This Year in Japanese

Kanji of the Year for 2023: Another Taxing Time for Japan

Society Language

The popularly selected kanji of the year for 2023 was 税 (zei or mitsugi, “taxation”). We dive into the winner and the other top picks, looking at how they represent Japanese people’s takes on the past 12 months.

Tax Rises to the Top

It was a closely fought contest this year, but the kanji of the year, as announced on December 12 by the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation at its ceremony at Kyoto’s temple Kiyomizudera, is 税. Read zei or mitsugi, this character, meaning “taxation,” was one at the top of people’s minds in a year marked by the introduction of new tax reporting systems, tax hikes, and confusing government measures aimed at reducing the burden on taxpayers in a time of economic upheaval.

The winning character—announced annually on December 12, whose 12/12 date can be cleverly read as ii ji ichi ji, or “a single good character”—took 5,976 votes, just over 4% of the total, in the popularly decided contest. The runner-up was the 2010 winner 暑 (sho, atsui; “hot”), with 5,571 votes, and the third-place choice was last year’s winner 戦 (ikusa, tatakau; “conflict” or “war”) with 5,011 votes.

The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation fields votes from the public online at its website, as well as via postcard and ballot boxes available at bookstores nationwide. Voters are asked to contribute reasons for their choices, which shed additional light on the linguistic zeitgeist in the country this year. Many of those selecting zei referenced the newly introduced “invoice system,” which has added complexity and potentially reduced disposable income for many workers, especially the self-employed, in Japan. Revisions to the furusato nōzei “hometown tax” system also captured attention during 2023.

Heat and Violence, but Winning Tigers Too?

The brutal heat of Japan’s 2023 summer inspired many votes for the “hot” runner-up. The year served up temperatures nearly 2º centigrade higher than the average in recent decades, and unseasonably warm temperatures have continued into the year’s final month, making it hard for people to decide what to wear—and what clothes to put away for the winter.

In third place, meanwhile, last year’s top pick, “conflict,” came out on top once more due to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the devastating battles between Israeli forces and Hamas in Gaza. There were also votes for this character rooted in its usage to mean “athletic competition,” with voters mentioning the achievements of Samurai Japan’s World Baseball Classic championship and the exploits of the country’s men’s volleyball team. Some even reached for a meaning referencing their “struggles” with higher prices in the face of 2023’s economic headwinds.

In fourth and fifth places, respectively, came 虎 (tora; “tiger”) and 勝 (shō, katsu; “victory”), reflecting this year’s Japan Series championship for the Hanshin Tigers, the first for the baseball team since 1985, and the winning records enjoyed by that squad, along with the WBC team and various victorious squads in other sports. The top 10 vote-getters in this year’s ranking are as follows.

1. 税 (zei/mitsugi) Taxation 5,976 votes
2. 暑 (sho/atsui) Heat; hot 5,571 votes
3. 戦 (ikusa/tatakau) Conflict; war 5,011 votes
4. 虎 (tora) Tiger 4,674 votes
5. 勝 (shō/katsu) Victory; win 4,653 votes
6. 球 (kyū/tama) Ball (as in yakyū, “baseball”) 3,485 votes
7. 高 (/takai) High; expensive 3,468 votes
8. 変 (hen/kawaru, kaeru) Change; strange 2,955 votes
9. 増 (/masu) Increase 2,711 votes
10. 楽 (gakuraku/tanoshii) Enjoyment; ease 2,472 votes

Below we present a list of the winners since the launch of this contest in 1995. All of us at hope that next year will be a less taxing one for us all, in every sense of the word.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Mori Seihan, Kiyomizudera’s head priest, writes 税, the Kanji of the Year for 2023, on December 12 at the Kyoto temple. © Jiji.)

Japanese language language kanji of the year kanji