most people had in mind in selecting that kanji?

I think it was the ambiguity, at best. One character to indicate not just the improvement-change, but also the sense of 異変. (Which I have never, never, seen used in the sense of 瑞祥, so I'd think that often 変 tends negative, even.)

(I also think it was in part because they'd already picked 偽 last year, so despite this year's wealth of scandals....)


I wish I could find the political poster that's been running around here by one of the two interchangable big parties. It was the usual picture of the big fifty-year old bloke trying to look hard, with a caption that went something like "Change? 俺にまかせ".

A very Japanese take on "Yes, we can" - "Yes, I can, if you let me".


I think that Obama's campaign is what put the idea of "change" in everyone's head. 変 is, as you say, what they see when they apply this yardstick of political value to their own backyard.

But I think that what Obama has been promising to deliver is 改, and this is the message that people have actually responded to. (It's also what's going to make people feel all the more betrayed when he fails to work miracles in 2009, but oh well.) Talking to my friends in Japan, I detect enthusiasm for the same ideals applied locally. And I am an idealist after all. 改!


(I think that if there had been no Obama this year, the kanji would have been 誤 or something similarly Asocentric and flat-out negative, btw)


I think Obama promises change,meaning improvements, but I think what he'll deliver is changes, meaning some will be good but most will be negative. "Change" isn't a strategy, it's a slogan. The man has no ideas.


In Chinese the difference between 变 and 改 is not so much "neutral vs good" as it is "passive vs active".

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