Japan’s symbol of year nods to no-lockdown virus strategy

TOKYO (AFP) – A written character that evokes everything people in Japan were urged to avoid this year – crowds, confined spaces and close contact with others – was yesterday voted the country’s top linguistic symbol of 2020.

Although new infections have recently hit record highs, Japan has seen a relatively small coronavirus outbreak overall and never imposed a strict lockdown like those seen elsewhere in the world.

Instead, residents were strongly advised to use their own judgement and steer clear of situations described as mitsu – meaning dense, crowded and close – to limit the spread of the respiratory disease.

The social distancing message quickly gained a tongue-in-cheek popularity, with the Tokyo governor’s call inspiring viral manga strips, techno remixes and even a video game.

Now mitsu has been chosen as the character of the year in an annual public ballot organised by the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation. It took around 14 per cent of over 208,000 votes.

Master of the ancient Kiyomizu temple Seihan Mori uses calligraphy to write the Chinese character, known in Japan as ‘kanji’, for ‘mitsu’, which was selected as the single best kanji to symbolise the year of 2020 at the temple in Kyoto, western Japan. PHOTO: AFP

Japanese TV stations broadcast the announcement live, as master of the ancient Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto Seihan Mori painted the character on a big white panel with an ink-soaked calligraphy brush.

“After the government asked the public to avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces, and places that carry the risk of close contact with strangers… many began acting with mitsu always in mind,” the organisation said.

Other contenders in the top 10 for 2020’s character, or kanji, were mostly coronavirus-related, such as illness, harm, perish and germs.

Last year’s top character was rei used in the word Reiwa, the name of the new imperial era.