At the end of each year, the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation holds a public vote to determine the kanji, or Chinese character, that best represents the major events that influenced Japan over the past twelve months. For 2017, that kanji is 北, pronounced ‘kita’ or ‘hoku’, meaning ‘north’.
The results were announced at Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto, where the head priest unveiled the kanji of the year, writing with bold calligraphy strokes on a large sheet of traditional Japanese paper.
The Kanji of the Year contest first started in 1995 as a way to gauge the mood of the people of Japan. Past winners include 2013’s ‘rin’ (論), or ‘ring’, to celebrate Tokyo being selected as the site of the 2020 Summer Olympics; ‘kizuna’ (絆), meaning ‘bonds’, was chosen in 2011 to represent how the people of Japan bonded together after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami; and ‘hen’ (変) for ‘change’ was chosen in 2008 to represent the changing of the Japanese prime minister, and Barack Obama, proclaiming a message of change, becoming the president of the United States.
Since the contest began, ‘kin’ (金) for ‘gold’ has been selected the most times, coinciding with Japan’s performances at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics.
This year, the word kita (北) illustrates how the eyes of Japan’s people were pointed north, in more ways than one. Here are the major events that shaped 2017 for Japan.
Tensions with North Korea
Japan found itself in the middle of growing tensions between the United States and North Korea in 2017 — for political reasons as much as geographical ones. After Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President Donald Trump for a summit in February, North Korea launched a test missile into the Sea of Japan, which lies between the Korean peninsula and the northwestern coast of Japan.
Later in the summer, perhaps aggravated by an escalating war of words with President Trump, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un fired two more test missiles over Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Residents were warned to take cover by emergency announcements on TV and smartphones.
Flooding in northern Kyushu
Tropical Storm Nanmadol caused heavy rains in northern Kyushu, leading to evacuations and dozens of casualties from landslides and flooding. The historic rainfall caused around ￥224 billion ($1.97 billion) in damages.
The great ‘potato chip shock’ of Hokkaido
The snack aisles of many convenience stores and supermarkets were left looking rather bare after a poor potato harvest in Hokkaido, which produces 80% of the country’s potatoes. The lacking harvest led to a shortage of potato chips in Japan. Domestic snack food manufacturers Calbee and Koikeya put a halt to sales of 40 different potato chip varieties between them.
The rising star of the Nippon-Ham Fighters
Not all news to come out of Hokkaido this year was bad, however. The Nippon-Ham Fighters baseball team, based in Sapporo, will receive $20 million for their star player Shohei Ohtani, who joined the Los Angeles Angels Major League Baseball team in the United States. Despite losing their ace, the future is still bright for the Fighters, who landed high school baseball sensation Kotaro Kiyomiya in a first-round draft pick. Kiyomiya set Japan’s high school baseball record for most home runs, with 111 home runs over three seasons.
Kitasan Black retires
Horse racing is extremely popular in Japan, particularly among the older generations. However, many in Japan who don’t follow horse racing have heard of Kitasan Black, Japan’s ‘Horse of the Year’. Kitasan Black is set to retire at the end of 2017 with six Grade 1 wins behind him, including a dominant victory in the Japan Cup. Kitasan Black is owned by another ‘Kita’, namely Saburō Kitajima, a famous enka singer in Japan.
Other forerunners for kanji of the year in 2017 included ‘sei’ (政) for ‘politics’ and ‘fu’ (不), meaning ‘negative’.