Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Newly old


The character “shin”, or “new”, is on display at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu temple, selected by Japan’s kanji association as the word of 2009, with the chief priest’s calligraphy perched above the former capital, known more for its history than the au courant.


The word’s stock rose with phrases like “new Cabinet”, “new influenza”, new model Prius and new jury system. But looking at its dry, black ink on a recent trip, I wondered if the choice was also a comment on its ubiquity, or non-newness, in a marketing-saturated nation where the adjective is often pasted without any real commitment to the fresh or innovative. Two years ago the kanji for “fake” had been selected as word of the year.

Certainly, commercial hollowness is not new nor limited to Japan, while the world’s No.2 economy is undeniably home to fashion leaders, cutting-edge technology firms, and Nobel Prize and Oscar winners. But in the last two decades, Japan has seen a host of ”Shinseito”, “Shinshinto” and other “new” political parties, usually ending in tears, while its ”shinjinrui” — a new “breed” supposed to lead the country with a different drummer – are now barely distinguishable from the band they replaced.

The nation has experienced its share of “new eras”, “New Towns”, “new halfs”,  even annual “beaujolais nouveau” booms, and thus “it’s deja vu all over again” when new is news. Moreover, a recurring theme about the new here is how quickly, if not already, that novelty is past tense. Perhaps, then, it is because of this penchant for making the new old, or the old new, that Japanese have applied some cultural fail-safes, at least for the major holiday of the season.